Learn about Classical Schools (and Decatur and Skinner North)

July 27, 2011 at 11:23 pm 26 comments

Been meaning to post this forever, but here’s an interesting post written by 2 blog readers.  Tattoo Mom wrote up a nice summary of the Classical Education model and how it works at Decatur.  Around the same time, GreenieMom wrote about her family’s experience at Skinner North. This definitely more than I knew about the concept of the classical schools, and also interesting to hear about the 2 different schools.  Thanks to both of your for taking the time to write!

What is a Classical Education/Decatur (By TattooMom)

First and foremost, the classical model is very different than a traditional ‘”gifted school” model. A classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments. In the upper grade years, they learn to express themselves. This classical pattern is called the trivium, and at Decatur Classical School, our curriculum runs 1-2 years above grade level and follows the trivium pattern of learning.

The first years of schooling are called the “grammar stage”. In the primary years, the mind is ready to absorb information. Children at this age actually find memorization fun. So during this period, education involves not self-expression and self-discovery, but rather the learning of facts. Rules of phonics and spelling, rules of grammar, poems, the vocabulary of foreign languages, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics — etc. This information makes up the “grammar,” or the basic building blocks, for the second stage of education.

*At Decatur the K, 1 and 2 grades are busy learning the basics. They are honing their skills with knowledge based on facts. Math facts, measurements, geometric patterns etc, vocabulary and reading comprehension, science facts etc. Our program is enhanced with tap (which actually has been proven to enhance math skills), latin (basis of all romance languages and the best little secret in teaching sentence structure etc to our kids), computer technology, and music theory (they actually learn how to read music!). The students don’t even realize when they are doing things such as bug or dinosaur projects that they are learning facts! Decatur has also thrown in a touch of organizational learning in this early stage with projects (science, black history, etc), news related research and junior great books. This is a ton of information for a young mind to absorb. But absorbing it they are!

Intermediate students are less interested in finding out facts than in asking “Why?” The second phase of the classical education, the “Logic Stage,” is a time when the child begins to pay attention to cause and effect, to the relationships between different fields of knowledge relate, to the way facts fit together into a logical framework. A student is ready for the Logic Stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years, the student begins algebra and the study of logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects.

*In around the 3rd grade, the students at Decatur begin to learn more advanced skills having to do with they why things happen. They are doing creative book reports and projects, such as Pop Bottle Babies, Mobiles, etc that help them learn to organize the facts they’ve learned and these projects are followed up with “why do you think the author wrote about this subject” etc. They also begin bigger scale projects such as Science Fair, Black History, and Chicago History Fair including boards, which helps them learn to organize their information to tell a story. There is the beginning of the “find your voice” process for the students in the intermediate grades.

The final phase of a classical education, the “Rhetoric Stage,” builds on the first two. At this point, the student learns to write and speak with force and originality. The student of rhetoric applies the rules of logic learned in “middle school” (our 5/6 grade years since we work 2 years ahead) to the foundational information learned in the early grades and expresses his conclusions in clear, forceful, elegant language.

*By the time a Decatur student hits 5th grade, the rhetoric stage is in full swing. the Metro History Fair which is an intense project with thesis statements, arguments as to why something occurred and well thought out data proving your thesis argument, plus Science Olympiad and Latin Teams really help the students use their knowledge in a proficient manner. Our 5/6th grade students enter competitions with 7/8th grade students at other schools and consistently prove the classical education is a winner! Finally in 6th grade the students participate in Project Citizen which is a year long process of laying out a problem, finding a solution and arguing to their point. It is a great project-based process for the students to show their stuff. All the while learning the higher math theories and studying American History etc.

A classical education follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions.

*So while you can see that it is a process, if you understand the pattern and science behind it, and can allow the process to do it’s magic in your child you will see results. It is really amazing to see the 7th grade Decatur students at their next school, classical students are well spoken, disciplined, independent learners with valuable input to offer on all topics.

Other information about the classical education model:

  • The classical model of education has been around for over two millennia and has produced, among others, Archimedes, St. Paul, St. Patrick and Columba, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Christopher Columbus, Shakespeare, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.
  • This “retro” approach is used in many charter schools because it is so successful in providing an in-depth, comprehensive education.  “Great Books” programs are also based in part on the classical model.
  • Classical education enjoyed a rebirth primarily due to an essay by Dorothy Sayers in 1947 entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.”  Among other things, she pointed out that the study of Latin is an essential part of this model, because “even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.”  The essay is very interesting (though long) and can be found at http://www.gbt.org/text/sayers.html.
  • Many people associate the classical model with christian schooling, but the educational model itself has parallels in Hinduism (Vedanga) and Confucianism (the Four Books and Five Classics); to me, it is a diverse, living model for preparing citizens of the world!

Skinner North

In 2010 when our son was accepted to Skinner North, we were anxious. Needless to say, sending him to a previously shut-down school building located in the middle of Cabrini Green wasn’t exactly our ideal place for him to begin his education. At the time, Skinner North had only been open for seven months when we got his letter of acceptance and we did not know anyone who had a kid there. He has now been there for nearly an entire year and we are happy to report it has been a success.

As of May 2011, the school is still growing. Grades K-3 only, with another grade added every year until they reach 8th grade.

As of today, May 24, 2011 not one Cabrini Green high-rise is standing. The area has been leveled. I understand the large plot of land will be turned into mixed-use, but I am not sure exactly what that will be.

The halls of the school are warm with both sunlight and colorful art. I had imagined the school would look institutional – considering its location and how institutional the Cabrini high rises looked – but the school is clean and inviting.

The staff: Ethan Netterstrom is by far an extremely supportive, informative, and understanding principal. He provides honest answers and never once gave out “working-parent guilt-trips,” which some of my friends have experienced from principals or teachers at their child’s school. When we met Ethan, the Cabrini buildings were still standing. He was fully aware and honest when answering questions about the buildings, as well as before and after-school care, safety concerns in the area in which the school is located, and school performance (remember, not one ISAT test had been taken when we accepted our spot).

To this day we are very happy with our decision to send our son there. He is receiving the exact education he needs and the teachers and staff are receptive. As a kindergartener, he has computer lab three-days a week, library visits once-a-week, gym and recess, music and a language.  The homework can be extensive, but there is a reason kids get accepted to classical programs – the homework is suited to their pre-tested abilities and, in my opinion, it is what they can handle (what the parents can handle is a different story).

The PTA is very involved with fundraising, development and teacher assistance. There are also other committees – the Healthy Bodies committee helped raise the nutritional content of the food served in the cafeteria.

Alas, there are some things that are not perfect about Skinner North – because, let’s face it, nothing in this world is perfect. The following are not complaints, but rather items that could improve, and may improve over time.

*The one security/school guard has an IT degree. He is looking to get an IT job in a middle or high school. So, while he may be very good at teaching computers to kids grade 6 and up, I feel his knowledge on how to interact with kids age 5-10 is heavily lacking – as is his disciplinary style. Don’t get me wrong, security at the school is good – the building is covered in cameras and no one can get in without being buzzed in – at least this aspect covered. But internally, five year-olds can be rambunctious at times and I feel any in-school disciplinarian should have the knowledge on how to work with kids in that age group.

*Packed classrooms. Yes, this issue is happening all over the city – and SN is doing its best educate the kids while still keeping order in the classroom. Still, 31 kids in a kindergarten class is high, but, like I said, my son is still receiving a great education.

*After-care program. In the two-years the school has been open, SN has not secured a consistent aftercare program. They either offer up a Chicago Park District program (away from the school) and offer up one internally. The one internally has changed hands several times. On the positive, the admin admitted when the programs were not working and quickly moved on to find new solutions. As a negative, this constant change effects kids caught in the middle. Again, this is a 2-year old school – growing pains are inevitable. Next year we plan on finding a different after school program for him – but he’s staying throughout 8th grade there for school.

Entry filed under: Classical Schools.

Northside parents staying in city. Yay. Yikes. Brizard’s initial changes to CPS

26 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bagg  |  July 28, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Are there any stats on graduating class? i.e., HS enrolled?

  • 2. Grace  |  July 28, 2011 at 8:49 am

    great info — thanks. hope it starts a trend.

  • 3. HSObsessed  |  July 28, 2011 at 9:05 am

    @2 – Skinner North currently is only K-3, so there are no stats yet on them. Decatur is only K-6 and then the kids have to go elsewhere, so it would be difficult for CPS to track them over time since they enroll in various other schools for 7-8 before entering high school. There’s always personal anecdotal information from parents like Tattoo Mom, though, and I’m pretty sure most of the Decatur grads eventually go to the SEHS.

  • 4. cps Mom  |  July 28, 2011 at 9:40 am

    Saying that classical education “produced” da Vinci is a bit misleading. He was a true visionary. Born poor and illegitimate he was only offered to work with a master after his natural talents became apparent, in and of itself unheard of due to his background. I’m sure classical education has many benefits and sounds very enriching…just as da Vinci’s training was.

  • 5. karet  |  July 28, 2011 at 11:26 am

    The principal at Skinner North sent an email to parents about the school’s first iSAT scores last month (my son is starting K in the fall) — SN is the only school in CPS where 100% of students exceeded federal standards.

  • 6. Anonymous  |  July 28, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    This is food for thought as far as other CPS schools. If the Classical approach is so good, perhaps we should be thinking more about how to model all our schools (neighborhood schools) on a better-working model.

    Meaning, is there a reason only gifted kids can handle a Classical education? There may be. Does anyone know? Might a different overall approach to learning benefit all CPS kids — not just those in specific magnets?

    When I read about Rahm sending his kids to Lab, I was thinking about that. Why isn’t he trying to find a better, more revolutionary learning system for the ENTIRE school system — just as his kids are receiving at Lab.

    Interesting explanations. Thanks so much for posting this.

  • 7. ChicagoGawker  |  July 28, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    @5, state standards or federal standards? I’m pretty sure there are no federal standards.

  • 8. macK  |  July 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    karet@5: As a SN parent, I was happy that the 3rd grade did so well on the ISATs. But achieving 100 percent meet/exceed STATE (not federal) standards is significantly easier when you only have 1 class of 30 kids taking the test.

    Based on the description of Decatur offered here, it sounds like Skinner North is almost the direct opposite. In fact, the staff admits that the term “classical” is just part of the school’s name–nothing more.

    From our experience the emphasis at SN in grade K-2 seems to be on reading, projects (students do quarterly projects), and oral expression (students give oral presentations several times a year). There is little emphasis on learning “facts”–no spelling, no memorization of math facts. The math curriculum is Everyday Math–and they adhere to that quite closely. There are units on social studies and science with an emphasis on multi-culturalism and healthy/green living.

    This would not necessarily be my first choice in terms of a curriculum–I’m more of a traditionalist. But I have been very pleasantly surprised. My DD is thriving there and has made great gains in reading. Even though she has not been asked to memorize math facts, she is pretty advanced at addition, subtraction and multiplication.

    What I take away from all of this is that children from supportive families with caring and committed teachers will do well in a lot of different environments with different approaches to learning.

  • 9. Hawthorne mom  |  July 28, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    There is actually a movement towards federal standards, if I understand it right. They are called Common Core Standards. Again, as I understand it, Illinois has not adopted Common Core yet, but there is a lot of movement in that direction. (so responder #5 probably means state standards since common core is not yet in place)

  • 10. karet  |  July 28, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Sorry, you are all correct. State standards.

  • 11. Grace  |  July 28, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    It is impresssive that 100% of 3rd graders at SN exceeded expectations on the ISATs.

    I’d love to know if the classical curriculum is similar to what you’d find at a Lab, Latin or Parker, wouldn’t you?

  • 12. D Mom  |  July 28, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Parker and Lab are progressive schools: hands-on learning, problem-solving, and critical thinking as opposed to rote memorization.


    As far as I know, Latin is more traditional.

  • 13. cps grad  |  July 29, 2011 at 12:23 am

    @9 Illinois did adopt the common core standards last year as a part of the bid for Race to the Top. In 2014, standardized tests in Illinois will reflect these new standards. I’ve read the standards for High School since I am a teacher at the high school level, and my department is working hard to align our curriculum. I also know department chairs in other districts, and they are doing the same.


  • 14. Hawthorne mom  |  July 29, 2011 at 7:30 am

    Thanks #13! I am glad to hear it! It has been too long in coming.

  • 15. cps Mom  |  July 29, 2011 at 9:53 am

    SE high schools also emphasize critical thinking. The Interactive Math Program that Northside, Jones and even some neighborhood schools have is all about reasoning/thinking. The program has been criticized by some but it does take math to a whole new level – one that I think some are uncomfortable with due to the break from the traditional methods of learning math.

  • 16. ChicagoGawker  |  July 29, 2011 at 11:31 am

    @15 do you have any links to the Interactive Math Progam that you could post? Is it based on something from educational publisher?

  • 17. cps Mom  |  July 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Here is the IMP website


  • 18. Stressed by CPS  |  July 30, 2011 at 11:48 am

    As a former Decatur parent, I have seen many kids who attend Whitney Young or Taft for 7/8 grade and even those at WY will leave for NS or WP, etc. for high school. Most kids from Taft do in fact leave after 8th grade but have ended up at the top 5 SEHS’s. In my experience, many parents who have kids at Taft, as I have, who did NOT attend a Classical or RGC, will tell me that their own children can easily see the difference between those who DID come from a Classical school or RGC. That does not meant they are better. They just say they can see that there is more readiness and that they are more driven. (Not all, but generally speaking). The more accelerated students feel they have to move at a slower pace as kids from neighborhood schools because they are being taught as “one” and some lessons are repeats for them. I think the classical model is an excellent one but I don’t think Decatur follows it necessarily to the T. I think that they mean to but I don’t believe all of their teachers are really trained to teach children to this model.

    Once the children are in high school, you will see an array of classical and non classical students who will end up at a SEHS. And it seems they are back to equal ground. But the thinking process may differ or the approach to the lessons may differ. Also, classical students may find it easy to learn in the primary grades but cannot keep up as they get into 5/6 grade. It is all in the individual.

    Most families that I know from Decatur do in fact have kids who ended up in a SEHS. The rate is very high.

  • 19. CPSmama  |  August 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    It is not surprising that large numbers of SEES kids (Classical & RGC) end up at SEHS b/c they are both heavily based on test taking ability.

    Althought Decatur ends after 6th, the AC to HS path is not a bad route. One of the most appreciable benefits of attending an AC for 7th & 8th is the HS credits that are earned. My kids (Decatur grads) were a year or 2 ahead of their peers in almost every subject b/c of the HS credits earned in ACs.

  • 20. Jennifer  |  August 8, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Reading this just makes me even more sad for my daughter that she is missing out on this. The Decatur model sounds exactly like the kind of learning that she thrives on. Sigh.

    I’m still considering re-submitting her for testing for 3rd grade entry but I’m concerned it will be too late for her by that point, and that she won’t be able to jump in.

  • 21. CPSmama  |  August 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Jennifer: New kids join the classes at Decatur every year up to and including 6th grade. I don’t recommend transferring as a 6th grader for just one year, but for 3rd grade- I think it’s worth a try to get your daughter in the best learning environment for her.

  • 22. Academic Center Applicant  |  December 18, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    The classical school test that I took was the ITBS( Iowa Test of Basic Skills)

  • 23. abcde  |  January 15, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    @22: For which grade?

  • 24. skinnernorthmom  |  March 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    I have two sons at two different option schools. My older son has been to one of the “best” magnet schools on the north side. What I’ve learned after trying to find a great cps school for my sons is that a great principal makes for a great school for all. I have to say that Ethan Netterstrom of Skinner North is that great principal. He is warm, smart and knows how to lead by example. Consequently, the entire staff at Skinner is stellar. Every staff member really cares about the school an the students. Mr. Netterstrom really “listens” to any concerns from the parents. Sometimes, I forget that Skinner North is a public school because parents and students are treated so well there. Another reason why I believe Skinner is a top notch school is the curriculum. I have volunteered there and saw with my own eyes how engaged the students are and how interesting the teachers make the school work. My kindergartener is learning pre-algebra and statistic. He has written and illustrated several stories as part of his school work. I am almost afraid to tell everyone how amazing Skinner North is for fear that I cannot get my older son in.

  • 25. myson  |  June 20, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Hi , My son got accepted to skinner north. He is at present in IPSD 204 and got selected there for gifted program. I am not able to decide if I should move him to SN or let him be in the present school’s gifted program. Would anyone have any info on how the 2 gifted programs are different. I can’t find any information anywhere. Please help.

  • 26. cipelino  |  November 20, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Hi parents, what scores did your children have when they got accepted to Skinner North? Please also list your tier and grade they were accepted to attend.
    Thanking you all very much

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