Dysfunctional schools reduce their academic model to a “choice of curriculum,” its only result the efficient delivery of literacy skills and raw information. Thriving schools are different. Thriving schools view their model as nothing less than the animating force that guides virtuous human development, the right ordering of learning, the noble pursuit of truth, and the lifelong flourishing of faculty, students, and families alike. The choice of an academic model is the unifying commitment motivating and preoccupying all faculty and staff in any excellent school. For students, it’s the prism through which they explore the world and relationships during their formative years. For parents, it is a fount of inspiration and culture to inform the social, spiritual, and intellectual life of their families.

Members of Arcadia’s team have taught in, started, managed, and governed schools under many different models—but nowhere is our team deeper steeped than in classical education. Over the course of my career, I have observed, endured, and led schools as they converted to a classical model. I have experienced firsthand both successes and failures. In this reflection, I want to share three of the most important lessons that I have learned about transforming a learning community into an exemplary classical school.

Ensure Alignment

The single most important factor in the lasting success of a transition to the classical school model is an airtight alignment in heart and mind between the board and the school’s leadership. The vision must be clear and it must be shared. Alignment that is murky, mandated, or superficial will not stand the trials to come. Alignment between the leaders must come first, for there is little hope of securing real buy-in from faculty and families if the leaders cannot yet speak with one voice.

Alignment in the transition to a classical model will take time, will be difficult, and will force hard conversations. It will require profound honesty, trust, vulnerability, and humility in stewarding the best interests of the organization. But all the sufferings endured to reach real alignment will be rendered trivial by the shared joy of seeing the transition take root and the school flourish.

Festina Lente

This Roman adage is an oxymoron. It means “make haste slowly,” which perfectly captures the tension every leader suffers when leading through change. The leader must press forward daily without rushing into short-sighted errors. They must push themselves and their team, yet stay patient with their team and themselves. They must attend to the school’s time-sensitive needs (make haste) while continually discerning the overall direction necessary to promote vitality (move slowly).

When leading your school through a conversion to classical education, consider well your team’s capacity and set wise goals. The school likely won’t (and shouldn’t) transition every subject in every grade in just one year. It may take three years or more to finish laying even the groundwork for the transformation.

See it Through

In all my years leading and coaching leaders, one of the most impressive displays of “seeing it through” that I have witnessed occurred when I was working with a network of elementary schools in their first year of transitioning to a classical model. Aware of faculty capacity and disposition, they made only one change that year: the addition of a robust reading program.

In August, before the new year began, the executive leading the conversion (on all fronts: curricular, pedagogical, and cultural) cleared her schedule and sat for the entire two-week summer training in the new reading program. She then made a point not only of observing every teacher at every school during the first quarter and giving face-to-face feedback, but guest teaching lessons herself to model reading instruction for struggling teachers and coaching for her principals.

That instructional leader’s willingness to become a student and a skillful practitioner alongside the rest of the faculty sent several clear, powerful, and galvanizing messages to every teacher and administrator. Through her actions, she conveyed: “This conversion is real, this training is the most important thing for our students and our organization, and we’re seeing this through together.” Other projects had to be put on hold while she ensured that the conversion took root in each and every classroom.

If you are thinking about moving your school toward a classical model, I encourage you to start by connecting with those who have gone before you. You will find fellow school leaders to be among the most heartfelt in sharing knowledge and advice. A second key priority is to identify model schools that can define what a successful end state looks like. In interacting with these schools, it may be surprising to find out how freely and generously they share what makes them successful. Finally, it is indispensable to seek sustained coaching and veteran expertise—to learn from the trials and triumphs of others who have been there—and done that.

David Denton
Managing Consultant
Arcadia Education Group