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New charter school in Whitmore Lake draws homeschoolers & conservative families

Sep 28, 2016

When you think Hillsdale College, maybe you think private, well-respected school that makes a lot of Top 10 lists for “Most Conservative Schools.”

Now, Hillsdale is using its brand to help launch a public charter school in Michigan, but the school’s founders are trying to prove to its critics that this new school is neither biased, nor religious.

Livingston Classical Academy opens in Whitmore Lake

It's day one for Livingston Classical Academy in Whitmore Lake.

Just after 8 a.m., parents start pulling into the parking lot. Livingston Classical Academy is squeezing into the town’s former middle school, a building it splits with Livingston Christian Schools (the two are not affiliated.)

In the last few days, board members and teachers have scrambled to deal with small crises, like a leak in the high school English classroom ceiling (solution: put a bucket underneath it for now), and parents struggling to sew the school’s crest onto their kids’ uniforms (one board member says she stayed up most of the night sewing, so those parents could relax.)

Parents are taking first-day photos of kids in plaid jumpers and khaki pants, chatting softly. It’s everybody’s first day at a brand new school.

But many families already know each other from church or homeschooling groups. And several say they’re drawn to the school’s affiliation with Hillsdale College. A third of the 140 or so students come from home schools, the board president says; another third are coming from private schools in the area.

“I know that Hillsdale, it’s about a conservative as you can get,” says Kimberly Vinson of Howell. She drove a good 45 minutes through traffic just to bring her two youngest kids here. Ideally, she says, she’d like to send all her kids to a private Catholic school, but that’s just not in the budget.

Still, at Livingston Classical Academy, she feels like they’ll be challenged academically, get some good character building, and be among other conservative families.

“That's nice to know,” she says. “Not that I’m going to come out and say, ‘Hey, Democrat? Republican?’ Not that. But still and all, if you’re here, you’re probably of similar beliefs.”

“Classical education” draws families frustrated with other public schools

Now, to be clear: this charter school does NOT call itself conservative.

“Because that looks like, you know, a partisan political position or a religious position or something like that,” says Phil Kilgore, who runs the Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College. The program has helped open more than dozen charter schools around the country, though Livingston Classical is the first in Michigan.

And the word he uses to describe these schools? “Classical.”

The “classical education” model is popular right now with some home school parents and Christian schools. It sees itself as kind of a throwback: lots of Greek literature, Latin Lessons, going for sort of a Dead Poet’s Society prep school kind of vibe.  

For Burchart, the classical curriculum is a big reason she’s taking her oldest kids out of homeschooling, and putting them in Livingston Classical.

"We read all the old classics, which nobody reads anymore."

“Well, I loved school when I was younger. We read Romeo and Juliet in 7th grade. We read all the old classics, which nobody reads anymore,” she says. “So I’m excited they’re going to be doing that, and actually get to enjoy school. I mean, some of the modern literature that they’re reading in schools now, I’m not, like, a super fan of.”

That kind of frustration with your typical modern public school, is a theme parents bring up again and again at LCA. It’s also a big part of the classical education theory, which sees modern schools as corrupted and dumbed down by years of “progressive” and “student centered” ideas.

Part of fixing that, the theory goes, is teaching kids about civic character and moral virtue.

“It’s just not taught in schools,” says Wendy Burchart. “And I think they’re worried about it being too religious. But just to be a good person, doesn’t mean you have to be, you know, of faith. And a lot of schools are afraid of that.”

Walking the line between public school, and “Judeo Christian heritage”

"We are not teaching religion,” Dick Streetman says, for what probably feels like the 8 millionth time. He’s the school board president at Livingston Classical Academy, and he’s speaking to a sparsely attended open house for parents in August.

This argument is one he’s been making for years, trying to convince critics and skeptical authorizers (the school’s been turned down over and over again, Streetman says, back when it was trying to get a charter) that this new school will not have a Christian or Republican slant.

"Our public funding should not go to schools that have overt political aims."

“Our public funding should not go to schools that have overt political aims,” says Glenn Ikens, a public school teacher from Brighton who’s been an outspoken critic of this charter venture. “There is also separation of church and state, which is troubling, because I think they’re threading a very fine path there.”  

Still, there are parents here who want that approach. And that’s a tricky balance – keeping those parents on board, without violating their public school charter.

Like when one mom asks Streetman how they'll talk about Judeo-Christian heritage that, in classical education, is seen as a paramount part of the Western tradition.

"It's basically the historical aspect,” Streetman says slowly. “Um, we’re – we’re just looking at classical education coming from those backgrounds."

Or when a dad asks if they'll teach evolution.

"It's a theory,” Streetman nods. “And you teach the different theories. And, it is." LCA will teach evolution, the school’s principal says, “for about two days.” If parents “want to refute that” theory, they’ll have to do it at home. “We will not be part of those conversations.”

So, it could be a fine line to walk.

But the school’s backers have already won the biggest battle: just getting this school open.

And for the parents who see classical education as the answer for their kids? That’s a big win.

Still, getting this new school authorized, took some legal maneuvering. And required Livingston Classical to call themselves a “blended cyber” school. We go into that in part 2 of this two-part series. 

*In full disclosure, Hillsdale college is a financial supporter of this station.