Word from President
Even as we remain in the day-to-day work of navigating Covid and snow, I do not want to lose sight of the next school year and even plans beyond that. To that end, I am writing to give a preview of some information coming your way.
State of the School
Our board chair, Dr. Teresa Webb, is finishing up a newsletter on the state of the school which she has prepared with input from Mr. Ross and me. Parents, be looking for that bulletin in the next week or two. Among other topics, that commentary will include some highs and lows from our parent survey. Thank you so much for the excellent response rate! We take your feedback to heart to make our school better.
From time to time, we receive questions about grammar school STEM programs and about the range of upper school offerings. This was reflected in the survey, as well.
With respect to STEM, most questions ask whether focusing on these subjects is antithetical to classical education. Mrs. Abbott and Mrs. Kight will be preparing an insights piece addressing this topic later this spring in more depth. To steal the headline, though, I will share our view that STEM is a trendy description of related content areas, and whether STEM aligns beautifully with classical pedagogy or clashes with it depends on the approach.
To be clear, I certainly understand why the question would come up. A few years ago, for instance, there was an opinion piece in The Washington Post entitled “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous.” The author argues that “If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills….and deemphasize the humanities” (March 26, 2015). He goes on to argue that broad studies are more important to improving creative thinking.
If we go down the rabbit hole of increasingly narrow study of mostly technical skills at the expense of broader knowledge as our main focus, then STEM could become a barrier to holistic, classical learning. On the other hand, the actual subject areas within STEM can be wonderful tools of creative exploration to expand the connections between different content areas and between book learning and hands-on discovery.
I remember my grade school self checking out a book on science projects from the library (no internet then), reading how electricity works, driving nails into a thin board, weaving electrical cables between them, finding a discarded box and painting it with old house paint, attaching a massive battery, and creating a makeshift light socket--suddenly I had a working tabletop game board! Not every student learns the same way, and for some hands-on science is a good tutor.
A well-rounded student with confident self-expression skills and sound critical thinking benefits from both STEM-related subjects and rich humanities lessons. Logical argumentation, which we require in 6th grade and then again in high school, has an ally in mathematics and also in apologetics. It is also the case that while our students pursue sciences and math, they also press into humanities disciplines and discussions throughout the whole learning journey at Providence.
Consider the classical quadrivium components: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These were embraced as complementary--not competing--fields in learning about God and His creation, and as a useful building block toward command of philosophy. On a personal aside, I remain convinced that my liberal arts studies of metaphysical poetry gave me a head start in computer coding, which I took on as part of my M.B.A. (and keep alive even now--most recently in a Python data science certification).
So, yes, we must exercise caution to avoid STEM becoming the next soup du jour in ever-changing education practice, but STEM is not inherently a barrier to our work, and STEM disciplines actually align well with classical goals.
With respect to upper school offerings, we sometimes encounter a somewhat related question in balancing our class offerings. How “practical” should our advanced classes be?
There is a shift in interests I often see as parents watch their children age. As graduation quietly advances year-over-year, the college-preparatory aspect of our mission climbs in importance to parents relative to the other aspects of what we do here. That we are classical and University-Model does not exactly dim for parents, but the reality of readiness for “13th grade” sets in. With that come questions around how best to prepare mentally, spiritually, and practically.
Of course, classical training in critical thinking skills, for instance, and a UMS schedule of increasing self-direction are both vital aspects of how we prepare students for college at a practical level. Those are critical parts of our not-so-secret formula for why our students tend to report better college readiness than peers, a sentiment often echoed by parents later on. That is, developing classically sharpened skills within a college-like schedule leads to practical benefits in college (and in graduate school, too, we hear).
Benchmarking best practices, I toured an elite Christian school near Dallas a few years ago, one of the best-reputed in the region. This is a school that starts at $22k per year for high school. While they featured AP classes, I was surprised to learn they offered zero college classes at the time, as this is a notable contrast to where many schools are trending. Their rationale? Our job as a school, they said, is not to be a college, but to be the best K-12 education we can be first and foremost. They desire to “equip students with the lifelong skills to think critically and discern truth” even as they tout well-rounded STEM options, athletics, and fine arts.
Do these goals sound a bit familiar? I hope so.
Now, my own perspective is that there is a place for college classes in high school. First, our students are generally ready for that level of work well before graduation. Second, shaving off classes at college saves time and may trim future expenses, too. One of my kiddos surprised me at Thanksgiving by saying she will graduate in biology a year early thanks to Providence--that’s pretty cool for her to have that option. What else is cool? The blend of training across humanities and STEM fields at Providence meant she was also fully capable of writing that 12-page Old Testament research paper with confidence in her first year, too.
At the same time, though, I do not agree with the arms race occurring now to make college classes the high school focus per se. Some schools offer an associates degree upon high school graduation. In very limited fields for specific students, that may make sense. But, here’s the rub--when you were 18 years old, were you personally ready to parachute into college as a junior? I wasn’t; most are not. So, there is a balance to be struck, I think, in adding in “practical” college classes without losing sight of the overall mission of equipping mind, heart, soul, and body more broadly.
In the almost seven years I have been at Providence, our advanced offerings have grown significantly. We now offer college-level courses in math, English, science, history, rhetoric, and Spanish. We also have AP classes in English, science, and math.
What’s next? If you happened to look over the curriculum and activities grid sent out with re-enrollment packets (via QR code links), then you have some clues about our direction for advanced classes next year. Some of the future expansion is a natural extension of current offerings. For instance, we hope to add Anatomy & Physiology II to the A&P I course we have offered for a few years now. Other target areas include entry classes in social sciences and business. In all cases, though, our goal is equipping students consistent with our mission, not merely racking up credits, and in harmony with our overarching classical ideals. (Note that the grids for both campuses are published on our website now: PCCA home page > Academics tab.)
We will also embark over the spring and summer on refining our current college offerings toward better fit in the colleges our graduates most often attend. While there is no “skeleton key” that unlocks credits at every possible college for any conceivable major because each institution governs their own rules about credit transfers, we will continue shaping our offerings for greater compatibility with target colleges. It is possible that we will very selectively add in some AP classes, but the greater flexibility we enjoy to shape college classes within our goals and worldview remains attractive.
At the high school level more generally, we have never offered more fine arts options, and the curriculum grid line lists many of those choices. With the input of a parent advisory committee last year, we formally launched tennis to join our lineup of competitive archery, baseball, basketball, cheer/pom, cross country, golf, softball, track and field, trap, and volleyball, not to mention student clubs. That elite school in Texas? About 85% of their students play at least one sport; as it happens, we are not too far behind that mark. Talk about balance!
One area we need to increase support is social life. The pandemic makes this much harder to orchestrate, but we need to continue to press into creative and socially distanced ways to celebrate each other in community. The drive-through Christmas party for grammar students was one example of this. At upper, we were blessed to safely stage the homecoming formal. The curriculum and activities grid points to more of our plans in this important space. It is never solely about the books; that is not how we are wired!
In closing, what unites our body is our shared desire for Christ over all. I love that we agree on this across many different Bible-believing denominations in our community. It’s no wonder that Christians have led the restoration of classical values in education. We believe that pursuing the classical goals of truth, goodness and beauty helps us consider our faith more deeply in some way because authentically searching for these guide markers always brings us back to the Creator and His design. This brings to mind Philippians 4:8 (NIV): “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
David Smith, M.B.A.