I grew up in a suburb of thriving metropolitan Salt Lake City. Public education was mediocre and mildly amusing. Then came fifth grade. My mother had heard about a new “charter” school that was opening up and they were asking for potential students to submit their names for lottery acceptance. (For reference, a charter school is one which receives public funding but operates independently from the specific school system in which it is located.)
My mom, being as suspicious of anything anti-establishment as a small-town woman could be, researched the institution thoroughly. It was called Legacy Preparatory Academy. It was founded on a classical educational approach springing from the pre-existing methodology of Christian home school networks. My mom submitted her children’s names into the vast pool, and, by some miracle, we were accepted.
Legacy Prep, as we called it, was an astonishing creation. We were the guinea pigs, attending classes at an old University of Utah building while our school was under construction. Uniforms were strictly enforced, students were taught to remain in “learning position” (upright back, with hands clasped out front, resting on the desk), and we had different teachers for every subject. In fact, prior to entry students took entrance exams which placed us according to our aptitude. When the time came for math class, or reading class, we headed off down those ancient, dimly-lit hallways to meet with a few other kids and an instructor. My homeroom teacher taught us European history with an emphasis on the Renaissance. We learned methods of note-taking. We learned how to ask proper questions. In science, we were taught the ideas behind species-categorization. In art history, we were taught how to identify particular portrait artists. In reading, we memorized a poem by Robert Frost.
The method behind this madness? A modernization of classical education. Teach the student how to communicate, and he or she can learn anything. We were pushed to analyze and synthesize at every turn. Technology was spurned in favor of blackboards and chalk. Nobody was held back by the ineptitude of a peer; if a child required individual attention, it was given to him or her. If my fellow students struggled with spelling, they were paired with tutors who worked with them thirty minutes every day. The teachers who came here were exceptional, and so were the students' parents. Legacy Prep required that parents give a certain number of volunteer hours every year, and the expectation was met with hearty assent. Imagine that? Direct parent involvement in the classroom. No longer is the classroom a daycare center, it’s an incubator for young minds and parents are expected to contribute their own time, talents, and resources. The community that existed around the Academy was one of intellectual growth and camaraderie, not competition and slothfulness.
Today, charter schools are frowned upon by liberal intelligentsia for undermining public education. In my own home state of Washington, charter schools are constantly berated in public forums (we are zealously pro-public education, apparently). But what is it that they find so repulsive? In a charter school, teachers are encouraged to push themselves as well as their students towards excellence. Hard work is rewarded while expectations of privilege are not tolerated. Similar to a private school, a charter school encourages mutual respect through equanimity in the form of school uniforms. Traditional ideals are taught openly, such as the contributions of Western civilization to the world at large. There is a tireless effort to encourage open dialogue. Reading and an appreciation for knowledge are held in the highest regard. Even ten-year-olds developed a profound zeal for the material our instructors had prepared.
I'm not saying these characteristics can't be found in a public school—of course they can! But what I had at Legacy Prep was something I will never forget. It was an opportunity to bathe in the warmth of intellectual curiosity even as a child. Material was not boiled down to its acrid simplicity and then spoon-fed in carefully allotted dosages. Our teachers welcomed us with seminars, lectures, and sincere pedagogical exercises. Instead of setting standards and then rushing along the battle-lines treating the fallen, Legacy Prep adopted a solid, structured approach to education, based on centuries of Western experimentation, and expected teachers to adapt to fit the needs of their students.
If every school was a charter school, a student would enter the world as a well-educated person even if his learning was a passive recollection. But not every school can be a charter school. I understand that. Let’s not prevent others, however, from having experiences like I did in the name of state institutionalization. Options are the key to a prosperous society. The free market works best when innovation is allowed, so why not give the market of education free reign?