Petra Academy, a Classical Alternative
Bozeman School Offers Education Option
BY JULIE L. CLEVELAND
It is no secret that the education system in the United States has its share of troubles, even though reformers have proposed solutions. Research from the Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficul-ties in Young Children determined in 1998 that adult reading problems can be avoided through concentrated effort to teach reading fundamentals at an early age. President George W. Bush subsequently sign-ed into law No Child Left Behind in 2002 with the intent that students would graduate from high school prepared for college and a career.
Under No Child Left Behind states set target test-scores schools must meet—but many schools, it now turns out, have received failing grades, including schools in Montana and locally.
An overhaul of the program scheduled for 2010 never materialized. The Obama Administration instead proposed that states raise academic standards and revisit failing schools. Many schools classified as failing, are not, the administration claims, and so Washington wants to focus on helping the schools it says are truly in trouble.
Long before No Child Left Behind, though, Louise Turner and a group of concerned parents estab-lished Petra Academy in Bozeman, with the intention of teaching students how to learn. Turner and the parents involved wanted to provide a different learning experience than that which their children were having in the public school system.
Having attended a conference for the Association of Classical and Christian Schools in Moscow, Idaho, Turner brought back information to area parents.
“She started the school from her living room, in very humble beginnings,” Petra Headmaster Todd Hicks told the Pioneer.
The Classical education system Louise Turner brought back from the conference 19 years ago is not new, but is responsible for much that has to do with education in the modern world—the concept, for example, of primary, secondary, and higher education. The system dates back to Martianus Capella, a 5th century founder of the liberal arts curriculum that structured medieval and then renaissance education, and which has been adapted throughout history. It is an educational system, in modern times, and at Petra, that teaches children how to learn, how to reason and draw conclusions, and then how to express and defend their conclusions. This three-part approach to education starts as soon as the child enters the academy and continues until graduation.
The three parts of a classical education are Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. The classical curriculum has a structure, a plan, and it is cohesive. All things learned in one course dovetail with that which is learned in the next.
Classical and Christian
Petra recognizes that Christianity enjoys a central role in the culture, traditions and literature of Western thought, and that an understanding of Christianity is a necessary part of historical and cultural literacy. “Students understand that the subject of Jesus Christ and God can come up in literature, such as Dante, or Shakespeare, as much as it can in the classes surrounding the New Testament,” said Hicks.
Petra Academy is, more over, specifically a Christian academy that teaches a classical curriculum. The academy does not require that students be Christians, but it does teach the Bible and Christian-based classes, requires that teachers be Christians, and that they hold a Bachelor's degree and 30 hours in the subjects they teach.
The school also requires that students read the academy's statement of faith and understand that the academy supports the basic Christian doctrine that says Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that his death was the atonement for the sins of mankind, and that he rose from the dead in the Resurrection.
Parents Stay Involved
No Child Left Behind requires that public school districts measure every student's progress in reading and math and provide parents with objective data on where their child stands academically.
At Petra Academy, Hicks said, parents do not need such reports, because they are actively involved in their child's daily progress. Petra provides a culture of involvement by parents, staff, and students in the education process. The families of students are engaged in the student's education and that quality of support is expressed both in and out of the classroom.
Andrew and Susan Beth Breuner's son, Jansse, has attended Petra Academy since kindergarten and is now in the 6th grade.
“There is not a decision made about my child that I am not informed of,” Susan Breuner said. “If my child is struggling, they don't feel that it is their job to fix it. They let me know.”
“While Jansse is not rushed at Petra, by the end of each year, he has gained greater knowledge,” Breuner added.
According to Hicks, the result of the cultivated respect among students, parents and staff is visible on the SAT scores students from Petra Academy achieve, scores that come in higher than the national average.
Petra's average class size is ten students, with 16 as the maximum allowed in a single class. Enrollment for the 2011-2012 school year is 120 students, up from previous years.
Grammar is the basis for the primary grades of education, and the goal is to learn as many words and concepts as possible in order to express and understand complex ideas.
Logic, which begins in middle school, teaches students how to reason using information they have already learned. Since this age group is naturally interested in ideas and the world around them, they are encouraged to begin to make analytical observations and reach conclusions. The students learn how to deter-mine truth and make decisions based on what they already know to be true, Hicks told the Pioneer.
As the children move into high school, they begin Rhetoric (the art of effective or persuasive speaking and writing). Using concepts they have learned, and logic, students are ready to support their positions, give convincing verbal arguments, and to defend conclusions they have reached.
Hicks told the Pioneer that Petra emphasizes teaching students how to learn and how to apply that learning to life. He also said that Petra’s teachers love what they do and that that rubs off on the kids.
Petra Academy starts students in the 3rd grade with lessons in Latin, and continues teaching Latin until 10th grade.
Latin, the basis for the five Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian), as well as much of English, is considered the language of learning, Hicks said, and by understanding the structure of the language, students can master English, the written word, and understand the basis for various other languages.
“We can't think without language,” Hicks said, “By studying another language, it helps them to understand their own.”
Students at Petra must be committed to working hard and finding reward in hard work, Hicks said. But that standard for hard work does not mean only the smartest students can attend the academy.
“There is a misunderstanding that we only take the brightest and the best kids so that our success will be based on the admissions of only those children,” said Hicks.
Students at Petra Academy may score on national standardized tests in any percentile, according to Hicks.
“Often when you raise the bar on a child, they will rise up to meet it,” he said. “We have kids who may come to us with scores that are significantly below the standardized tests, but they will do okay.”
While Bible classes and Latin may not be found in public schools, other subjects taught at Petra resemble those of mainstream schools. Graduates come away with a transcript similar to that of a college preparatory school. “All of our graduates have gone on to college, except one, who went into the Marine Corps,” said Hicks.
Although Petra Academy is a relatively small school, with a limited sports programs due to a lack of competing schools and the size of the campus, expansion is planned. Currently, students compete athletically against other Christian schools and homeschooled groups, and Petra’s goal is to compete more broadly in the Montana Christian Athletic Association.
Students currently compete in volleyball and soccer on a local level and Ultimate Frisbee on a national level. Ultimate Frisbee is played without officials, and when an infraction occurs, players talk the matter over and come to an agreement, developing diplomacy, said Headmaster Hicks.
Petra Academy has recently completed building a new school. The facility is located at 4720 Classical Way in Bozeman, and the 2011-2012 academic year has begun at that facility, a new campus accommodating 224 full-time students with expan-ded sports, arts, and music programs. The new academy has a gymnasium, athletic fields, and an art center. Tuition for grades 7 through 12 costs $6,400 per year. Grades 1 through 6 cost $5,900 a year, and Kindergarten costs $3,600. Petra also offers needs-based scholarships, as opposed to scholarships based on merit alone.
Julie L. Cleveland is a freelance writer who lives in Bozeman, Montana.