On May 1, Valley Forge Classical Academy officially submitted its charter school application to the West Chester Area School District. The 500-page document plus program curriculum guide outlines the leadership’s plans and philosophy for its new Exton-based school.
The application has since caught the attention of the community for its educational approach, connection to extremist groups, and the damage it could do to an already taxed public school system. There is a lot to unpack here, and I will try to do it as concisely as possible, but first just to ensure we are all on the same page, let’s lay down a little charter school foundation. Starting with…
What is a Charter School? According to the PA Department of Education, “a charter school is an independently operated public school.” Charter schools do not charge tuition. Instead, they receive the majority of their funding from their student’s school districts. (More on that later).
From what I could find, West Chester currently has one in-person Charter School option, Collegium Charter School, in Exton. Collegium educates roughly 3,000 students.
So, who can start a charter school? Surprisingly, anyone. Of course, it can be a college, a nonprofit, or a museum but it can also be a corporation, a couple of teachers, some parents, or your kid’s classmate’s grandma. The one unifying factor seems to be that no matter who starts it, the school must be “nonsectarian.”
In the case of Valley Forge Classical Academy, the applicant is Jenifer MacFarland, a WCASD grandparent who was reportedly motivated to begin this ambitious adventure after learning her grandson’s second-grade teacher was receiving continuing education training from a company that also provides training on Critical Race Theory. You may also remember her from a controversial Right-to-Know request she submitted.
Although the application is not entirely out of leftfield, Jenifer does have a background in education and specifically charter school operations. Serving for a period as a director at the Avon Grove Charter School. Most recently she’s served as an educational consultant before starting her own home-staging business.
This is how she described the school in a Delaware Valley Journal article.
“We are a Hillsdale College-licensed curriculum school. The curriculum is a truly classical education, based on classical literature and history as told by original documents of the time. Singapore Math will be the math program, (which is) a highly recognized and effective program.”
YOUR CLASSICAL EDUCATION
I don’t know about you, but for me, there were a lot of new concepts bantered about in the above. So here’s your breakdown:
Classical Education is a traditional educational model that was popular around the forming of the country and before. (Yes, I mean 1776.) According, to a resource provided by the school, “Classical education employs a three-stage process of training the mind: (1) the grammar stage, which focuses on learning facts and laying the foundations for advanced study; (2) the logic stage, which teaches students to reason out the relationships between facts and think through arguments; and (3) the rhetoric stage, which focuses on wise and persuasive use of facts and arguments through speech and writing.”
Based on my loose study of various “classical education” approaches, common components of the curriculum include a focus on a Western perspective, avoidance (or limiting) of technology, and a required study of Latin. In addition to traditional education instruction, students are also said to receive instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue.
A push toward the idea of a “classical” education picked up during the pandemic. You can read more about this trend here.
Hillsdale-College Curriculum: The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum is a complete collection of lesson plans for teaching American history, civics, and government to K-12 students with an in-depth focus on the period of American history from the colonies through the Civil War. (Fortunately) the curriculum also includes American history since the Civil War and American government and civics for both middle and high school students. You can view the full curriculum here. It is currently being used in 50 “classical” schools across the country.
Singapore Math is s a teaching method based on the national mathematics curriculum used in first through sixth grade in Singaporean schools. Singaporean students routinely rank among the top in the world in math and several studies have shown the effectiveness of this approach. For the last 20 years, there has been a trend in the U.S. schools to adopt the curriculum.
Socratic Method is another teaching concept that will be utilized by the school. Developed by Socrates around 400 BC, the method involves a teacher asking probing questions to engage students in discussion. The aim of the questions is to get to the underlying beliefs upon which each participant’s statements, arguments, and assumptions are built. It is a practice that is commonly used in law and medical schools. While the practice has merits, it has also been prone to abuse, a practice known as “pimping.”
AREAS OF CONCERN
Ok, that’s enough on the educational approach. So, what’s the big deal? This school might not be a good fit for my kids, but is it really so bad if someone else wants an 18th-century education?
“The beauty of a charter school is that if it doesn’t fit your child or align with your beliefs, your child doesn’t have to attend there,” Jenifer says in defense of her school and she would have a point if it didn’t come down to one thing.
Money, my friends. It always comes down to the money and while Jenifer argues that charter school enrollment does not hurt the school district, it just moves the money to educate a student from one bucket to another. (And not even at a full one-to-one ratio mind you. Charter schools actually get about 30 percent less per student than the district.) Still, studies have shown it is not that simple.
The problem is fixed costs. Moving a student out of the district doesn’t lessen mortgage payments or maintenance costs or principal salaries. Move enough students out and you may be able to eliminate a teacher from the payroll or close a school but until then you are taking a loss. One Pennsylvania study found school districts could recoup no more than 20 percent of the money lost to charter schools in the first year by cutting costs. In five years, they could recover no more than two-thirds.
That is not to say charter schools don’t have a role and perhaps, even a growing role. A sweeping new study found that charter schools consistently outperform traditional public schools. After initially fighting the charter for Collegium, in 2021 the district unanimously renewed the charter for five years, the maximum allowed under state law.
Still, that doesn’t solve the funding problem for the rest of the district’s students – the actual impact of which is not yet known.
According to an article Jenifer recently published in Delaware Valley Journal, Valley Forge Classical Academy currently has 93 students pre-enrolled for the 2024 school year most of which are not from the WCASD.
Unfortunately, funding isn’t the only thing making the school application controversial. Investigations by a local public school advocacy group turned up people to leadership positions and marketing tactics by the group that have been linked to extremist views online. It is an emerging trend advocates of a “classical education” fear. This post digs further into those practices.
Together for Public Schools has also learned Alain Oliver, who is running for WCASD school board, is also a VFCA board member. It would seem to me to be a conflict of interest to sit on the boards of two competing educational programs. You can read more about Alain’s proposed role here.
Daily Local Columnist Will Wood also shared concerns about the application.
THE NITTY GRITTY
A public hearing on the application will be held June 14 at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of Fugett Middle School. This is a public hearing and residents of the WCASD will be able to comment.
After the public hearing, School Board members will vote on the application. If the application fails, Valley Forge Classical Academy will still be able to appeal.
Note, whether you are for or against the proposal, the appeals case will consider only material gathered either before or during the hearing. So, if you want to be on the record for this one, make a plan to do it now.
Published, June 9, 2023
This story is part of a longer weekly West Chester newsletter. Curious what else is going on? You can find the full issue here and the latest newsletter here. Even easier? Subscribe here to get the future issues delivered directly to your inbox.