St. Louis Park-based Holy Family Academy uses classical learning methods to teach history, literature and Catholic perspectives

Students at Holy Family Academy act out a scene in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in April. (Submitted photo courtesy of Laura Ahlquist)

Every play at Holy Family Academy features swordfighting, an outgrowth of the school’s focus on historical periods.

The Roman Catholic school at 5925 W. Lake St. in St. Louis Park began in 2001 and more fully implemented a classical curriculum about four years ago. The school hired Principal Jim Grogan to further it along in 2015.

The school, which this year is serving 193 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, focuses on three stages of learning: grammatical, logical and rhetorical.

“These schools are mushrooming across America,” Grogan said, pointing to Liberty Classical Academy in White Bear Lake, Nova Classical Academy in St. Paul and Agamim Classical Academy in Hopkins.

“It’s so successful a method that people flock to it,” Grogan said.

Kids can become enamored with facts when they are presented by establishing a strong base centered on periods, Grogan said.

Kindergarten students at Holy Family Academy study great civilizations and memorize classic poems. First-grade students study Egypt and Mesopotamia. Second-grade students focus on Rome and Greece while third-graders study the Middle Ages. Students in fourth and fifth grades review the more modern era while students in sixth through eighth grade turn their attention again to periods covered in the younger grades.

As a Catholic school, the students participate in Mass each school day and are taught from a Christian perspective.

“Our whole pursuit of knowledge is based on truth – the Incarnation and God’s plan for the world,” Grogan said. “We have the liberty to be completely Christocentric.”

He added, “We’re joyous, focusing on truth, beauty and goodness. We want to use all our love and passion to glorify God.”

Students sing classical music and plays written by Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, that feature a classical motif. This spring, students acted out Ahlquist’s play “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.” Other plays have focused on Robin Hood or “The Arabian Nights.”

In addition to swordfighting, the plays performed at the school contain moral lessons.

“We think through art and drama you can find eternal truths,” Grogan said. “When a kid is playing a part, they have to start thinking like that character. They take themselves out of the picture and start thinking like another would.”

The students also learn through each other, with students grouped into families during their time at the school.

“You look out for your family,” Grogan said.

The academy does not entirely use the Socratic method, in which students learn mainly by asking questions, but the school does focus on such traditional techniques of learning like building up literary skills and vocabulary so students can communicate well.

Grogan acknowledged, “Some people tell me I’m not classical because I care about test scores and getting into college.”

The academy method of learning is in part inspired by the Jesuits, a Catholic order that founded many colleges and universities, Grogan said.

The school teaches students some Latin, classical literature and the Catholic Church’s contributions to society.

“The students actually like Latin because it’s predictable,” Grogan said. “It teaches logic.”

The literature they read corresponds with the historical periods they are learning about. Students in the grades focused on modern history learn about Europe in particular because of its importance in developing Western thought.

Religion is incorporated throughout the curriculum.

“The church is guiding us how to live each moment for Christ,” Grogan said. “Whether you’re a playwright, mathematician, medical or doctor, these are all building the kingdom of God…. Our kids will know a lot more about the church than most because of the immersion.”

The academy combined classical learning with the Montessori method in its pre-kindergarten program over the past school year.

“We think there’s a great compatibility,” Grogan said. “Montessori focuses on the great dignity of learning.”

The program for 3-year-old and 4-year-old children aims to create curiosity, he said. The children learn from each other and discover knowledge.

The preschool program also incorporates religious thought. For example, children portray Gospel stories. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd provides hands-on activities, like encouraging students to move figures of sheep into a fold. Grogan said he initially anticipated chaos might ensue, but he said children have been calm while participating.

“They’ll be mesmerized for 45 minutes,” Grogan said.

Reflecting on the Holy Family curriculum in general, Grogan said, “I think it helps them learn how to think and to support an argument. That would be the goal from a secular point of view.”

More broadly, Grogan added, “If they’re grounded in truth and morality, they’ll do well.”

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]