Ep. 33: Cool Schools with The Oaks Academy

February 13, 2018

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, our Director of National Research Mike McShane continues our “Cool Schools” series with an interview with CEO of The Oaks Academy Andrew Hart. They talk about the classical Christian school network’s mission to provide excellent education in a racially and socioeconomically integrated environment near downtown Indianapolis.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. My name is Mike McShane, and I’m director of National Research at EdChoice. Today’s podcast is part of a new series we’re embarking upon called Cool Schools, wherein we will profile passionate educators around the country and the schools that they lead. This podcast series has two goals. The first is simply celebration, starting a new school or running a great existing school is hard work. Too often, it’s a thankless job. So we want to celebrate people who are trying something new and different. And kick the tires on their ventures, to uncover lessons that they’ve learned and can share with other educators around the country.

The second goal is to try and stretch folks’ mind about what is possible in education. As educational choice supporters, we at EdChoice spend a healthy amount of our time trying to promote educational options that don’t exist yet. We push for states to pass laws that create the conditions for great, new schools to open and scale. But many people struggle to wrap their minds around exactly what that might look like.

In this podcast, we’re going to highlight some of those potentialities. With quality school choice programs, innovative models, like the ones we talk about here could be coming to a city near year. You know what, at the outset, I would like to say that we’re not going to try and use this podcast to adjudicate whether or not these are quote unquote good or bad schools. We’re not going to examine their reading and math scores and ask them why their fourth graders aren’t up to snuff. We are going to ask about mistakes that they’ve made, lessons they’ve learned, advice that they would give, and related questions that should be helpful for anyone listening, even if you’re skeptical of their educational model or pedagogical strategy.

I’m always on the lookout for more cool schools to profile, so if you know of one of those in your neck of the woods, please let me know about it. Andrew Hart is the CEO of the Oaks Academy, and the Oaks Academy is a three campus, private Christian school located right here in our own backyard of Indianapolis, Indiana. Those of you that are unfamiliar, we record this podcast at EdChoice HQ right on the circle in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. And every time I come to town, folks always say, you gotta go check out … you gotta talk to the folks at the Oaks Academy. So I was really glad that Andrew was able to take the time to chat today about all the interesting stuff that they are doing right in their own backyard. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Andrew Hart of the Oaks Academy.

So Andrew, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m wondering if we could start at the beginning and talk about the Oaks Academy, so when did it start, how did it start, what was the kind of genesis of the school?

Andrew Hart: Yeah, the Oaks was started in 1998. There was a group of faithful men and women who were meeting at a mainline church just down the street from our first location, Tabernacle Presbyterian is the mainline Presbyterian church. And they were trying to envision how they could have the greatest impact on the neighborhood. And the neighborhood at that time was sadly blighted. It was like many urban centers, a victim of dramatic white flights and the corrosive effects of drugs and crime. And they came upon the idea of starting a private, faith-based, Christian, although not denominational, Christian school that would serve the poor. They landed upon a classical curriculum. And it would serve the poor, but not exclusively the poor. This was the vision. It was to be a school that would respond to the need of the neighborhood, and that would be by reaching out the poor. But it would be such a standard that those with resources, that is children in high and middle income families would also wish to attend.

And so the school is launched in 1998 with 53 children, half of whom were in poverty, and half of whom were in middle and high income homes. And it was remarkably racially balanced, which of course as you know then and now, have a school that is racially balanced and integrated in that way is very rare in an area where schools are becoming increasingly more segregated. And that was the start. In September 1998, 53 children, Pre-K through 4th grade with a school that was launched in a formally vacant, but beautiful, historic public school building in a blighted neighborhood. And since then, I think you know, we’ve grown considerably. Now we are a network of schools, still in northern Indianapolis, serving 815 students, and will be growing over the next seven years to 1225 students. We’ve honored the original vision of serving the poor, so still half of our students are low income. Half of our students are high and middle income, and our school is still ethnically, racially balanced with now it’s 40% African American, 40% white, and 20 are mixed race and Asian and Latino.

And the remarkable thing is not only the maintenance of the original vision, which was an inspired vision. But also, the remarkable success that we’ve had over these 19 years. Our school has, it’s successively been in the highest reaches of all schools in the state, including suburban and private schools by almost every measure, graduation rates, high school graduation rates, college graduation rates, but also standardized test scores there. Typically, in the top 1%, I think last year we were the top school corporation in the state. And I think it goes to show you that the children who are in an environment that is keenly aware of their capacity, that they are capable of reaching high expectations can, in fact, as a school, succeed. And succeed we have over these past 19 years.

Mike McShane: That’s great. So classical curriculum. That’s a term that we hear a lot. And I think it’s becoming increasingly popular in the charter school space and the private school space. I’m wondering, maybe some folks that might not be familiar with that, if you could describe what your approach of classical education?

Andrew Hart: Sure, well there’s a curricular approach, which I will touch on. But there’s also, I think more importantly, a philosophical approach, which bears out here every day with every child and every teacher. And there’s essentially four principles that guide a classical approach. And they would be that we believe that all children, all people for that matter, are created bearing the likeness of God, this great mystery of faith that we are all bearing God’s image. Imago Deo. That that is something that our teachers are charged to celebrate, value, and to explore recognizing that our children are brimming with potentialities, whether they be children with special needs or whether they be children that are exceptionally bright. So that’s the first and very kind of defining idea of a classical school, is that our children are fully persons, that they are fully bearing God’s image.

The second is we believe in, it’s a classical idea that learning happens, most effectively, in the context of relationships. And we should give time and space and be thoughtful about the environment to allow those relationships to flourish. And I don’t mean just relationships interpersonally, which of course, that is central to the idea, to the classical idea of learning. But also relationships with authors, with artists, with scientists, with subjects. We want to create an atmosphere that is rich in relationships. And with learning, fundamentally. And so that’s a classical idea, is that learning is one kind of born out of relationships.

Thirdly, the idea, this classical idea of these virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness that we need as educators to be very thoughtful about what is placed before our students, that it would be as we say, worthy of their affections and that it would lift their vision to the heroic and to what they can aspire to be and to think and to do. And so those ideas should represent what is true, good, and beautiful. And the last thing is really the purpose as we see of education is also classical idea is that an education should renew us as individuals and students. It should renew families, it should renew neighborhoods, it should renew cities. It shouldn’t be just for our self-aggrandizement, an education. But it should be something that causes us to look outward and to bring renewal, to reestablish renewal, in fact, is what it should be. And so those are the philosophical pillars of what we see as a classical education.

There are kind of curriculum, what’s called, ornaments that are, you know, they’re kind of important but they could be interchanged with other ideas and other quick indistinctives. Like we teach Latin starting in the 3rd grade right through 8th grade. We teach formal logic in the middle school. We follow a timeline of western civilization through our humanities coursework. We read the great books and sort of the corpus of western civilization. And I’ve alluded to our history. Theology, really reflects the beauty and the depth of western thought. But you know, that’s important, but those … even if we change that, we would remain classical. Because classical, I think, is much more how we see children, how we think about learning, what materials we want to use in learning, what is the purpose of education. We think that that would define us as a classical school than what books we read and what the content of the lesson.

Mike McShane: Well that’s great. And it sort of, it gave me two thoughts. The first one is that I’ve been … I maybe need to stop by your school. I’ve been slogging through Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian Wars.

Andrew Hart:  Wow bravo.

Mike McShane: And it’s been bad. I haven’t been … I agree that it is worthy of my affections, but I don’t know if I am worthy of its. So I might need to stop by and get through that. But the second thing was, in talking about that, it’s really sticking with me, this idea of worthy of their affections. One of the things that you said when you were first describing some of the results of your school was the standardized test scores, and in a lot of the conversation that you hear in the policy, kind of, community right now is this tension between standardized testing and many of the things that I think you talked about, a deeper, truer purpose to education. So I’m curious how you’re able to navigate that, how you’re able to navigate both really knocking out of the park Indiana standardized tests, while still being able to pursue things like the great books and what’s true and what’s meaningful and what’s beautiful.

Andrew Hart: So the last thing, Michael, we want the content of a lesson is that it’s intellectual sawdust, which would be the definition of prepping for a standardized test. That is complete, as we say, quaddle.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Andrew Hart: That has no value for my growth as an individual. It’s more as a marker for the school, for the teacher, and is used to kind of propel me forward. So the short, simple answer is we spend virtually no time preparing for the standardized test. Our students are not accustomed to filling in bubbles because it’s something that we don’t do. We don’t see it as valuable in their development and in their maturity. We do take standardized tests. We actually take two. One, because it’s a requirement of the state as a voucher funded school, so we take that, not because we want to, but because we have to. And it gives us some measure with how we’re doing with other schools, so there is a modicum of value there. But we also take now, starting this year, we have started to take the NWEA math test, for the purpose of really discerning where there might be weaknesses in our academic program. Specifically in our literacy curriculum and our math curriculum. And it’s been very helpful in that respect.

We have 15% of our students have documented learning disabilities. And so for us to really be able to drill down on their acuity with respect to these subject areas gives us an extra tool that we have not, to this day, had at our disposal. So these tests, actually, they can be very, very useful. I hope the new Indiana standardized test proves to be as useful as the NWEA is. And for us, in diagnosing any academic struggles that our students might be having both as individuals and maybe as a class or a grade, and that’s how we’re using it, is to really sharpen our program here.

Mike McShane: So outside of tests like the NWEA or the Indiana test, how do you measure success. How do you know if what you are doing is working?

Andrew Hart: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And so I think much of the success that we value is qualitative, that is it’s not readily quantified. Like, for instance, I had a visitor come in the other day, and she walked in and she, immediately her eyes welled up with tears and she said, there is just something absolutely extraordinary about this school. I don’t even know what it is, I can’t tell you, but it feels calm, it feels peaceful, and I feel confident that these children are well-cared for. Now when she said that, I thought, okay, that is a marker of success, when someone comes in here, never having been here before and can comment that form their own very limited experience, just from walking in the door. And this was an experienced educator, it was not someone who’s new to school. And I thought, that, yeah, that indicates to me that there is something happening that is really working. So that’s one side.

Something that actually can be more readily quantified is retention. When you’re retaining students at a rate that we are, you know that there’s something where they see the value. That parent, who after all, is that child’s first teacher, which I might say is a classical idea, and should be born out even today, that idea that a parent is a child’s first teacher, and we should value them in that role. When a parent chooses to re-enroll their child here, they’re making a very clear statement, that we value what is happening here. And when that happens year after year after year for 10 years, that’s success that we are partnered with that parent so much so that they are entrusting this very important contribution that we’re making as adults in this child’s life, to the school largely, to this institution.

And then the other retention is teacher retention. So the teachers would stay here believing that they are valued, believing that they are contributing, believing that they are aligned with a larger vision is something that I think is a very important marker of success and impact.

Mike McShane: Well I think retention is such an interesting way of looking at it, especially in a city like Indianapolis that is increasingly proliferating with more options for students. They have choices to go elsewhere, and teachers do as well, so if they’re staying, that’s telling you something, which sort of opens the door to a question I’d be interested in. We obliquely referenced something policy issues, standardized testing, the voucher program, and others. So I’d be interested to kind of get your thoughts on the broader education policies. So what might be like if it’s two or three policies from the state, from the federal government, from whoever that make your life difficult, that get in the way of what you all are trying to do?

Andrew Hart: Hm, make my life difficult. Well let me kind of put a little twist on that. So when the voucher law and the state tax credit law was passed, which of course, we benefit from enormously, we were a school of 335 students. Because of vouchers, choice scholarships, and because our donors can act as a state tax credit when they get to low income scholarships, we have grown to 815 and will grow further to 1225. That’s made my life a lot more difficult.

Mike McShane: Difficult in a good way, I’d imagine.

Andrew Hart:  Of course, of course. I mean, we’ll have 4x the number of students, basically, that we had in 2010 when we’re done in these three campuses. And that does present a whole nother level of challenges and complications and hiring needs and fundraising needs and so on, and a degree of uncertainty with our dependence upon now, vouchers and tax credit, getting to the tax credit program. And so you know, we of our own will, we decided to grow funded by those two sources. And we wouldn’t have grown to serve more students, more families, if it had not been for those two sources. But those, that state government initiative has created a great amount of joy, primarily, but also, a lot of complications, which we will gladly deal with to strengthen the joy, I should say, not counter.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Andrew Hart: Not counter, but to relay the message that we have. You know, aside from that, I have been actually, we have additional regulations on us because we’re engaged with the state, and received public funds. And that’s a hassle. I don’t know that any public school administrator or any school administrator would deny that interacting with the state has its commiserate headaches. But some of the things that we are most concerned about with accepting voucher funds had not materialized. And I think that’s a credit to the leadership of the statehouse, that they have not imposed regulations that would require us to change. As long as we are meeting whatever benchmarks they put, of course, we exceed all of them, but as long as we meet those, it seems like there is almost a … you know, there’s accountability in that way, but there does seem to be a recognition that for highly successful schools like the Oaks, who are now in part funded by vouchers, when they continue their success, let’s kind of just allow them to continue to do what they’re doing with some modicum of accountability, but not so intrusive and so challenging that it would disrupt what we are doing here day to day, which is nothing that we are really concerned about.

Having said that, I also want to say, I was questioned accountability, and I don’t know if that question was on your list. You know, I have been involved in charter schools also, and I would say, as a voucher funded school, as an independent faith-based school that is also reliant upon philanthropy, philanthropic support, we are more tightly accountable than any school I’ve ever been associated with in the public sphere, more so than any district school or any charter school that I’ve ever visited. And/or been apart of or been associated with. And it’s in part because we are reliant upon a donor community who see themselves as shareholders, who come and visit the Oaks and visit, slip into our school and if they don’t like what they are seeing or if they feel like it’s somehow divergent from the original vision cast, well they pull their funding in a heartbeat. And we would suffer. And we have a board who is very actively involved in advancing and maintaining our mission. And then of course, the state, which is the lowest level of accountability for us, considering the other two, the board and the donor community.

So I have such a tight tether as a school leader on what I can do and what I can change here that the degree of accountability is, it’s not stifling, but it’s certainly keeps me on a pretty narrow path.

Mike McShane: Sure keeps you on your toes.

Andrew Hart: Yeah, indeed it does, keeps me on my toes, that’s right.

Mike McShane: Well good. Well I’ve been really enjoying this conversation. I know that you are a busy many and I want to be respectful of your time. So I want to close with two questions. So one question, where I’m going to ask you to look backwards, and one question where I’m going to ask you to look forwards. So the backwards looking question would be, so now that the school has been in existence for coming on 20 years, if you could go back in time to when you first got involved, when the school was getting started, and give yourself a piece of advice, knowing what you know now, knowing that other people who listen to this podcast are folks who might be thinking about starting a school, or are educators themselves and would benefit from the lessons you’ve learned, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

Andrew Hart: Two things, have time set aside in your week that you would with fervent discipline maintain to reflect and to consider how you’re spending your time, how you’re leading others, and what the direction of the school is. So school leaders get caught up in the urgent and the immediate and rarely spend time stepping back and reflecting and contemplating on and praying for and on what’s really happening and stepping back. I mean, I was in Washington yesterday, and it’s amazing, on an airplane, you shut down the devices, you can do nothing but read and think, maybe sleep, but you just have time to allow your mind to rest and consider what’s happening. And so, that’s the first bit of advice as a look back 20 years, is I wish that I over these years had spent more time allowing my mind to just be quiet and reflect on what’s happening around me, and how I could use my time and my energy to do something more impactful.

Second thing is to honor your personal relationships, to not allow your family to be sacrificed through school leaderships. School leaders often throw themselves like martyrs at this role, and their family suffers, and their friendships suffer, and those who love them, who are around them feel a loss. And that’s something that can be very dangerous, and it puts school leaders in a very vulnerable position as leaders. And that’s something that if a could do more of, I would more carefully guard more time with my family and with my daughters and with close friends, and not allow that to be lost into the realm of school leadership. So that’s looking back.

Mike McShane: Thank you. I really appreciate that, and I appreciate you having the courage to share that personal part of it. I imagine there were lots of, there will be lots of school leaders nodding along to that experience as well. So that last question is the forward looking one. So you’ve talked about going up to 1225 students over the next seven years. What does that look like? What hurdles do you have to clear? Does that mean more buildings? Does that mean another campus? I’m just trying to get your vision of what the next five, seven, ten years holds.

Andrew Hart: With that growth that I described, it will be all within our three campuses. We have some capacity for growth, given we’re in a middle school that is another historic and very beautiful public school building, and there’s plenty of room to grow there, so it doesn’t require us to grow beyond. I think for us it’s, even beyond 1225 between now and the next 10 years, where can we have the greatest impact, the greatest influence. And it may not be starting more schools or growing further. It may be in just our influence, through sharing ideas and through training, school leader training, teacher training, for others to see the value of this experience and this approach and how it is transferable to other school environments, whether they be public or private. But the thing during growth that I’d say is most challenging, especially when you are guided by a very explicit, philosophical approach, is remaining aligned so that all things, as you grow, may align to those pillars that I talked about earlier. That is very challenging, and that is something that as organizations grow, the leadership has to think very carefully about what disciplines me to be in place, or practices, even with traditions, need to be maintained in order to honor this mission, set of values, and to ensure that we’re operating in congruence with those ideas.

Because as you grow, you can very easily diverge. And so this is something that we talk about a lot, is how are we maintaining quite tight alignment among our campuses, among our school leaders, both internally and externally.

Mike McShane: Well Andrew Hart, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. I really appreciate it.

Andrew Hart: It’s a pleasure. Thank you for asking.

Mike McShane: So that was my conversation with Andrew Hart. I really enjoyed that. I hope you all did, too. I think maybe all of that classical education has led to a more contemplative attitude towards all of this. Especially looking back on all the lessons that he learned, that really interesting thought about the role of education and schools to renew, not just the individuals that are in the building but the communities they’re in, the cities that they’re in, was something that really, really spoke to me. So I really appreciate the time that he took and I hope that you all enjoyed it.

As always, if you want to hear more of this podcast, or any of the other wonderful podcasts that we put together, please, please, please subscribe. There’s a whole bunch of other content. We talk research, we talk the cool stuff that we’re doing around here. We talk about education reform stories around the country. So be sure to subscribe. And also sign up for our email list. You can get all of our great reports that we do. You can get content totally catered to you by filling out your profile that’s online there, so please check that out as well. As always, it’s been a pleasure, and can’t wait to talk to y’all again about another cool school.