Ep. 47: Cool Schools with Regina Caeli Academy

May 1, 2018

In today’s Cool Schools edition of EdChoice Chats, Mike McShane interviews Kari Beckman. Fifteen years ago, she began homeschooling her own kids but felt like something was missing. So, she founded Regina Caeli Academies, which support parents’ homeschooling efforts with two in-classroom days of classical education.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. My name is Mike McShane and I’m Director of National Research at Ed Choice. 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 supporters we at Ed Choice 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 are 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 you. You know, at the outset I would like to say that we are not going to try and use this podcast to adjudicate whether or not these are quote, unquote, good or bad schools. We are 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.

So today on the podcast I am talking to Kari Beckman of Regina Caeli Academies, now this is a really interesting school model. It’s a hybrid homeschool and it’ll be interesting because Kari is clear that what they’re doing is not technically a school. It’s a university model, it’s a sort of an educational environment for children where children attend classes two days a week and are homeschooled for three days a week.

Now, I’ve been particularly interested in this as home school has become more popular, the price of homeschooling has gone down because of online resources and other things. But there’s still lots of families that want to have their children have some kind of formalized educational environment for some part of the week.

So, Regina Caeli is a specifically Catholic model of this, there are other religious and nonreligious models of this cropping up. I think, just if my money is betting on the future, I think this is going to become an increasingly popular educational modality and so I’m really interested to talk to people who are doing it and to understand what lessons they have learned and all of that good stuff. So Regina Caeli is this model it serves about 1,100 students in 12 cities, in seven states. Really looking forward to this conversation with Kari Beckman, founder of Regina Caeli.

So I think maybe the best place for us to start in talking about Regina Caeli is at the beginning, so how did you get the idea for this educational model, where did all of this start?

Kari Beckman: So, now, 15 years ago, I had been in a position where the best option for education for my children was to homeschool. And I want you to understand that some eight weeks before that decision I had said I would never homeschool, so being in that position you can see was not something that was a personal desire at that point. Although, of course, as God’s providence would have it I feel like it was the best decision ever for my children.

So going back to that point though, in life, public school was not an option for many obvious reasons. The private schools in the area were also not really a good option for us and quite frankly for the amount of money that we would pay, we were not seeing the results of both higher education, and excellence, and moral education and excellence, we just didn’t see that fruit.

So we began a journey where we realized that as parents we were going to have to go out on our own. And as we started that journey it became very clear though, that there is a particular necessity for some students, not all, but some students to have accountability and to have a classroom experience can really be motivating for them.

But what I didn’t want was I didn’t want peers to be the ultimate influence over my kids, right. I wanted the ultimate influence of my children to be our family and so I was inspired by the Holy Spirit to develop a two day a week model, where the students would go to a classroom setting and have great Socratic discussions, which are discussions that are led by the students, not by the tutor or the teacher, but led by the students. So they develop leadership skills, they develop an ability to more clearly articulate thoughts and ideas and to develop good logical arguments. Which I believed, and still believe, tragically is really lost in today’s education.

So these students then would be able to educate themselves through the guidance of tutors. So we would teach them how to learn, which quite frankly is the best gift we can ever receive. So many of us have heard the, I guess it’s a saying, right, the saying of fish for a man and you’ve fed him for a day, teach him to fish and he’s fed for life. Well, that premise is so missed in education. These days we feel like if we, and honestly back when I was in high school, it was kind of this cram information in, spit it out and dump it.

That is not education. Education is rather where we have a particular knowledge that then can be applied, right, an applied science of knowledge. That’s education. Education is really when you train the mind to form the soul, to train the mind to form the person, the human person. And we see this very clearly now where we have, we have unbelievable cheating scandals going on at top universities. You sit there and you say, well why is this happening now? Right? Where’s the ethics? Well, if we are not teaching a man to his morals we are basically educating very good, potential criminals and so all of those things we saw as a very serious epidemic in education and we wanted to make a change.

So we founded Regina Caeli Academy as a two day a week university model program that could really teach the mind to train the character of the soul and also, this is another beautiful thing, don’t many of us, me included, self accused, when we were in the classroom we were all about how do I get the A. What do I need to know to get the A?

That’s not having a love of learning, right, that’s not having a love of learning. What I see with these hybrid students, these homeschooled university model students, is they truly have a love to learn. They gobble it up. They’re sponges. And you think to yourself what makes them unique, well, this is what I believe. I believe what makes them unique is they are no longer in an environment where it is discouraged to be that sponge both by their peers, we see this in education, and sometimes through no fault of their own, by the teachers. Because the pressure that’s put on teachers today to make the test score is so incredible, and when they’ve got 30 or 33 kids looking at them, they’re pushing, they’re pushing for that test score. And that doesn’t allow the individual to ask the question, to go deeper, right?

We have a very wide breadth of education and not a depth of education anymore. And at Regina Caeli Academy we say deep is better than wide.

Mike McShane: So you started this with your own family, how large is Regina Caeli now, how many students does it serve?

Kari Beckman: So now we serve 1100 students in 12 cities and in seven states. We began in Atlanta 15 years ago with 15 families and 50 students.

Mike McShane: So if we think of this from the student’s perspective, right, so three days a week they are homeschooled and then two days a week they come into, I know school is not necessarily the best word, the words kind of fall apart here, but they come into the learning center. Maybe walk-through what their day is like?

Kari Beckman: So, their day is very scheduled those two days. They would have all of the humanities, they would have math and science, science lab. They would cover the entire breadth of what is needed for a good solid classical education, including Latin. Latin is also required in our program. It begins at third grade.

And so I guess if you were just to pop in there, because they do wear uniforms, it may look like a school, but it is not a school, and the reason, well a couple of reasons. One, we don’t meet the legal ramifications, if you will, or the criteria of, you need 185 days, no we don’t. We meet twice a week for 32 weeks. And then the other part of it is, we want the parents to remain the primary educators because we believe strongly that the family is the best formation for the person. And so if we were to take on more of those hours in the Academy setting, the peers then would start to be forming each other, rather than the family forming, being the peer influence there.

So that’s, you know you talk about the words kind of fall apart, they do, because we want to always classify things. I think that’s the world that we live in. But if you were to think about an academy for home schoolers, two days a week where literally every class has a very much, that’s why we call it a university model, it’s very much like college, right? So when we go to college we generally attend our classes two days a week, and we do outside learning and preparation for those classes, those two days a week. Does that make sense?

Mike McShane: Totally. So what is tuition at Regina Caeli?

Kari Beckman: So tuition is $4,000 per student in the high school, and $3,250 in the elementary school for student. And of course we have a family cap of, you pay for four students, any more students than that would go for free. So it’s also very affordable, which is something that we are really in an epidemic in this country because we’re really challenged with making school affordable. And so this is the answer to that model as well.

Mike McShane: How do you measure success? How do you know that what you’re doing is working?

Kari Beckman: That’s a very good question and one that you know I think is interesting because if you look at the history of classical methodology. You know this is where our great minds come from, Aristotle, Plato, you know they were all classically, Socrates, all classically trained.

And so our greatest sciences and our vast philosophy all come from these philosophers and so what we’re doing is we’re actually giving our students foundational understanding of each of those things as well as practical application.

So at the end of the day what we see, well, were not a STEM program so people say, well, what are your ACT scores SAT math and science scores. Well, they are phenomenal. You know, on average we are on the ACT, you know, like I think seven points ahead of the national average in each of those areas and of course with reading we completely blow standardized testing out of the water, because our students read on average greater than four hours per week more than any other student.

And when I say on average I really think that’s low. I really think our students read even more than that. I know my own kids in my own home school, they are required to read two hours a day, starting in the second grade. So I mean if you think about that, and I’m talking about reading in a book, not reading anything online, no Kindles, an actual book that you open and you read.

And what I found is that obviously, my oldest son is 24, in grad school, going to grad school this fall at Catholic University of America, and he is addicted to reading, right? And his younger brother who is 21, addicted to reading. And it’s a great thing, that’s a great thing to be addicted to, right, if you’re going to have a hobby, reading. And the thing about reading is that if we read, then the things like math and science, we are going to be excellent scientists and were going to be excellent mathematicians. And so I think where we fall down with STEM program is we put too much focus on things like equations rather than understanding what does that equation do? Where does it come from? Who discovered it.

Mike McShane: Yeah, you know, the whole history of science.

Kari Beckman: Exactly, you have to have that in order for the mind to really grapple with what it is it’s doing, there has to be a basis for understanding. So when you look at how we measure success, well every single one of our students who’ve graduated from this program in 15 years has been able to apply, be accepted and get into their college of first choice. So that, would be how the world would measure success from a do you get educated to get a job.

But at Regina Caeli Academy, we say that not only, I mean that’s like secondary fruit. What we think is the greater fruit is to have educated men and women that are in the world both as moms and dads and contributing citizens, right?

Great minds that can think deeply and critically about everything. Not just about a specific genre to get a specific job. Really, what that is, that’s vocational education, right? That’s vocational school. And vocational schools serve that purpose.

But what we are saying is we want students who are fit to be well-rounded in anything. So that if you choose to be a plumber, that’s great and we need plumbers, those are important parts of our world. But that you can really understand how plumbing works and who discovered plumbing and why did they discover it. That’s what we’re looking at. We are looking at people who are very inquisitive and that’s what we see in our students. They don’t just check off the box to get the grade.

Mike McShane: So I’m a public policy guy, so I have my own biases and asking some of these questions, but I would be interested because I know homeschool regulation varies from state to state, private schooling laws etc. vary from state to state, I’d just be curious are there public policies that get in your way or that say, we are able to operate in some states and not in others, do they present barriers for creating schools in particular areas? How does your world intersect with the world of public policy?

Kari Beckman: Yeah, so that’s a great question and it’s varied throughout the United States. Each state has their own homeschooling laws, right? But I think for the most part the states that we operate in are very good. I would say certainly, New York is very difficult and can be difficult to homeschooling in terms of documentation parents have to provide and things like that. I’m hoping that as time is marching on and we are seeing the fruits of homeschoolers, I mean every year we look at who wins the geography bee, and it’s the homeschoolers. Every year we see this.

Now of course, we have these crazy situations that happen like that family in California, but you know that’s far, far, far minority and far, far, far extreme case, right? Most homeschoolers today, you know what they are? They’re basically good parents who are really trying to give their kids the best possible education. That’s who’s homeschooling today.

When I was in school I do remember a few kids being pulled out and homeschooled and it was because they couldn’t say the pledge or those kinds of very specific religious concerns. Now we see that, since we’ve taken God out of pretty much everything, right? Parents who are just basically normal families are homeschooling, if you look out in your neighborhood.

So I hope and pray that as we move forward our country realizes that when we empower parents to do their job working we end up with better citizens and I think that our statistics are showing that with homeschooling and I think very much that as time marches on we’re going to even see that more clearly.

Mike McShane: So I would be interested to know as you look to the future what do you see in the next year, the next five years, the next 10 years holding for Regina Caeli?

Kari Beckman: That’s a great question too because 15 years ago I could have never seen that we would be 12 campuses, seven states and 1,100 students. Admittedly, I was putting together this program very selfishly for my children, and I’m thankful that God used my selfishness to now help so many families because it’s an honor to be able to help families in this way. But I would say that the sky’s the limit really, honestly. And I hope and pray that our country continues to be that place of opportunity for education and providing multiple avenues for parents to be able to give their kids what it is their kid needs very specifically.

Because, I think that’s the key. And so I hope that Regina Caeli can keep growing and offering our university model hybrid approach to families who maybe they don’t have a lot of formal education, right? Maybe they didn’t finish college. Well you know what, you can homeschool through Regina Caeli Academy if you didn’t finish college. You don’t need to have a college degree because we have these degreed tutors who can tutor your students through Latin and physics and calculus.

So that’s the beautiful thing is that with these kinds of programs, these hybrid university model programs, parents now don’t have to have the onus on them to have a particular desire for, gosh I wish I could teach Latin and then I can homeschool, but because I can’t, I can’t. That’s not the case anymore. There are so many resources, so anyone now, who desires this kind of education for their children can absolutely have it and I think that’s a beautiful thing and I hope that the United States and our laws continue to allow this kind of freedom of choice for parents.

Mike McShane: Sure, are there other hybrid homeschool models that you all look to for inspiration or from lessons learned for others, where do you get the ideas to do what you all want to do?

Kari Beckman: So we were the first Catholic, you know we are a Catholic model, we use a Catholic curriculum. But there are other Protestants models out there, and certainly we talk to them and we are engaged with them on some things that you know, lessons learned and of course how we hire and good hiring practices for tutors and all of those great things and student safety, we look to all of that so that we are working cohesively. But I would say that it’s a very unique seemingly, education approach, but I think it’s going to be the way of the future. I really do. I think as private school is pricing itself out of the middle-class family and public school continues to be not an option because of, quite frankly, public policy. I think that university model education is going to become more and more accessible to parents. And that’s a very exciting thing.

Mike McShane: So I want to close with two questions. One, where do you find your tutors? Where do you get them? How do you train them? It seems to be a very demanding or high-level expectations for them. So where did those folks come from and how do you get them up to speed?

Kari Beckman: So, believe it or not, a lot of our tutors happen to be our parents in our program, assuming that they are qualified, right, assuming that they have the background and expertise, but so many of them do, right? Most of our families are very high professional families and the mother or the father in some cases has taken the sacrifice, has made the sacrifice to take a step back from their career and homeschool their children. And so we hired them. We hire certainly, young graduates that have come through good strong, either liberal arts education, rigorous classical education programs so they can handle the philosophy and the humanities and the Latin.

So it’s beautiful, we have, a good example is a first grade tutor who’s amazing here in Atlanta, again, she has a master’s degree in emerging reading and has been an amazing first and second grade teacher for years and then stayed home with her children and then just really wanted to work part-time.

Well, that’s really a tough ask for a teacher, there’s just not a lot of part-time jobs, but now with hybrid education at Regina Caeli, guess what, I can give you a part-time job and then you can dedicate the rest of your week to your children. So it’s been such a perfect fit for her, she’s been with us for eight years. She’s an incredible emerging reading teacher.She’s helped so many of us parents learn how to help our kids if they’re struggling through that emerging reading time and what a gift. Gift for her, because she gets to be primarily a mom, but still gives her gifts and talents to people who are also educating their children. So it works, it’s a beautiful partnership that way.

How do we train them? So every summer everyone is required, because we are fully accredited, to go through summer training, and we train them not just in curriculum. But we train them in methodology, that’s Socratic methodology discussion-based learning because our teachers who come to us that our degreed teachers often times they were not trained to that way. They were trained in lecture-based education, which is passive learning. What we want them to do is engage the students in active learning. So we literally go through role-playing on how to do an active participation learning for teaching Algebra 1, for example. How would I teach Algebra 1 in a more active way versus passive lecture way? And we show them and instruct them every summer. Everybody goes through it; it’s a great reminder to all of us, and we believe that training is an important part of making two days very, very, very excellent and incredibly efficacious time when we only have the students two days a week.

Mike McShane: Sure, absolutely, making the most of it. So my last question to you is a question that I close almost all of these podcasts out with and that is, if you could go back in time to 15 years ago when you were getting started and give yourself one piece of advice, knowing what you know now, and all the experience you’ve had from then until now, what advice would you give yourself?

Kari Beckman: To have more patience, I think that as a homeschooling mom, and as a founder of what’s become a large organization, patience is really key to being able to have the stick-with-it-ness that we need, fortitude that we need, and didn’t have a lot of patience at that point in my life. I had seven children, six children at the time, I have eight now. I had six children at the time, and I just felt like life was stressful. And now looking back that’s the one piece of advice, Mike, that I would say, is if you’re forging things new for education out there, to bring about a greater excellence to our country in education, just have patience and endurance because good things will come if your intentions are rightly geared toward the end goal being that you are serving others.

Mike McShane: Kari Beckman, thanks so much for chatting with us today, I really enjoyed it.

Kari Beckman: Thank you for having me Mike, God bless you and all your works.

Mike McShane: Thank you.

What an interesting conversation, I hope that that was as interesting for everybody else as it was for me. Like I said before we started, I’m really fascinated in this hybrid homeschooling model, driving down that cost as she said, between sort of $3,000 and $4,500 ended up working out to be, or $4,000, $4,000 per high school, $3,250 for elementary school. I mean, I think that’s starting to get in kind of a sweet spot where lots of families might be able to do that, or folks that want to homeschool but are intimidated by it.

This model seems to solve a lot of problems that people who might be tempted to homeschool or might want to try some kind of hybrid education modality would be interested in so I thought that was fascinating. The lessons that she learned around patience, it was really interesting with implications far beyond the individual model that we were talking about.

As always, please subscribe to this podcast. That would be great for all of us here. You’ll get not just Cool Schools, but the really interesting other podcasts that my colleagues here at EdChoice do with education figures, with researchers, with updates for legislation that’s happening around the country. There’s a whole bunch of great podcasts content. If you also sign up for our email list, you can get all of the written content, video content, cool stuff that we do here and kind of customize your profile to get the types of stuff that you’re interested in. And as always if you have interesting cool schools that are worth profiling that we should talk about, please Tweet them to me @ mq_mcshane. Thanks so much for spending this time with us and we’ll talk to you soon about another cool school.