In this episode of Cool Schools, Mike McShane chats with Belinda Henson, head of school at Legacy Classical Christian Academy in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition to being a classical academy, the school also follows a university model.
Mike McShane: Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Cool Schools podcast as part of the EdChoice Chats podcast series. My name is Mike McShane. I’m director of national research at EdChoice and your humble host of the Cool Schools podcast. This is a podcast where I interview the leaders of cool and innovative schools across the country, try and tease out some lessons that they’ve learned, talk about the history of their schools, and sort of think about maybe how some of the lessons that they’ve learned might apply to schools across the country.
Today on the podcast we have Belinda Henson who is the head of school of Legacy Classical Christian Academy in Fort Worth, Texas. LCCA was founded in the summer of 2010 by a group of six families that decided to open a university model school in the Fort Worth, Texas, area. On the previous episode of the Cool Schools podcast we talked with Chris Harper of Grace Prep, which was the first university model school in the country. LCCA is another in that model. On their website they start by saying, “With $360 and a prayer, this group of families opened a school in the fall of 2010 with 16 students as a transitioning university model school, serving pre-K through seventh grade students in portable classrooms in a local church. Not knowing if this school would last even a year, teachers and administrators agreed to work for two years for no pay, in lieu of tuition for two attending children per full-time position, in an effort to sow into this ministry. Because of their compassion and commitment, this school has always functioned debt-free.”
Well they were right, it did work. It was able to last. It still is in existence today. I had a really interesting conversation with Belinda, talked about some of the lessons that they’ve learned and the experiences that they’ve had. So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Belinda Henson, the head of school of Legacy Classical Christian Academy in Fort Worth, Texas.
So, Legacy Classical Christian Academy. It seems like there are some proper nouns in there and there are some adjectives. So, I was wondering, I would love to know what makes a classical Christian academy?
Belinda Henson: Well classical schools designed a curriculum and instructions to maximize the child’s natural stages of learning. And so they break it down to three different stages. There’s the grammar stage, a logic stage and a rhetoric stage. So, during the grammar stage, when children love to sing, and chant and play, and they’re learning lots of songs, they’ll do memory work and they’ll do copy work. So, they learn their information through song and play. And then the logic eight stages around your middle school years, around 11-14, and for us, when we start teaching them logical fallacies and while they begin delving into questioning and thinking critically about the information around them. And then the rhetoric stage applies everything that they learn in order to prepare basic essays and present them in an actual oral defense their senior year. So, ultimately a classical education teaches students to learn to defend the heritage of a Western civilization.
Mike McShane: So, what sort of prompted you all to pursue—I mean there’s lots of different schools out there. There are some that follow science and technology or the performing arts. What’s the draw of classical education for you all?
Belinda Henson: So, we started our school in 2010, and my background is in education. I have my master’s in secondary education, and I learned all these different theories of education and pedagogy. And nothing really grabbed my attention. And it wasn’t until I really understood classical education that I thought this is the direction I want my own children to go in. And my bachelor’s is in child development. So, I was very interested in developmental stages of learning. And so this really fits neatly into my own educational theory.
Mike McShane: Sure. I’m not exactly sure when this podcast is going to run, but when we are recording this, just in the last couple of weeks Sir Roger Scruton passed away. The great English kind of conservative philosopher. And one of the things that he wrote about, which I thought was fascinating and what you just said sort of reminded me of that, is he talked about in channeling the other great English philosopher, Edmund Burke. He talked about how humanity has obligations not only to those in our community that we are currently living with, but also to all of the people who’ve come before us and to all of the people who will come after us. And so part of what he talked about was sort of thinking of ourselves as almost like caretakers. That all of this incredible knowledge and thousands of years of trial and error and discussion and debate have happened. And we can add our bit to it, but predominantly our job is to sort of preserve that so that the next generation can have it. And then hopefully they will preserve it and the next generation will have it after that.
And so it was just interesting sort of as you described that, because it seems to me like not a lot of schools necessarily see the idea of the sort of Western canon or the great works of literature or others as almost like a constituent of their community, right? Like it’s not just the kids, but it’s about this bit of knowledge. So, when you’re talking about that to prospective parents or other people, how did they respond to that? Because I think as you brought up, it’s sort of out of step with a lot of things that are going on in education right now.
Belinda Henson: Most people they either haven’t heard of it and because of that, it’s pretty difficult to explain to them the differences because it’s more of a paradigm shift. It’s more of a philosophical change in thought. And we just, I mean I went through public school almost all of my teachers and parents were public school because there just weren’t classical schools back then. So, it’s kind of a learning process for us, we’re teaching ourselves on what Western canon looks like even.
I appreciate the direction that some of our public high schools are going where they hone in on skillsets for students are great thinkers and they’re great leaders, they’re the ones that really learn and understand and dwell on the canon of literature and the ones that are learning how to debate and discuss in a very Socratic method, how to problem solve. And so it’s a skillset that is not valued as much. So, it makes it a hurdle for some parents to jump over. They want me to have lots of technology and computer learning and these kinds of things and our students already show that they know how to do that. I want to give them something that they’re not going to learn on their own.
Mike McShane: Sure. Now, I realize you and I are throwing this term around because I know what it is and obviously you know what it is. But when you talk about the Western canon, what might be some examples? I’m thinking of just like your maybe early high school students or the young people that are in the rhetoric stage. So, what would be some of the things that they’re reading?
Belinda Henson: So, our ninth graders read the Epic of Gilgamesh, they read the Old Testament, the Torah. And we look at the Torah as a historical text as well as a Christian text. We read the Iliad and the Odyssey, and every year we read some piece of Shakespeare. So, they would, I think they read Julius Caesar in ninth grade. And then in 10th grade they’re focusing in on Renaissance, the Middle Ages. And so they’re reading things like The History of the Kings of Britain. And I’m trying to think of what else I read in that class.
Mike McShane: Well, that gives us a great start. So far it’s wonderful. So, these kind of classic works filled with timeless lessons that go on. But the other thing that you mentioned earlier particularly in the grammar stage, which I thought you said I think maybe for people who have heard about classical education or at least sort of can piece those words together and talk about these kinds of older texts that exist, maybe some people might think that, “Oh, that sounds really kind of like drudgery,” where it’s kids having to slog through these big thick, dusty books. But you talked about, especially with the younger kids, singing and chanting and playing, and I think I could imagine even some of these Socratic seminars that there might be some fun related to that. So, how do you all incorporate, frankly, just like fun and making these texts come alive?
Belinda Henson: Well, I think people forget the Odyssey is really mostly about monsters.
Mike McShane: Totally. It totally is.
Belinda Henson: And I sort of tell the children or the students you have idea what it’s about. They’re very intrigued and its oftentimes like one of their favorite books and stories of all time. We even introduced the monster Gilgamesh to our students in fourth grade just because it’s an epic story and kids like stories and they find it interesting. What makes it fun? I think really that goes back to the teacher.
Mike McShane: For sure.
Belinda Henson: I mean you can take—I’ve seen history teachers that love history that can make it come alive and history teachers that just say open your textbook and just don’t have that passion for it. And so my hope is that my teachers love the content that they’re teaching and that they make it come alive for the student no matter what the content is.
Mike McShane: Well, so I imagine because what you’re doing is a little bit different. Is it a challenge to find teachers? Where do you find your teachers? Do you have to do a lot of professional development for them to get them up to speed?
Belinda Henson: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. So, as the classical pedagogy grows and there’s a couple of national associations. So there’s some better networking and you can reach out and find some people that have been classically trained—mostly for our own little microcosm I guess you could say, where certain schools will hold professional development weekends and we can send our teachers there. And then Classical Academic Press is a publishing company that actually has started to publish an online webinar-type subscription program where they find these great classicists, like George Grant, who will speak about a topic and then my teacher out here in Texas can log on and learn and listen to what he has to say about classical education.
Mike McShane: Wow, that’s great. Now, in addition to being a classical academy, you’re also a university model school. And so I think listeners may be a little bit familiar with those but could you maybe talk about your particular, how you do the university model?
Belinda Henson: Yeah, so I fell in love with the university model first before I found classical education and the university model school is a registered trademark. Most of them are accredited or they’re in the process of being accredited. And we are able to do that because we’re actually considered a five-day-a-week program. So, the students split their time between the central classroom and the satellite classroom. And so the central classroom are the days that the qualified teachers are there to provide direct and guided instruction to the students. And then the satellite classroom is usually at home with a parent or grandparent who oversees independent instruction and can reteach concepts the students didn’t grasp the first time. And depending on the university model school will depend on everybody has a structure to it differently. So we have students attend pre-K through sixth grade are here on campus Tuesday and Thursday, and then seventh to 12th are on campus Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And then we have a couple of classes for our 11th and 12th graders that come on Tuesday and Thursday that can drive and can get out here for a calculus class or something.
Mike McShane: Sure. And so now how aren’t you able to make the most of your time? I mean, so you have traditional schools get all five days a week. You all are sort of splitting that time between when the students are actually on campus with you versus when they’re working in their satellite home classrooms. So, I’d be fascinated… You just have less face to face time with kids in your central classrooms. How do you make the most of that time?
Belinda Henson: We don’t spend a lot of time walking through hallways in between classes and that sort of thing. And we have small class sizes. We only have about 10 students in the class. But if you know a little bit about how public school instruction is working, quite a few schools don’t send home textbooks to do homework and for fear of the textbook being lost or they’re going to assign homework and the child’s not going to bring it back and they have to give them a zero. And so all of the “homework time” that a student would do outside of school oftentimes are incorporated into the school day.
And then there’s also, for instance, they do things like guided reading and guided writing in the lower schools. And in that case, the teacher will directly instruct the concept and have the child practice it. But then there’s a good 20-40 minutes where the student has independent practice time. And the teacher’s nearby to oversee to make sure they understand the concepts. And this is a great way to do this at school. But we really do this because we’re teaching a parent to do the independent practice parts. So, we’re pulling that 20-40 minutes that they would be using and we pull it and give it to the parents to do at home. Does that make sense?
Mike McShane: Sure. Absolutely.
Belinda Henson: OK.
Mike McShane: And so just as a quick question, so how many students do you serve currently?
Belinda Henson: We’re small. We only have 101 students.
Mike McShane: OK. And part of the things that I think is interesting that is in many places a classical education can be very expensive. But I would imagine that using this university model you’re able to keep costs down. Is that true? How does your tuition compare to maybe other private schools in the area?
Belinda Henson: Well, because we’re accredited, I looked for the accredited private schools. They run between $13,000 and 22,000 a year in the area, and we’re able to charge with fees and everything about $5,000 a year.
Mike McShane: Wow. And so I imagine that changes the types of families that you’re able to serve. At the same time I would imagine that your school model isn’t for everyone, right? Not everybody necessarily would thrive in the classical model or the university model. So, what families sort of, I don’t know if you’re out looking for folks or you’re in conversation with people about families would thrive, what types of families, what type of children thrive in your model?
Belinda Henson: So, it’s not necessarily a type A personality child. Like we have children who have cognitive processing disorders work really well with this model because they have time, they have small class sizes and so the teachers can answer their questions. They have an advocate with their teacher and with their parents and then they have their time at home that if they need to take as much time as they need to understand a concept they have it. They’re not having to be pushed or rushed to the next thing.
I would say the kind of families that we enroll are ones that are committed Christians that are already attending a local church and they’re looking for… Most of them aren’t necessarily looking for classical, nor are they looking for a university model school. They’re looking for character development and they’re looking for kind people that love Jesus. And so those are the most of the families that we enroll. They are the ones that really want their children to have a good theological understanding of the Bible. And I guess what I’m saying is we’re not what I would call an evangelism top-style school where we will enroll anybody because we think we’re going to bring them to Christ. We want everybody to already be doing that or have had that experience prior to coming.
Mike McShane: Sure. And that’s actually a really interesting concept, right? That you all are trying to create a specific community united around a particular set of ideas. And so the folks who want to ascribe to those ideas are welcome and people who don’t necessarily want to ascribe those ideas, it’s not necessarily the school for them. It seems to make a lot of sense to me that the idea that organizations that are around a common purpose function better than organizations that are not. If everybody’s rowing their oar on the boat in their own direction, the boat is just going to go around in circles.
So, I’d be interested in how you kind of communicate that to people because it’s obviously as you are looking to find people for your school, it’s kind of a two way conversation, right? You all are talking about the type of community that you want to have and families are talking about the types of communities that they want to be a part of. Maybe just from a kind of tactical standpoint, do you do kind of information nights? Do you give people tours of your schools? Do you work with local churches? What are the actual kind of mechanics of identifying the types of people that would be a good fit for your school?
Belinda Henson: So, we have tried everything and what is working for us now is that I no longer have an admissions or enrollment person. I’m head of school and I’m doing the admissions and enrollment and I’m an introvert, so I don’t really like to stand up in front of large crowds if I can help it. So, what is working for us is if they contact me and they’re interested in the school, I just ask them, “Do you want to meet this week or next week?” And we sit down and we visit and I go over basically everything I’m telling you about the school, about how it works and what classical school is and what makes a good fit for our school and sometimes what doesn’t.
Mike McShane: Sure. So, I would be interested in looking back over your experience. Are there any kind of lessons that you’ve learned? I don’t know if it would be sort of easier to be phrased as if you could go back to when you started and give yourself some advice, what advice you would give. So, I’ll ask the question either way, which is, is there a one or two lessons that you’ve learned that might be helpful for people who maybe are considering starting a school or attending a school like yours or sort of advice you would give just yourself as you start on this journey?
Belinda Henson: So, starting a school there’s no way you’re going to understand how that works. But I would suggest, especially if you’re going do a university model, that you dial the moms association because they have a program to help people start their own university school. For families sending out, I guess we kind of do this similar thing at the beginning of the school year. We call it co-teacher college. Some schools call it parent training, but I never liked that name because I’m not training them on how to be a parent.
So, we’re teaching them how to use the curriculum on their home days and we’re teaching them, giving them ideas. Say you have like a second grader, you’re trying to do school at home and you also have a toddler and a baby, how does that look? How do you do that? So, we provide a lot of strategies and tools to get them integrated that way. Things that I had to really teach myself was conflict resolution and negotiation skills because it’s people-driven, and you want to do it in a Christ-like manner so you don’t frustrate people or offend them. Looking at the year so that was really rough for us. That was the year when I was seeking out conflict resolution strategies. So, I guess if I had already had that, that would’ve been beneficial. But I don’t really know if just reading a book about conflict resolution that’s going to help you as much as the joy of getting to walk through it.
Mike McShane: It’s funny this is a recurring theme on this podcast is that I very frequently tell people, I’m like, “Oh, you know, what lessons would you give yourself?” And then they give you just exactly what you did. A very concrete thing that’s like, “I wish I would have done this.” But almost inevitably they say, “Well, but I kind of had to learn it on my own.” Like you have to kind of, there’s enough of this that you just can’t. A YouTube video or a book isn’t necessarily going to get to tell you what you need to know. So, maybe I’ll close with, we just had a chance to kind of look back. I’d be interested in you looking forward. So, what does the next year, the next three years, the next five years hold for your school?
Belinda Henson: We want to increase enrollment. We’re really happy with how small we are with a hundred students. So, we don’t want to have like 400-500 students, but the benefit of having a larger student body brings about better sport programs and better fine arts programs, more wages, more higher payroll for our teachers. So, the increase in enrollment is very important to us. And we’re a 501(c)(3), so we’re independent. So, we have a church that supports us. So, now we’re looking to do, we have a great relationship. We’ve been here for six years, but do we venture out on our own and try to build something? Do we just stay right here? So, these are actually just some of the questions that we’ve been going over on our school board and those kinds of things. And so we don’t have any answers. We’re just kind of in the, “What direction do we want to go with that,” stage.
Mike McShane: Sure. Well, Belinda Henson of Legacy Classical Christian Academy. Thank you so much for joining us today on the Cool Schools podcast.
Belinda Henson: Thank you Mike. I appreciate you.
Mike McShane: Yeah, well that was a great conversation. I think we were able to cover a lot of ground because we had a school there that both has this classical model, which in and of itself is really interesting and it’s the university model. We’ll see a kind of recurring theme throughout this season where I’m going to be talking to lots of university model and other kinds of “hybrid home schooling” options that are out there. I’m going to do my best not to be super duplicative and ask everybody the same questions about how they operate and how they make things happen because I don’t think that would make for a particularly interesting listening. But hopefully throughout the course of this season we’re going to get lots of different views about this interesting phenomenon of hybrid home schooling models where children attend some portion of their school week at home and some portion of that week and what we may consider a more traditional brick and mortar model.
So, stay tuned for this whole season. Not going to be the only thing that we talk about, but it’s definitely going to be a theme throughout this season. If you like this podcast or other podcasts, if you just like podcasts in general, subscribe to EdChoice’s podcast. You can check us out the kind of old fashioned way on like SoundCloud, which I think is fine, but it’s awesome if you subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher or I think any of these other platforms that are out there. Also, please head over to our website, www.edchoice.org. You can sign up for email blasts—whether you’re interested in research like I do or the cool stuff that our folks that are working out in stats are doing or any of those interesting and wonderful things that EdChoice does. It lets you can kind of customize your own experience there. But please sign up, get on our email list, you’ll hear about this podcast, you’ll hear about other stuff.
And as always, I’m always looking for cool schools. So many of the schools that I have included in this podcast have come from friends and podcast listeners who say, “You got to talk to this person at this school.” And they’ve been wonderful. So, if you know a cool school in your area—this is traditional, public, public, charter, private, home school—any of those types of things. If something cool is happening, I want to know about it. Please don’t hesitate. Shoot me an email. Hit me up on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @MQ _McShane. So, please let me know on any of those media and I look forward to sharing another cool school with you in the near future. Take care.