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A leap of faith

How St. Thomas the Apostle school in Ann Arbor bravely gambled on classical education

“What does it mean to be a classical school?” This is often a question I hear from inquiring parents, or even at times from current school parents. It is a question of vital importance to our school, since it essentially asks, “Who are you? What makes you special?” To offer a brief definition, I might say, “To be classical means to be rooted in the sources of the Western Tradition, with the goal of pursuing an integrated vision of reality by way of the seven liberal arts.” I might also point out that “classical” literally refers to the “Classical Age” of Ancient Greece and Rome, but, as an education, it is something that has been taken up into the life of the Church and developed well beyond those ancient origins. But without a deep dive into what many of those terms mean, it wouldn’t get us very far. Education is already plagued by endless verbiage. The best way to help someone understand has often been the simple invitation: Come and see.

When Father Bill Ashbaugh, the pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle, and Tim DiLaura, the principal, jointly decided in 2018 to switch to being a classical school, it was primarily with the goal of renewing the school’s Catholic identity. “I had become familiar with other Catholic schools that were suffering from declining enrollment and a weak Catholic identity and then went through a transformation when they embraced the Catholic classical curriculum,” Father Bill recalls. So it was that, in the face of steadily declining enrollment and a lack of something distinctive to offer in an area with many good Catholic schooling options, the decision was made to make an immediate switch. All the teachers except one, when interviewed and invited to join this new effort, chose to move on. Half of the student population also left, leaving an enrollment of around 60 for the 2018-2019 school year. It was certainly a great risk for the parish but, to Fr. Ashbaugh, it wasn’t only about the numbers. “It was wonderful to see the students who remained begin to flourish and grow in the relationship with God and each other. ‘Let them be born in wonder’ — ‘Nascantur in admiratione’ — was truly happening!”

Nascantur in admiratione” — this motto adopted by the school points to its grounding in a contemplative stance, one open to what is true, good, and beautiful. The centerpiece of this stance is all-school daily Mass, supported by daily prayer and a focus on the virtues. We have made a point of hiring teachers who possess within themselves both a lively faith and coherent ideas, vision, and love to hand on. Simplicity marks their instruction, which is not so much focused on production and measurable results, but on the slow and deep formation of the mind and heart. There is nothing particularly clever in it all; it is certainly not the latest and greatest in educational programming. Storytelling, history, memorization and recitation, sacred chant, poetry, engagement with the natural world – these are some of the basic elements of the lower school that prepare students to dive more deeply into mathematics, literature, schola, logic, and rhetoric in the middle and upper schools. 

Ultimately, however, it is the students themselves who have often been the best vehicle for helping the parents understand what is special about St. Thomas. 

Having switched his kindergartner and sixth-grader to St. Thomas this past school year, Paul Mersino was able to see the quality of education they were receiving. “The level of excellence in the curriculum and in the classroom is like nothing we have ever seen at any other school.” To Paul, that excellence has made its mark: “We could not be more impressed with how much our sixth-grade son has matured and developed as a student and as a young man.” 

Melissa Canzano, mother of a fourth- and fifth-grader, emphasizes the ways in which the school surpassed her expectations after switching last year. “The curriculum challenges them with an emphasis on memorization, recitation, and excellent math instruction. The focus on spelling, grammar, and literature is advanced, exceeding our past experiences. We believe our children receive a top-notch education to prepare them for their future.” 

Mary Perrydore points to the school’s striking impact on her kindergartner. “We have seen the most beautiful transformation in him. He comes home excited to tell stories about nomads, Ancient Rome, and the Egyptians. He sings the Regina Caeli and recites poems for us often.”

After the switch to classical, the enrollment grew by leaps and bounds from year to year in the grade school, and it became apparent that there was growing interest among parents in taking the next step and implementing a full PreK-12 formation, beginning in the fall of 2022. A grade per year was added and the high (“upper”) school has further enriched the school’s classical Catholic culture. 

Jeff and Kelly Arenz enrolled their son in the ninth grade last year and have seen the fruits of that decision: “The formation in Catholic identity and how the gifts of the Holy Spirit are made real and visible to the students is evident.” Supported by prayer and “immersive missions,” such as iconography, service, and evangelization, and making stoles for priests, the high-school formation is intended to be simultaneously mission-oriented, demanding, and contemplative. Erin Deemer, mother of a ninth-grader, notes that “their school days are grounded in prayer, and their minds are led to think deeply, not just about their academic subjects, but also insights into their own hearts and how God is working in them.” 

The school remains entrepreneurial, an enterprise with plenty of ongoing imperfections and questions. In the end, none of this endeavor will last without the grace of God and the intercession of Our Lady. We exist to serve God, for it is ultimately His work, or else it wouldn’t be worth the effort. And I believe that God is working through this school: come and see for yourself!