Ep. 124: Cool Schools with Garden Christian Academy

July 23, 2019

In this episode, Danielle and Stephen Piscura discuss what makes Garden Christian Academy different from others in the Cleveland area. The school, which will open this fall, follows a model similar to Hope Academy, previously featured in our series.

Mike McShane: Hi, everybody. This is Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, here with another edition of Cool Schools, the podcast where I have the great privilege of talking to cool and innovative school leaders from across the country and trying to tease out lessons that they’ve learned, mistakes that they’ve made, triumphs that they’ve experienced, and what everyone can take away from those experiences. Today on the podcast, we have Danielle and Stephen Piscura, who are the founding team of the Garden Christian Academy in Cleveland, Ohio. Danielle will be the acting head of school. And this is an interesting podcast because the school hasn’t opened yet. It’s actually slated to open in the fall of 2019. I heard about this school from the good folks at the Drexel Fund, who have been a great sort of funnel for this podcast. They do a lot to support new and innovative schools, and so I usually follow in their wake and look at the schools they are supporting.

This is going to be a really interesting conversation. The Garden Christian Academy is actually modeled off a previous guest of the podcast, the Hope Academy out of Minnesota. And so they’re putting their own kind of spin on that model, so if you listen to that podcast, you can kind of compare and contrast them. But with further ado—I could keep talking about this for a long time—but without further ado, this is Danielle and Stephen Piscura of the Garden Christian Academy in Cleveland, Ohio.

This is an interesting podcast because we’re talking about a school that doesn’t exist yet. It’s opening in the fall, so I would be interested in starting: where did you get the idea for the school? When did this process start?

Danielle Piscura: Yeah. It’s been about two and a half years of thinking and brainstorming and praying about how we could best serve our neighborhood and then our own children, of course. We have three of them. We have an eight year old, a six year old and a three year old. So, we have thought about a school in our neighborhood, and it’s taken many different iterations in our minds, starting as a homeschool co-op for the neighborhood, small cottage, kind of street-school type for the neighborhood kids as well. And then about two, yeah about two years ago, I read an article in the Gospel Coalition about Hope Academy in Minneapolis and knew that was it. That was the model that we wanted to have here in Cleveland.

Mike McShane: What drew you to the Hope Academy?

Danielle Piscura: The Gospel Coalition article described it, and essentially described the founders, Russ Gregg and his wife, and their story was very similar to our own. They moved into a blighted neighborhood—under-served, under-resourced. Even the demographics and the population were similar to ours. And they moved in kind of idealistic, we’re going to serve the neighborhood, and then had kids. And they would drive by kids in their neighborhood. And Russ tells the story that he would think, “Someone should start a school for these kids.” And so we were drawn to that story because it sounded just like ours. And so he and his wife finally, through a series of events, decided to … He decided to quit his job and open this school, and it’s 20 years in the making. And so the story specifically about how they got there was so similar to ours. And then the fact that they were serving kids just like kids in our neighborhood, the fact that it was a Christian school, and the fact that there was little tuition, so the people in the neighborhood could afford it, all of those things drew us to Hope Academy.

Mike McShane: That’s great. Could you talk a bit about the neighborhood you’re hoping to serve?

Stephen Piscura: Sure. The neighborhood that we have lived in for the past seven years is called the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. It’s one of many neighborhoods in Cleveland, and it’s closely in proximity to two other neighborhoods called Stockyards and Brooklyn Center. And these three neighborhoods have a very similar demographic makeup. Clark-Fulton neighborhood in particular was one of, if not the most, diverse neighborhoods in the city of Cleveland. It has the largest Hispanic population in all of Cleveland, and then a large population of white, African-American, and then other, which includes really hundreds of ethnicities because Cleveland has become an ascending place for refugee families because the cost of living here is lower compared to other cities. So, it’s an extremely diverse neighborhood, and it is marked by many of the common challenges that many of our urban and inner cities face with regards to poverty, with regards to school opportunity and access to fresh food. Many of the things that are challenging in inner cities across the United States are represented here in our neighborhood as well.

Mike McShane: So, now what makes the Garden Christian Academy unique? How will it be different from the other educational options that might be available for the children in those neighborhoods?

Danielle Piscura: Yeah. Well, for starters we are using the classical pedagogy, and so that’s different. There’s one other classical school within five miles from here. We are going to have a private school feel, and there are no private schools available, really, to kids in our neighborhood, at least not affordable for them. And for our own family, as we were looking, there was no Christian. There are plenty of classical schools, but there wasn’t a private school feel that had a Christian foundation, too. And then also, we are going to be heavy on parent involvement and accountability, just recognizing that parents are the first teachers of their children.

Mike McShane: For sure.

Danielle Piscura: Yes. We want them involved, and they’re going to sign a parent covenant, where they will be required to volunteer, required to participate in designated family school days throughout the year, and required to participate in a home visit. And on the parent covenant, there’s things such as you will limit your child’s media and screen time.

Mike McShane: Ooh.

Danielle Piscura: Yes.

Stephen Piscura: Yeah. We’re pulling out the heavy hitters.

Mike McShane: I was going to say, how have people responded to that?

Danielle Piscura: The families that I have sat with, they love it. They’re looking for a way to get involved with their students’ education. There’s been only positive.

Mike McShane: You kind of get to be the bad guys. Right? Sorry. It’s the school says. We have to do it.

Danielle Piscura: The school being us, yeah.

Stephen Piscura: We prefer to get fired at the interview. We want to lay out all the expectations clearly. And if a family says, “No way,” then that’s a much better outcome than to be midway through the school year, and people acting as if they’re surprised that the school has a high level of accountability. We’d much rather make it very clear in the front end and say, “If you’re game, so are we. And we’re in this together.”

Mike McShane: Talk to me a bit about that recruiting process. How have you been going about? What have those conversations looked like? How have you been trying to recruit families?

Danielle Piscura: Grassroots efforts. We are going door to door. We’ve lived in this neighborhood for almost eight years now, and so we’re really utilizing the church leaders that we’ve met in the neighborhood, other ministries that are active right here where we live, which is a side note, which we should probably explain. Yeah. We’ve been utilizing our networks and speaking at churches, speaking at ministries, getting in front of nonprofit and social services around here, asking if we could get in front of families that they serve. And people are responding really well. The Hispanic community tends to be either Catholic or Pentecostal, and so a lot of the Pentecostal families are surprised that we’re not Catholic, and excited about that.

Mike McShane: You’ve mentioned a couple elements of the kind of design of the school that you’re looking for. One is to be a low-tuition model. Can you talk about how you’re trying to make that work?

Danielle Piscura: Yeah. We’re modeling after Hope Academy. Being in Minnesota, they’re not in a very faith based school friendly state, so they’ve had to raise 90 percent of each student’s tuition via a partner.

Stephen Piscura: It’s all been private philanthropy.

Danielle Piscura: Yeah. So, they find, one to one, really, they find a partner who’s willing to cover about 90 percent of the cost of a student’s tuition. And then the families pay about a 10 percent fair share tuition based on their income. And so that’s how we’re doing it. We’ve been going around asking individuals, corporations, churches, small groups, to sponsor a child for their tuition next year.

Mike McShane: And so you’ve mentioned a classical model, which some listeners may be familiar with. But maybe one way of thinking about this is the kind of from the child’s experience. So, when a child walks into the school, what might their typical school day look like?

Stephen Piscura: Yeah, Mike. I think in contrast to probably most of the guests you have on your show, you’re speaking with two folks whose only claim to expertise, which is not true, would be that we’re concerned parents first. Danielle’s background is in education as a teacher, and so we’re really finding our way in this wild attempt to found a school. And so that’s done with much counsel, much support from people who know better than we do, and much prayer. But as parents, we came to a bit of a crossroads with our own children. Of course, when you don’t have children, and you’re not heavily involved in education, you’re not paying close attention to pedagogical models, school reform efforts, and those kinds of things. But then when your own children come onto the scene, you’re thinking to say, “Oh, my gosh. I have to educate them. What should I do?”

And so, you begin to do research, and discover of course, there are endless prescriptions of how education should be done. And honestly, we are not of the mindset that there is one way that is the only way. But in our experience, and in the relationships that we’ve had with other families and other schools, we’ve settled on the classical model because it really does conform to our most fundamental assumptions about reality and about people. And so the classical model assumes that children and all people are mind, body and spirit. We’re not merely interested in educating one’s mind, but also informing whole people. And so in that regard, the classical model is deeply concerned with forming not just good morals in a child, but virtue, so that that child would have his or her loves directed at what classical educators often refer to as “the good” and “the true” and “the beautiful.”

C.S. Lewis would refer to it as The Tao, these objective realities of goodness, truth and beauty. And just like advertisers and what we see on our screens before us every single day are always trying to kind of direct our love toward a product, or a self-image, or being richer, or being sexier, we have to, in a sense, program our kids to have their loves directed at what God calls good, at what God calls beautiful, what God calls true. And so in the life of a child coming into a school like the Garden Christian Academy, there is deeply built into the curriculum those efforts to direct them towards great art, the art that has been sort of the seed bed of Western civilization, great literature, great books. And of course, the scriptures, the word of God, would be the foundation of all of that.

And so just as we want our own children to be formed as whole people, and we’ve always been very forthright in naming the school the Garden Christian Academy, we’re being very outright with our parents and with our donors and with our community partners that this is a school that is not just forming minds, but also forming Christian disciples. And so for families who are interested in that kind of thing, or who are willing to go along with it, we have been and will continue to be very clear from the front end that this is what we’re doing in the life of a child. We’re seeking to partner with you to form a child in a whole way, to holistically form this child to not just know the right things, but to love the right things. And so I know that’s a general answer, but that really is the … That’s kind of the philosophical basis and our understanding of the classical model. But this is a model that’s interested in forming people.

Mike McShane: Now you’ve spoken about the great diversity of the neighborhood that you’re trying to serve, so I would imagine, and correct me if I’m wrong, but within that diverse community you have people from all sorts of different countries, all parts of the world, etc., there may be lots of different definitions of the good, the true, and the beautiful. And so I’d be interested in trying to cultivate a diverse school that’s organized around these principles. How do you navigate that? How do you talk to parents about that? How do you talk to kids about that? Sort of a kind of respecting where people are coming from, but still hewing to the sort of virtues that you hold dear.

Stephen Piscura: Sure. I think that the first thing is we are 100 percent committed to honor the dignity that every single human person has. And I think that’s a unique attribute of particularly the Christian faith, is to say that all people everywhere, regardless of their choices, regardless of who or what they love, what they’ve done, that each person is made in the image of God, and therefore has dignity that goes beyond measure. So, that’s our starting base of operation, that when we interact with any person, that is the kind of person we’re interacting with, someone who has endowed with literally infinite value because they are made by an infinitely valuable God. And so with that starting place, we can hold out our second assumption, which is that all truth belongs to God. If there is a great scientific discovery, if there is good philosophy, if there are truths to be found in decidedly non-religious books or non-religious films, we can appreciate all of these things because they don’t need to be wrapped in religious language to be good, to be true, to give us a source of knowledge and a source of learning.

And so part of our excitement in starting a school in a neighborhood like this is that candidly, the classical and Christian model of education in the United States has been largely the domain of highly-resourced white families, and sometimes, to be candid, we find that the curriculum does not reflect the diversity of this wide and wonderful world. And so we’ve intentionally, before the school is open, have been cultivating relationships with diverse voices, racially diverse voices, diverse experiences among educators in the classical tradition, who can help to make sure that what we’re putting before our students is representative of the communities that they come from. So, they’re not just hearing Eurocentric voices, but they’re hearing African voices. They’re hearing Hispanic voices. They’re hearing voices from refugees and others who look and sound more like them, and yet at the same time, we’re still sticking to our core values and our core model, that all this truth belongs to God. And all of it is useful for forming a child and instructing a child.

Mike McShane: Now, how are you planning on measuring success? How will you know that what you’re doing is working?

Danielle Piscura: Yeah. We will be using the NWEA math testing. And then there are certain ways that we’ve adopted again from Hope Academy to measure character, to measure a student’s growth and character. And we plan on utilizing those as well. And then we’re still looking into another standardized test. I know a school close by uses the TerraNova. There’s other tests we’ll be adding as well.

Mike McShane: You mentioned briefly in a previous answer, talking a bit about how the public policy context is different in Ohio than it is in Minnesota. Could you maybe talk about those differences, and how you are either taking advantage of them, or it just makes things different? Yeah, just kind of how you intersect with school policy in Ohio.

Danielle Piscura: Yeah. Currently, we will be modeling off of Hope Academy, which again, they can’t accept any state money, so they do the partner model. So, we’re doing that for the first year, but we are also working on getting chartered through the state of Ohio. So, we will hopefully have our charter status 10 months after our opening day. And then we will be accepting Cleveland Voucher. Cleveland Voucher is a $4,650 voucher that follows the student that’s in Cleveland in a low-performing, low-income family.

Mike McShane: Now when you say “chartered,” you’re not going to become a public charter school. You’re still going to be a private school.

Danielle Piscura: Right. Yeah.

Mike McShane: But you’re going to get this designation so you can receive students on vouchers. Is that right?

Danielle Piscura: Yes. It’s a non-public charter school.

Stephen Piscura: We just want to say we feel very, very fortunate to be doing something like this in the state of Ohio because of how currently friendly the laws are. So it’s really a credit to the work of organizations like EdChoice, which have made it possible for us to maintain a theological and philosophical base assumptions, our fundamental assumptions and intent with the school like the one that we’re, God willing, founding in the fall, and yet be able to receive public assistance. It situates us in a markedly different place than a school like Hope Academy in Minnesota, which just simply doesn’t have the same opportunities. So, we feel really fortunate, and we’re so glad to continue to pursue that opportunity as long as the door is open for us to maintain our model.

Mike McShane: I know you all have partnered with the Drexel Fund. We’ve talked with some schools on the podcast here before that work with them. Can you talk a little bit about that partnership?

Danielle Piscura: Sure. I became a fellow at the Drexel Fund in June of last year, so I’m in the fellowship year. And they have provided some financial assistance and a stipend for us, and also the expertise.

Stephen Piscura: Absolutely.

Danielle Piscura: Yeah. A lot of expertise coming from Drexel to help us start this school. It’s been a great year of learning. They’ve provided learning experiences. I’ve been traveling. I’ve been visiting Hope Academy. We’re going to Oaks Academy next month. We get to visit a lot of other Christian schools in the south. It’s been an amazing learning experience for both of us, and especially me. And they also… We were in the process of—it was a long six month process to become a fellow. And while we were in that process, they were kind of vetting Hope Academy as well.

Stephen Piscura: The tie in here between the Drexel Fund and the Hope Academy model is that because of the successes of Hope Academy and the number of people like Danielle and I who’ve reached out to them and said, “How did you do this? Can we do this? We really believe in what you’re doing. We want to do it in our own city,” that success and those inquiries led the leadership of Hope Academy to found what is essentially a subsidiary organization called Spreading Hope, which is a kind of school-planting and coaching organization, not to create franchises of Hope Academy, but rather to create independent, autonomous schools that make use of some, if not all, of the Hope Academy model.

And because of the success of the Hope Academy model, it caught the attention of the Drexel Fund. Now, the Drexel Fund only works in approximately six states, Ohio being one of them, because of the education choice opportunities that are in a state like ours. And so although they could not work with a Minnesota-based school because there is no public assistance available to another school getting started there, they are willing to work with a school like ours, which is seeking to replicate a model that they deem very successful in a state like Ohio, where that public assistance would be available.

Mike McShane: Now, you’re still relatively early in this process. But I would be interested, so for those people who may be listening to the podcast and are inspired by what you have to say—and it’s actually you did some kind of free plugs for us because in the past, we have interviewed Andrew Hart of the Oaks Academy, and Russ Gregg of Hope Academy as well. So, I encourage people to go back and listen to those podcasts as well. But I would be interested, just even as far as you are in the process here, what lessons have you learned? Maybe this is a mistake that you made. If you could go back in time and give yourself advice and say, “I should not have done that,” what lessons have you already learned in this process?

Danielle Piscura: There’s too many.

Stephen Piscura: I want to add my encouragement as well to your listeners, especially listening to the podcast from Russ Gregg, who’s been kind of a mentor from afar for us. I recall going to one of the events where Spreading Hope, the subsidiary organization of Hope Academy, had a giant red banner out with beautiful photographs of their beautiful student population, and in big bold letters it said, “Starting a school is crazy.” So, I thought to myself, “Well, we’re in good company.” And we appreciate the candor that this is not for the faint of heart. In our case, we can say very confidently, it’s not the domain of experts alone because we’re simply not experts. We’re doing this first as an act of obedience and believing that this is the work that God’s called us to. And when God calls someone to a work, he then finds ways to equip the unequipped, which is what we are.

But through friendships and partnership with Spreading Hope, with the Drexel Fund, with relationships with Robert Enlow and other members of EdChoice, we find that there is equipping that’s coming to us from unexpected places. We feel tremendous support, and say sincerely, this is not false humility. We could not do this if we did not have the supports that are being provided to us. Looking back, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. In many ways, I still don’t know what I’m getting myself into. And so there is something blissful about that ignorance. But it was a simple yes on Danielle’s part and on my part to say, “We believe this is necessary. We believe this is good. We believe this will serve and uplift our community. And most of all, we believe that this is a work that God’s asked us to do.”

So, for listeners who may be considering doing the same thing, you can kind of charge into the fray blissfully ignorant, but trusting that there are the those people in the wings that God is going to send to you to do what you definitely can’t do on your own.

Danielle Piscura: Yeah. Taking it day by day, rather than getting super overwhelmed with all the tasks before me, and then being bold, being bold about the mission and the vision and selling it, really. Selling it to the people in our neighborhood, selling it to potential partners, I think that being more bold from the beginning would’ve been helpful as we were forging relationships.

Mike McShane: Well, Danielle and Stephen Piscura, thank you so much for joining the Cool Schools Podcast.

Danielle Piscura: Thank you for having us.

Stephen Piscura: Such a privilege to be with you, Mike. Thank you so much for having us.

Mike McShane: Well, I hope you all enjoyed that conversation as much as I did, really looking at the decisions that they’re choosing to make, how they’re engaging with the community, and being upfront about what they have to offer. I think that’s something that communities appreciate, that parents appreciate. The idea of “getting fired at the interview” I thought was a super helpful way of looking at it. Looking parents in the eye and saying, “This is what we’re offering here. And if you want to be a part of it, that’s awesome. And if you don’t, that’s OK, too,” because there’s no one best way to educate kids, and you should try and find another school that’s going to better serve them.

I think also, really digging into how they envision the classical model in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2019 I thought was really interesting as well. Maybe classical education gets a bad rap as something that’s stuffy or out of touch. But they’re really thinking these hard questions of: How can they make these great classic texts that have been passed down from generation to generation relevant, important and reflective of the children that they’re serving? So, I really enjoyed that conversation. I hope you all enjoyed listening to it as much as I enjoyed having it.

As always, I’m always looking for new cool schools. Send them my way. Tweet them at me. Email them to me. Send it to the good folks at EdChoice, and we will pass that along. I would also be wonderful if you would subscribe to this podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, whatever new system is up to subscribe to podcasts. And look, if you wanted to hop on the iTunes store and give us a little five-star rating, I wouldn’t stop you. Right? So please feel free to rate the podcast as well. It’s my understanding that podcasts, the more ratings that they get, the easier it is for people to find them. That could be totally wrong, and I just need the edification of some five-star reviews. Either way, subscribe to the podcast, rate it, send me potential cool schools.

Looking forward to chatting with you the next time, when I sit down with another talented educator, or as with today, a group of educators who are starting a cool school. Talk to you then.