From the Pages of Gilbert!
The Magazine of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
By Emily de Rotstein, Executive Director, the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and the Chesterton Schools Network
From the November/December 2019 Issue of Gilbert!
Whenever the Spirit intervenes, he leaves people astonished.He brings about events of amazing newness; he radically changes persons and history.
—SAINT POPE JOHN PAUL II MEETING WITH ECCLESIAL MOVEMENTS AND NEW COMMUNITIES, 1998
The Miracle of Chesterton Academy
In 2007, two fellow parishioners began meeting over breakfast at a local coffee shop to discuss what the Holy Spirit was prompting in their hearts. The men —local entrepreneur, Tom Bengtson, and American Chesterton Society President, Dale Ahlquist—each had young families and were seeking an alternative to the existing high school options available to them. Together, they set out to open a small high school to serve families in the west metro of Minneapolis.
The two men had a simple mission: to offer a classical, integrated high school education that was faithful to the Catholic Church and affordable for families of average means. Looking to G.K. Chesterton as the model of a complete thinker and modern defender of the faith, they named the school Chesterton Academy. Inspired by Pope Saint John Paul II, they took as their motto Cultura Vitae, “ Culture of Life.”
After months of recruiting and fundraising, Chesterton Academy opened its doors in the fall of 2008 with just ten students seated around a single table, in an aging former elementary school. It took some time for the students to adjust to this counter-cultural experiment, a humble school that eschewed iPads for actual books, and required a rigorous four-year liberal arts curriculum for all students. Soon enough, the students formed friendships and started to become a family. The vibrant, dedicated faculty delivered the ambitious curriculum and nurtured each student. Parents stepped in to coach sports and lead extra-curricular activities. The community grew in holiness together and discovered the joy of learning and the “romance of thrift”. The very attributes of G.K. Chesterton —joy, wonder, gratitude, humility and charity—came alive. The little school felt like a miracle. It was a miracle.
The co-founders and ten pioneering students and families who helped launch this adventure could never have imagined that just a decade later, over 500 students in the United States, Canada, and Italy would be enrolled at schools following the Chesterton model and curriculum through the growing Chesterton Schools Network. But the story of the Network is simply the story of Chesterton Academy retold again and again: members of the laity following the prompting of the Holy Spirit to create faithful, affordable, local Catholic high schools in an earnest desire to help raise up a new generation of joyful leaders and saints.
Continuing the Miracle: The Chesterton Schools Network
From the earliest days of Chesterton Academy, parent groups from around the nation called to ask how they could start a similar high school in their area. In response to mounting requests and after prayerful consideration, Chesterton Academy and the American Chesterton Society formed the Chesterton Schools Network, a collaborative venture to inspire and encourage parent-led Catholic schools. While we were still involved in the day to day challenges and blessings of operating our own school, we recognized we were being called to respond to an equally important charism: to evangelize, advise, and nurture mutual support among member schools.
The Chesterton Schools Network initiative was launched in the fall of 2014 with the intent of expanding the reach of Catholic education through the launch of affordable Catholic schools offering our unique, classical curriculum. Dale Ahlquist quickly emerged as our chief evangelizer, criss-crossing the country to share our vision and inspiring prospective founders, donors, and families. Today, fifteen schools are operating within the Network with several additional schools slated to open in the future.
Member schools have access to the Chesterton curriculum and the tools and templates needed to evaluate, launch, and operate a school. Board members, teachers, and administrators from across the Network have joined to share best practices, help train new teachers, and provide expertise in the area of marketing, budgeting, and fundraising. In addition to monthly conference calls for headmasters and administrators, schools participate in ongoing teacher training webinars. This summer, Network schools gathered in Orlando for a conference held in conjunction with the annual Chesterton conference, and plans are underway for a gathering at next year’s conference in Kansas City.
The Fruit of the Chesterton Schools Network
Our model of an integrated curriculum, fully informed by the Catholic faith, with due emphasis on art, science, math, the humanities (including four years of philosophy and four of theology), continues to attract attention from people all around the country who are looking for a workable solution to a very real educational crisis. They are drawn to such elements as daily Mass, solid character formation, a bounteously joyful atmosphere, and an affordable tuition. And they have helped launch creative, new approaches, including the Chesterton Academy “school within a school” model implemented at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Philadelphia and Catholic Central High School in Steubenville.
The continued growth and success of the Network schools is a miracle. Despite the challenges involved in operating small schools heavily dependent on fundraising, the Network schools are achieving amazing results and the fruits are evident. Across the Network, we see students and families renewed in their faith and revitalized through the Chesterton community, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, well-formed Chesterton alumni who are evangelizing on college campuses, young leaders who are stepping in to fill voids in parish leadership, holy marriages and beautiful young families dedicated to the faith.
We are changing the culture and contributing to the Church and to society.
Current Priorities and Initiatives
The key priority of the Chesterton Schools Network is to help each member school work with their local bishop to receive permission to operate in his diocese as a Catholic School in association with our Apostolate, having agreed to the statutes of the Society and subject to his authority.
We are also focused on expanding resources and training available to its member schools and creating shared services to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability of each member. We are creating more opportunities for faculty, students, and families to come together as a broader community, to offer support and ideas, and to grow in joy and holiness. One exciting initiative involves ongoing student exchange opportunities with our sister school in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, Scuola Chesterton, founded by Marco Sermarini, president of the Italian Chesterton Society. Other initiatives include online delivery of curriculum for students in grades 6-8 who are preparing to attend Chesterton Academy for high school, as well as online adult education and formation using the Chesterton Academy high school curriculum.
We remain committed to thrift, but the work of the Network is expanding and our needs are considerable.
Help Us Continue This Vital Work
Chesterton Academy opened in 2008 thanks to the prayers and financial support of American Chesterton Society members, many of whom never had the chance to visit the school or meet a single student. The prayers and donations of our members are again urgently needed to continue the work of the Chesterton Schools Network and to help sustain our member schools. Is the Holy Spirit calling you? Please consider helping start a school in your area, funding student scholarships for the Chesterton Academy nearest you, or making a donation to fund Chesterton online adult education.