Ep. 188: Cool Schools with Sequitur Classical Academy

June 10, 2020

In this episode, we chat with Brian Daigle, co-founder of Sequitur Classical Academy. He discusses the classical education model, how the school divides grade levels, and more.

Note: Since the recording of this podcast, Thomas Achord has been hired as headmaster.

Mike McShane: Welcome back to another edition of the Cool Schools podcast. My name is Mike McShane, and I’m director of national research at EdChoice. Today on the podcast, we have Brian Daigle of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s Sequitur Classical Academy. This is another hybrid homeschooling program as many have been featured this season on the Cool Schools Podcast. It’s an interesting one. Whereas a lot of the other programs that we’ve talked to go for full days, but a smaller number of days a week. So they might go Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday.

This is more of a half day program. It goes four days a week from 7:45 until 12:30. Brian’s a really interesting guy. He is deeply, deeply passionate about classical education. We’re going to spend a lot of time digging into that, but also talking about their particular manifestation of hybrid homeschooling, why they made some of the decisions that they did and the benefits that they’ve been able to reap from that.
Looking forward to sharing this conversation with you. So without further ado, here is Brian Daigle, the headmaster and a teacher at Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning. So how did Sequitur Classical Academy get started?

Brian Daigle: I never thought that I’d be a teacher. Education was not in my purview for a long, long time. And I went through undergrad and fell backwards, I like to say, into teaching. My first teaching job was at about 23, and through a few years of being in education, I had some friends provide me a book on classical Christian education. And I had been asking some questions in terms of what I was seeing, the school where I was teaching broader discussions with administrators and teachers.

And so shortly after I received kind of my first introduction into what’s called the classical Christian education, I went and studied for a few years, and my wife and I said, “We want to get back to Baton Rouge.” We had left. Kind of go off and pursue some graduate work in classical ed. And really, we said, “Well, we’re not going to move back to Baton Rouge unless there is a classical school there.” And then we said, “OK, how do we do that?” And so thankfully there were enough families at the time. This was back in 2012.

There were enough families who were kind of asking the same question. Do we have enough interest and enough resources and enough support to get a private independent classical Christian academy off the ground? And so back in 2012, early 2012, we held our first informational meeting and really just said, “Here’s our plan. Here’s the class schedule. Here’s the distinctive philosophy of classical Christian ed. And here’s some tuition details and a basic policy and procedures.” And we just gave a number. We said, “We need this many kids to get going.” And if we have that by March 15 or April 1 or whatever, then we’ll launch it the following fall and we did.
And so we had enough students, we had more than enough. I had to hire on a second teacher and we’ve just gone from there. We’ve grown. And it’s been a great thing to be a part of. And it’s humbling and it’s encouraging all at the same time.

Mike McShane: How many students do you serve now?

Brian Daigle: We currently have a little over 150 students. So we started in 2012 with 32 students and two teachers. And we’re at a little over 20 teachers and over 150 students.

Mike McShane: And are those full-time teachers, part-time teachers?

Brian Daigle: Maybe about a little under half of our teachers. So about eight or nine are full-time and some of those are also administrators. And then the rest are part-time. And actually maybe like 10 to 12 are full-time and the rest are part-time. So full-time for us, we’re a hybrid school. So full-time for us means you come all four mornings at 7:45 to 12:30, and you teach the majority of the class periods, all four mornings of our schedule. And then part-time is any variation of teaching one class to teaching maybe just two classes or maybe two mornings a week, all the class hours.

So all of our administrators were full-time and all of our administrators also teach a pretty heavy load, including me. Whatever our interests are, wherever our gifts are and perhaps wherever the need is within the academy for any given year.

Mike McShane: So lots of hybrid homeschools structure themselves where a child would attend for an entire school day. So they might go Tuesday, Thursday, or Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or maybe just one day a week. You all do four sort of half days. What was the logic or what was the logic as soon as we started talking about these things? That’s the word that popped into my mind when I hear classical education. But what was the reasoning behind doing the four half days as your schedule?

Brian Daigle: We started with two mornings a week. [That] was originally our class schedule. So the Logic School, which is 7th and 8th, they would come on Monday, Wednesday. And then the Rhetoric School, which is 9th through 12th, would come on Tuesday, Thursday. And as we grew, our board did ask the question, “Do we want to expand to the other two mornings or do we want to expand to the afternoon?” And we realized that the consistency of certain classes each morning, we liked better than having those long stretches of a whole day off.

The other thing was the facilities where we were meeting, they preferred us being there four mornings a week rather than stretching out into the afternoon and going over the lunch hour, right? Which brings all new questions and logistical, practical things to consider. And so when we began to expand our course offerings and we began to expand the grades that we offered. We really sat down and this is about our third year at the time, we did about five different schedules. And we said, “This one makes more practical sense” or this one, even for insurance purposes sometimes, right? Like the insurance company might require this in terms of the facilities that we use.

Or the church might just say, “Hey, we actually on a Wednesday afternoon, need to set up and so we need access to the classrooms.” We found that it was a cleaner, neater schedule. We also found teaching-wise, it was more consistent for our instructors to have afternoon employment if they wanted. So it seemed easier for instructors if they wanted additional employment to go seek that and say, “Hey, I’m free after 1:00 every day.” Rather than having these alternate full days to be a part of whatever they’re doing. And so all of those together, most of it was just practical.
Some of it was a little bit philosophical in the sense of, again, the consistency of math every day or the consistency of just school culture every morning. Four mornings a week was a better option than not. I also think we wanted to be aware of the families we were serving. And that’s important to be aware of your city and the people who are showing up to partner with your academy. And so that was another factor is what would parents want? Would parents want to drop a student off two or three days a week and leave them all day? Or would parents rather show up four mornings a week, but pick up at 12:30?

And we found that the latter was more preferred. And so it’s worked out great. It’s the schedule that I encourage any hybrid school that I help get started. It’s the schedule that I encourage them to do. But I’m sure there might be other factors to consider regarding class days and how long you stretch a school day into the afternoon.

Mike McShane: And what grades do you serve now?

Brian Daigle: We are 1st through 12th grade.

Mike McShane: And I saw on your website, you divide those grades into, I believe three groups, the grammar school, the logic school and the rhetoric school. Could you maybe talk about each of those and what they’re trying to accomplish?

Brian Daigle: So one of the key essays that the current classical movement has utilized in its philosophy and structure is an essay called, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” by Dorothy Sayers. Sayers is best known as a writer detective fiction, English author in the mid-20th century. And she delivered a paper, an essay called, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” And in that, her argument, at least at the time for the English academic structure in English grade schools, was that there’s this whole history of educational philosophy and practice that has been neglected.

Now, of course, this is in the mid-1900s. So fast forward, and you asked the question, “Well, what else might we be missing right now?” So in this essay, she puts forth the distinction of what’s called the trivium. So the trivium was a term that was used in the middle ages to reference three of the seven liberal arts or the artes liberales. There are seven—three of them are called the trivium. The other four are called the quadrivium.

So in this particular essay, Sayers goes into the details of the trivium and she calls them well, they’d been called this for a long time, but she reiterated that they are grammar, logic and rhetoric. What she does that’s peculiar that many in this movement have picked up upon is she takes those subjects or she takes those academic pursuits and she turns them into stages of development.

So she articulates that not only is there a grammar and a logic and a rhetoric to every subject, right? So if I want to learn anatomy, there’s a grammar to anatomy and physiology, right? There’s vocabulary, there’s the nuts and bolts of the subject. The logic to something like anatomy would be, why does the body work that way? Right? What’s the synthesis of these components I just learned? And then the rhetoric is more of the expression or the pursuit of what’s called the politic stage of maybe articulating the homeostasis of that particular aspect of the body, that system, and then how to fix it if it’s broken.

There’s something more creative in the political rhetoric stage. So Sayers articulates that these three portions of the trivium are actually stages of development. And so there are certain things that happen in the grammar stage to a child. For example, the memory, the childhood memory is an incredible thing. The grammar stage is a mimetic stage, they imitate. You just watch children, they imitate in the early years. They imitate for speech. They imitate for facial expressions. They imitate mood and emotions. So she divides these up and what’s happened the past 30 years as this essay has become pretty central to many in the classical Christian movement.

Most schools divide up their grade levels, not elementary, middle, high school, but grammar stage, logic stage and rhetoric stage. And what that communicates to the teachers and to the parents and the students is that there are pedagogical distinctions that ought to be made when a student is learning anything because of their frame. Dorothy Sayers called it teaching with the grain, right? Like when you cut a piece of wood, you want to cut with the grain. You want to teach with the grain. And so her pattern was taking the trivium and overlaying that on the developmental stages of a child.

And it’s true. Not to go too much into this, but I’ve most certainly seen this, too. We hear parents talk about their middle schooler or their teenager arguing. And so we instruct our parents, it’s not a healthy thing to tell your children not to argue with you. Because an argument is, by nature, a great thing. What we should teach them is how to argue well or how to respectfully argue with authority. That’s a different thing than telling a child not to argue. That we want our students to argue. We want them to learn, to articulate reasonable explanations and logical conclusions. But we want them to do it with virtue and we want them to do it well in whatever setting that they’re in.

Mike McShane: This is my understanding of the data that classical education is growing across the country. Why do you think that is?

Brian Daigle: I think a few things are happening. I can speak from a religious standpoint and then I’ll speak from a non-religious standpoint. When you see classical education coupled with religious convictions, that’s growing significantly. Because you have primarily a Christian base or a Christian sector of culture of population who are asking the question, what does it mean to raise these students according to our theology and what we believe about them?

And so, for example, if I look at my daughters and I say, “I want my daughters to be articulate, well-spoken, intelligent and wise women.” Well, how do I get there? How do I do that? Right? It’s important that they love their neighbor and they love God by having these virtues. Well, we all believe that education is important in the formation of those things, but how do I do that? So what’s happening is there’s a religious foundation that’s really undergirding the choice to be classical.

The classical, though, is not distinctly Christian it’s in its historical origins. And so the non-religious part of this is there are plenty of charter schools popping up that are non-religious in nature, not distinctly Christian in nature, and yet having classical convictions. And the reason for that is it’s a very practical argument, right? It’s what one author called secular literary humanism, right? It’s saying man matters certain things within mankind matter, and usually that argument is a political argument like we see in ancient, Greece and ancient Rome, right? Why do we need to teach our children to be good rhetoricians?

Well, because of this ability of their souls and the health of the state and those were things. Well, those arguments are true, right? Those arguments are actually important, but obviously from my perspective on those, they stopped short, but they’re still there and the results are there. And what I mean by that is it doesn’t take a long time to do a little bit digging and realize that the college readiness of these classical schools or that the students go into these classical schools is off the charts and their test scores are off the charts. And how much professors enjoy these students is I hear stories all the time of professors at colleges and universities who are getting classically trained students and just enjoying their emotional maturity and the virtue they bring to the classroom and their ability to shake a professor’s hand and look them in the eye.

So I think there’s definitely a pragmatic aspect to it, which a lot of charter schools are picking up on, right? If I’ve gotten billions of dollars and I’m an educational investor, I’m looking at what’s working and not just that, but I’m realizing that there’s 3,500 years of history here that we ought to consider for what humans are at least from a deeply Western culture standpoint. Again, I know there’s two divides in terms of what makes classical appealing, right? What makes looking back into tradition appealing?

Mike McShane: You mentioned there’s some classical charter schools that are starting and growing, the Great Hearts Network and others. Some of them, they just they have waiting lists that are hundreds of students long. Either your experience in classical education or in this kind of hybrid homeschooling model, have you learned lessons that you think would be applicable to the more traditional schooling sector, whether that’s traditional public schools or public charter schools or traditional private schools?

Brian Daigle: Yeah, for sure. Perhaps one of the first things I would say is children are more fully human than we give them credit for. I think if I were to speak it sort of like a baseline where can we all sort of understand get along and I can convince you at least have some early stages to try to persuade you in this direction.

Obviously, I’m convinced of it. I think I would start there. Children are more fully human than we realize. And when we try to use children in our manipulative game, whether it’s some sort of corporate game that we’re a part of in adulthood or some political game that we’re a part of an adulthood, they feel it and they know it and that will come back on our future generations in a most heinous way.

So I think that’s a big one. We ought to have a lot more trepidation quite frankly and care for what I would say are eternal beings placed in our care. That’s a real big one. I think education has gotten in many ways, education has gone off the rails in terms of the corporate pressure, the financial pressure, the political pressure, the social pressure that’s placed on certain institutions.

And while I am sympathetic to that, because I understand that the spirit of the times, I also think that intelligent adults have a responsibility to push against that real hard and that means making sacrifices. So I think that’s a big one. That would be a big one. And I think that would really speak to educators who genuinely want to do right by the students and yet don’t have another model and feel a lot of pressure from parents who perhaps are not well-educated on these issues and politicians who perhaps have had their own agendas.

That’s another lesson I would say is we have the same responsibility toward our instructors to create a platform and create a context by which they can fulfill their vocation. And that means a lot more than we currently allow. So what I mean by that is looking at our instructors as scholars, looking at our instructors as those who’ve been called to learn, called to be lifelong learners, called to sacrifice in order to teach and to form the next generation.

So the implication from that or the consequence from that would be what then are those virtues that we need to look at very carefully, that we’ve neglected in our students and in our instructors? And is there a school structure? Is there a curriculum? Is there certain vocabulary we’ve neglected in contemporary education that we ought to recover? And of course my answer is yes, there’s a whole host of things. So I think those are big ones and I’m sure if I thought about this for a while, I would probably have 12 more.

Mike McShane: Sure. So as a kind of closing question, I’d ask you to maybe look to the future. What do you think the next year or three years or five years holds for your school?

Brian Daigle: I look at Baton Rouge as a peculiar place. I can see one or two things happening. I can see Sequitur maintaining its current size and its current structure and being very effective doing that and working from that place of efficiency and basic gratitude to help launch other schools in the state, which we’re currently in the midst of doing.

I could also see the bottom falling out of some of the educational institutions in Baton Rouge. And seeing a pretty big influx of students coming from conventional model, private schools or families really taking the time to assess the various problems, big problems in the public school system down here. And seeing a pretty strong influx the next five years of new families. Neither of those would surprise me. Baton Rouge is a capital city in the south on the river with a major academic state institution in its backyard.

And so both of those are possible. Both of those, I think a lot of that is going to depend on how courageous parents are willing to be to ask hard questions and to think well. And to consider that there’s a different path than perhaps the deep one into which their feet have been for a couple of generations. That’s a hard thing I think for folks in Louisiana who love their culture and love their heritage, and love of all the things that are really set around us to begin asking sort of the more analytical or philosophical questions.

Socrates once said that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And it’s a tough thing to get folks in this area at least to ask philosophical or examining cut questions. But I think if that were to happen and there’s a real opportunity for us to push in that direction, we could see some real interest. Not just a hybrid schooling, but in classical education. So that would be great to see. We take it one step at a time and we care for the folks who show up and they’re at our doorstep. And other folks who show up and want to start schools across the state or across the US, we offer whatever advice we can give.

Mike McShane: Well, Brian Daigle of Sequitur Classical Academy, thank you so much for joining us on the Cool Schools podcast.

Brian Daigle: Of course. Thank you so much. And thanks for the work that you guys do.

Mike McShane: Well, that was a really interesting, thought-provoking conversation. I know we’ve had lots of schools, classical schools and hybrid schools featured on the podcast, but it’s cool to see someone think really deeply about both of those. I know something that Brian said that I think is going to stick with me is that idea of the children are more fully human than we give them credit for. And I think I agree with him on that and also realize how frequently we do children a disservice when as he sort of said, we see them as sort of pawns and games that we have or tools that we use or want to use to advance some adult agenda that we have. Or not putting sort of in the focus of their development and helping them become fully alive, thinking, feeling human beings.

So I don’t know. Something’s going to stick in my head, hopefully something else in that podcast stuck in yours. There’s a lot to chew on there. So I really appreciate Brian taking the time and digging into these deep issues. As always, subscribe to our podcast. If you want to hear more Cool Schools interviews or the other podcasts that we offer, please make sure to subscribe. You can always listen on our SoundCloud page. But it’s 2020, subscribe. It’ll show up right into your pocket, iPhone, Android. We’re not making any judgments here, but you can listen to them there. It all spins the same. Yeah. So they all sound the same regardless of the platform.

Also, you can dance your way over to www.edchoice.org. Sign up for our email lists, lots of great content that’s available there. And my last and final request, always if you know a cool school in your neck of the woods, maybe you have a child that attends a cool school, a grandchild, a niece, a nephew, the child of your greatest enemy. I don’t know. I don’t know how you know these children, but if they are in a cool school, please let me know. I’d love to talk to the person that’s leading it and try and tease out some of those lessons that can apply to schools across the country.

Thanks so much for joining us and I can’t wait to talk with you all again as I profile another cool school.