Teaching Ancient Wisdom to Modern Students
Students dressed in neat uniforms recite poetry, read great works of literature and primary historical sources, and practice their cursive handwriting.
It may sound like a picture from the distant past, but this scene takes place every day at a new public charter school near Palm Bay on Florida’s Atlantic coast. At Pineapple Cove Classical Academy , children in grades K-7 are learning in much the same way America’s founding fathers did.
When PCCAs founders John and Beth Moran first visited Hillsdale College in Michigan, they were impressed with the high level of education they saw there. Hillsdale’s K-12 private school on campus was sending 98% of its graduates on to top colleges.
“The educational foundation students were receiving there was phenomenal,” said John Moran. “We knew kids in Palm Bay didn’t have anything like it and we wanted to give them this unique opportunity.”
“Some of the greatest minds in history were educated this way,” explained PCCA’s principal Kelly Gunter, M.A., Ed. “These minds not only shaped who we are as a country but as a civilization.”
The school’s 35 full-time teachers employ a 2500-year-old curriculum based on educational principles rooted in Greek and Roman civilization. Essentially classical education recognizes the humanity of students and seeks to impart wisdom and virtue. The school’s mission statement sums it up this way, “We are building intelligent, virtuous American citizens.”
“Our main goal is to develop cultural literacy in our students,” said Gunter. “We work to build knowledge in a variety of areas, teaching our students to think critically so they will be able to explain and back up what they believe. We want them to be proud of who they are as American citizens and realize that comes with quite a bit of responsibility.”
On a day-to-day basis, these ideals play out in classrooms where technology is kept to a minimum. “A well-trained teacher doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles to teach successfully,” said Gunter. “Our kids are not in front of computers all day.”
With a curriculum based on the Core Knowledge Sequence inspired by the work of E.D. Hirsch, students build their cultural literacy grade by grade. Subjects include history, geography, literature, visual arts, music, language arts, science and math. Whenever possible, their studies integrate related subjects. For example, students create stained glass projects in art class at the same time they are learning about the Middle Ages in history class.
At PCCA, building solid skills is important. Children learn to read with explicit phonics instead of sight words alone and they recite poetry, which fortifies their memorization and public-speaking skills.
They also learn Latin as a foundation for communicating in English. “You hear it’s a dead language,” said Gunter, “but 70% of English comes from Greek and Latin. Learning Latin provides the code to unlock the meaning of English.”
Students at PCCA are certainly challenged by advanced materials. Second graders read Peter Pan and fifth graders read Shakespeare. But the school is not aimed at gifted children only. Instead teachers at PCCA find that by offering quality instruction, all of their students rise to the challenge.
Gunter recalls numerous students who had been struggling academically for years in public school who have made rapid improvement at PCCA. “We’ve seen kids all of a sudden take off and make two years of progress in one,” she said. “We don’t allow kids to languish. We provide one-on-one tutoring, excellent instruction, and we believe every kid is worth it.”
This extraordinary teaching quality comes in part from PCCA’s membership in Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative. The program provides teacher training at their Michigan campus, curriculum guidance and mentoring for classical school founders, all at no charge.
“I’m not aware of any other college or organization that would give so much and not receive anything back except to know that students are being well educated,” said Gunter.
In addition to coursework, a PCCA education includes several extracurricular activities. As part of a local league for private and charter schools, students can play soccer, basketball, and volleyball. They can also participate in karate, world drumming, guitar, art club, Lego League and chorus, with more being added as they become available.
Drawing moral lessons from classroom studies of literature and history teaches the principles of good character, but PCCA also creates many opportunities for students to put those ideals into practice to build lasting virtue.
From their annual Halloween festival, where older students manage the games so the younger ones can have fun, to the many food and toy drives to help the less fortunate, PCCA students put what they learn into action.
“We put a lot of emphasis on what it means to be a good human,” said Gunter. “Students need to be taught to be good people. It’s equally as important as being intelligent.”
Last year’s Valentines for Veterans event is a vivid example. Instead of celebrating with flowers and candy, the school invited a group of military veterans to visit. One, a double amputee, spoke of his experiences in defense of America and left a clear impression of the meaning of sacrifice. In gratitude, students wrote letters of appreciation for vets, sang patriotic songs, and collected 80 bags of toiletries to donate to a program for homeless veterans.
And for many of the students, the lessons are being absorbed. Madison King, a second-grade PCCA student decided on her own to lead a Christmas card and letter campaign for residents of local nursing homes. Rallying her classmates at PCCA and students at a nearby elementary school, Madison was able to gather over 1,000 cheering messages.
“To be successful students need to learn to serve their community,” said Gunter, and it seems PCCA is indeed successful.
Community service is an important aspect of virtue, but attitude and behavior are just as essential for success. “We’ve seen several kids whose behavior wasn’t always the best when they joined our school,” said Gunter. “But we show them we care about how they behave and will not let them get away with less.”
She said PCCA students aren’t perfect, but they are known in the community as very polite. They often hear compliments about their behavior when they go on field trips. They are taught skills like eye contact, holding doors for people and showing respect.
“We have that expectation and they know it,” she added. “We show the kids we won’t take less than their best.”
At the same time, the children feel the support of a warm family atmosphere. “I’m continually proud of our wonderful staff members that truly care about each and every student,” said Gunter. “We know every child. We know which child has a pet hamster at home.”
New and Expanding Rapidly
Although classical education may be unfamiliar to most Americans today, PCCA is already growing rapidly and attracting more students than they can accept.
After breaking ground on their 3700-square-foot building on May 1, 2015, they held their first classes for K-6th grades that August in a temporary location. When the building was finished in September 2015, parents and teachers rallied to move the entire school during one weekend to take up classes again on Monday. Their nine acres in suburban Brevard County, offers space to expand as they add another grade each year.
And it appears they will need to keep building. Only two weeks after enrollment opened for the 2017-18 school year, 250 applications had already arrived. The school currently serves 540 students with room for 618 next year. The waiting list is up to 400. With such strong interest, plans for opening a high school are in the works.
Strong Parent Support
Mostly middle class, PCCA parents work hard volunteering and fundraising. Ten hours of service are required of each family every year, but most far exceed that.
With no bus service, parents carpool students to sporting events and field trips. Though most live nearby, some travel as far as 20 miles to attend PCCA.
Charter schools in Florida receive about the same amount of state aid per student as public schools, but fundraising is still an ongoing task. PCCA parents support these efforts in force, Gunter said. Small events at local restaurants like Chick-Fil-A are always packed, and the PTO managed to raise $14,000 in six months for a shade structure over the playground.
Several PCCA students began their education at Pineapple Cove Academy preschool founded by the Morans in 2006. When they heard the Morans were opening an elementary and junior high school, they were excited to have a classical option. Many transferred their children from public 6th grade to PCCA’s new school.
“It’s not easy to change schools, so that says a lot about how much the parents support and believe in this type of education,” said Gunter.
“I makes our hearts smile to see kids we’ve known since they went to our preschool receiving a classical education,” said Beth Moran. “We’re overwhelmed by the progress we see them making.”
Many of PCCA’s students began their education in homeschool. “We’re proud of the fact that homeschool parents who took great care to educate their children would send them on to our school,” Gunter added.
How ThinkWave Helps
With so much to consider in starting a new school, Gunter said choosing ThinkWave helped simplify her whole staff’s lives and save them time.
Twelve years ago, when she taught in public school, Gunter had used a version of ThinkWave’s gradebook which was then on a CD. “I really liked it then,” she said. “So when I realized we needed a better system for PCCA, I looked up ThinkWave online and was very impressed with all it had to offer now.”
During PCCA’s first year, teachers used the same computer program the local school district was using for grade books and parent communication, but it was designed in the 1980s and not even supported anymore by the people who created it. “It took a long learning curve for the teachers, and the parents had a hard time with it,” Gunter said. “It was glitchy at best.”
Then she looked at another provider and the price was four times higher than ThinkWave’s without much more to offer in benefits. “ThinkWave’s price was right and it’s pro-rated per student so it can scale with the size of our school,” she said.
ThinkWave has come to the rescue more than once this year.
Gunter said she needed to create middle school schedules for 135 students, which she could accomplish quickly with ThinkWave. “I can’t tell you the time that saved us,” she said.
She said the parents love it. They can view grades for all of their children in real time on the same account and receive report cards by email.
Another challenge came up when PCCA needed to create a complicated elementary report card template according to the local school district’s requirements. “We called ThinkWave and they told us to send it over. They’re custom designing the template for us. That’s fantastic!”