North Hills Christian explores new approach to curriculum

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 13, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY – North Hills Christian School began its transition to the classical Christian model this year.
The new curriculum will provide a broad liberal arts education with tiered study in language and literature, chronological history, theology and arts as well as an extensive study of math, science and technology.
“A quality liberal arts education embraces all of these areas …,” Head of School Matt Mitchell said. “It also rejects the false dichotomy suggesting that one must choose between either the intellectual rigors of the humanities or good training in sciences, maths and technology.”
Mitchell said the goal of the shift is to teach students “how to think, not what to think.”
That’s why courses in logic and rhetoric will also be added.
“Prior to the last 100 years, school was rich in literature, history, philosophy, fine arts, foreign linage, logic and rhetoric,” Mitchell said. “Those are precisely the content areas where we have the opportunity to teach our kids to think.”
Mitchell described classical learning as not necessarily old concepts, but those that have withstood the test of time.
“We’re not going to chase after the whims of popular culture,” he said. “We’re going to chase things that have quality.”
Learning shifts
The classical model focuses on a tiered learning system that introduces subjects at the elementary level and then provide a deeper study of them later.
“The problem is that in the traditional, established approach, we’re not giving them the knowledge in the lower school to work with in the upper schools,” Mitchell said.
One example of the tiered approach is in literature.
Students at North Hills will read a children’s version of Homer’s “The Illiad” in first grade, an abridged pre-teen version in fifth grade and the unabridged version in high school.
History will be studied from creation through modern times in first through fourth grades before being repeated in fifth and ninth grades.
“The second time they’ll be able to start thinking about it,” Mitchell said. “By the third time they are able to articulate it.”
Elementary students will also focus on memorization through chants, songs and rhymes.
“They love to memorize, and at this age it’s natural for them,” fourth-grade teacher Kathy Nadeau said. “Using the songs and jingles makes learning fun, but it helps stick to their brain so they can use it later for recollection.”
Nadeau said those who step into her classroom will notice students having fun.
“They’re smiling and moving as they do the jingles,” she said. “It’s not just paper and pencil, although that’s important too. I think we’ve struck a good balance.”
Curriculum in the upper grades will become more rigorous as the school rounds out its transition to the classical model.
“At first your kids aren’t going to like it … they’ll be reading with a book in one hand and a dictionary in another,” he said. “Our goal is to produce more culturally literate, well-rounded students.”
Mitchell said the shift will also produce higher achievement.
“There is a 356 spread between graduates of classical school and graduates of other schools on the high school SAT,” he said. “A 100-point gain is considered really good, that’s three times as high as the spread we currently have.”
Individualized learning
Mitchell said the new curriculum means each grade level will be divided into groups of advanced, on target and struggling students.
He said that approach allows the school to address individual needs by “teaching children, not classes.”
Advanced students will have the opportunity to move on to the next grade level, while those who are struggling can go back to re-learn concepts they might have missed.
“If students miss the core concepts in reading and math in elementary school, they won’t be able to learn history and science in middle school,” Mitchell said. “We need to focus on fundamentals.”Paula Mead said the change has been good for her children, second-grader Anna and first-grader Andrew.
“My daughter is a very, very strong reader, but she’s not as strong in math, so this is allowing her to move forward in reading and get the help she needs in math,” she said.
Mead said when Andrew started getting frustrated in the advanced program, she spoke to the school and he moved to the standard group.
“He needs to be on the higher end of the standard group to improve his confidence level,” she said. “I like the focus to find the best path for each child.
“We’re excited about the changes here, although I was a little nervous in the beginning.”
Nadeau said the individualized learning gives her an opportunity to reach every student.
“As a teacher what I like is that it challenges them but it still goes along with their developmental abilities.”
Aligning with the Bible
Mitchell said the shift to classical Christian learning also means providing students with a Biblical world view.
“Separating the study of God’s word from the God who create the world doesn’t work,” he said.
The classical approach intertwines the sacred and the secular historical accounts, he said.
“So, while students study about Paul and his missionary journeys, they will also learn about the Roman Empire in which Paul lived,” Mitchell said.
Mead said it’s important for her chidden to be exposed to the Bible.
“The classical Christian education to me is just an extension of my home,” she said. “They are exposed to the same morals and beliefs at school, and I just love that.”
Background in classical
Parent Amanda Sparks has been lending her expertise to the school as it begins the transition to the classical model.
Sparks and her husband, Jonathan, opened a classical school with another couple in Pittsboro before moving to Salisbury.
“We were drawn to the classical movement because of our strong commitment to real learning,” she said. “We had both been in education and been frustrated by the lack of efficiency in public schools. We felt like we wanted something a little bit better for our kids”
Instead of a whole language approach to reading, the classical movement uses phonics, which Sparks said makes students better readers and spellers, with a improved grasp of the English language.
Sparks described the model as “back to the basics.”
“It emphasizes giving kids the tools they need to learn for themselves,” she said.
The thing that Sparks likes the most about the curriculum is that it helps students find their way in life.
“There’s not so much hullabaloo about everyone can go to college,” she said. “Everyone can’t go to college, and everyone shouldn’t. Quite honestly, it’s more important to help children find God’s purpose for his life.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.