“This is fantastic news for our students, our faculty and the entire school community,” said Principal Mary Detwiler. “We have chosen a bold new direction for St. Leo, one that is true to our tradition as a church and as a school. The Palumbo Trust’s generosity will allow us to continue on our journey to becoming a national model for returning Catholic education to its roots.
“We are a year into the transition, and teachers are excited. Last year we had a nationally-known expert come to Ridgway to train our teachers about the classical approach. We purchased new textbooks and materials. This summer we are sending teachers to national conferences to learn even more. They are requesting new materials to raise the bar in every classroom. The Palumbo Trust’s gift offers us the profound blessing of being able to do this right.”
Detwiler added that there is a particular interest in textbooks that teach from the Catholic perspective, rather than pursuing priorities established in Harrisburg or Washington, DC. Teachers are seeking professional development at specialized classical conferences in New York, Nashville and Philadelphia.
“This is about offering extraordinary value to our families,” said ECCSS President Sam MacDonald. “St. Leo School has been one of the great success stories in the Erie Diocese. We have seen enrollment growth of 30 percent over the past few years, and our efforts to build on that all come down to improving what we do every day. My children attend St. Leo. I have absolute faith that what we are doing is the right thing for them, for this community, and for our church.”
A classical curriculum is based on a few relatively simple principles. Most were considered common sense until recent trends in education took many Catholic schools away from their roots. St. Leo School believes that this appeal to tradition will be attractive to many families in Elk County who resist the current mania for a national curricula, high-stakes testing, and other bureaucratic developments.
For instance, classical schools simplify instruction and teach history according to a logical timeline across the curriculum. In first grade, students start in ancient Greece and ancient Rome; in second grade, they work their way through Christendom and the Middle Ages, and eventually end up in modern American history. Literature and theology follow this timeline, which lends itself to effective cross-curricular learning and facilitates the discussion of Catholicity in all classrooms.
Basic facts and manipulations are key in the lower grades, when children’s minds are geared to that style of learning. Many of our parents have serious concerns, for instance, about the current state of math instruction in the United States. St. Leo School thinks something is wrong with the curriculum when parents, many of whom are doctors, lawyers and engineers, cannot help their third graders with their math homework. Classical embraces technology and modern methods, but sometimes kids just need to memorize their multiplication tables before moving on and mastering the next lesson.
Classical also resists the American tendency to put off language instruction until high school, and instead introduces it in the early grades when children are more receptive to language acquisition. There is a strong preference for Latin, not only because Latin has been proven to offer major score improvements on the SAT, but because it makes acquisition of a modern language, such as French or Spanish, much easier in high school. Finally, and most importantly, Latin is the language of the church and the most important work of Western Civilization. That should matter in a Catholic school.
As a final point, classical schools recognize that children are sponges; they soak up whatever teachers put in front of them. It makes sense, then, to introduce them to the best the world has ever created. Classical prefers the great works of the Western tradition. The selections are always age-appropriate. Scripture, lives of the saints and great poetry are featured heavily in the early years.
“This is not a new model,” said Detwiler. “It is something that we know works, but we have to do it right. That means training our teachers, and it means getting them the resources they need to succeed. The Palumbo Trust’s support is crucial in making that happen, and we thank them for their vote of confidence.”
Pictured are Bob Ordiway and Don Fleming, Palumbo Trustees; Sam MacDonald, Elk County Catholic School System President; Sue Jansen, Elk County Catholic School System Director of Advancement; and JoAnne Ryan, Palumbo Trustee. Missing from photo is Mary Detwiler, St. Leo School Principal.