Classical Education: The Importance of Literacy in the Early Years

Classical Education: The Importance of Literacy in the Early Years

Many parents look at a classical curriculum and instinctively focus on one or two aspects – high school literature and Latin. Precisely because these two areas of study are so peculiar in a classical school, they garner the most attention. Students in typical public schools rarely read the Iliad or Shakespeare’s tragedies with the care and intellectual energy that we demand of our students, and likewise Latin is almost never seen as useful or beautiful. And, it is true, these two parts of our curriculum will set us apart from and above many other schools. But even more fundamentally, and perhaps more importantly, the great advantage that classical education wields over all other alternatives lies in early elementary. There, students not only form the habits of successful students and learn the virtues required by a republic like ours, but they learn to read.

Don’t all students learn to read? The answer to this simple question must be a resounding no. Students often arrive in 6th and 7th grade unable to read aloud in the class, having developed a shyness that results from never having learned to read properly. Worse yet, they come to have difficulties in every subject they study, since the one ability on which every aspect of education relies is the ability to read. Homework piles up, As become Bs, Bs become Cs, and students learn that school is not only boring but positively uncomfortable and burdensome.

How, then, do our classical schools differ? How do we remedy this glaring shortfall of our education system? We teach students to read by building the two main pillars of literacy – explicit phonics and background knowledge. All future reading rests on these two pillars, which is why the K-3 grades are so crucial to a student’s overall success. The ability to read begins in earnest in Kindergarten, develops at breakneck pace through 1st and 2nd grade, and should be almost completely set in 3rd grade. Parents who have students in any of these grades are therefore in an ideal position to reap the most benefits from a classical education.

What is explicit phonics and how does it work?

riggs_aExplicit phonics means that we teach students the relationship between symbols and sounds in the English language. In typical public schools students learn some blend of incomplete phonics and whole word lists. But, if a student memorizes a spelling list, then at the end of all her hard work she will know no more than the words on the spelling list. The ability to generalize does not develop, since every word is treated as its own unit, rather more like hieroglyphics than our English language. Because English is a mix of many languages – principally Anglo-Saxon, German, French, Latin – trying to generalize spelling rules without learning them explicitly is a recipe for failure. Students who do not do study explicit phonics in the early years can make due for awhile, since students can memorize long lists of things. But at some point, typically in 4th or 5th grade, memorization for spelling no longer suffices, and students are left behind.

At our school, students do not learn whole words in isolation. Rather, they acquire the tools to decode any word in the English language, even words they have never seen before. They learn, for instance, that the letter A has 4 main sounds, and that in certain circumstances A will sound like “glad” and in others like “glade,” in others like “gall” or “walk.” Explicit phonics instruction develops in tandem with handwriting, since students learn to hear, to say, and to write phonemes at the same time. Kindergarteners, whose writing is often illegible, come to express themselves with a care and neatness that rival students 2 or 3 grades above. It isn’t easy, of course, but the hard work in the early years pays dividends later.

Background Knowledge

Along with explicit phonics, we will develop students’ background knowledge, which is the other pillar of solid literacy. What is background knowledge and how do we develop it? Background knowledge is not fancy – it is simply knowing a lot. The end, of course, is not to know a lot of trivia, but to use what one knows to make good judgments, to think independently, and to have access to the rich heritage of pioneering thinkers and writers of the past. No amount of “critical thinking skills” helps a student answer the question, “is America repeating the mistakes of Rome?”, unless the student knows quite a bit about both America and Rome. No one can understand the Gettysburg Address, or the great calamity of the Civil War, without knowing the importance of what happened “four score and seven years ago.”

At our schools we implement a content-rich curriculum called Core Knowledge, not to be confused with Common Core. Core Knowledge teaches real history and geography instead of watered down social studies, has students explore real literature and poetry instead of plodding through dull “readers,” and develops an awareness of scientific concepts, procedures, and ways of thinking. The Core Knowledge curriculum, which cuts no corners in its rigorous content, is simply the best available.

With these two pillars solidly in place, students at our school will have access to the richest tradition of thinking the world has ever known. Our mission is to train the minds and improve the hearts of young people. There is no better place to begin than in the early elementary years with a solid literacy program like ours.

– Dr. Robert Garrow, Principal, Golden View Classical Academy

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County is submitting an application to Douglas County Schools to become a charter public school, with an expected opening in Fall 2018.  Ascent Classical is replicating highly successful classical schools currently operating in Colorado.


Q: What is a charter public school?

A charter public school is a non-profit, tuition-free, independently operated public school granted greater flexibility in curriculum, staffing, and operations.  Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County will be authorized by the Douglas County School Board.  For more information on charter schools in Colorado, visit the Colorado League of Charter Schools or the Douglas County Schools website.


Q: When will Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County Open?

Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County will submit its application in the spring of 2017 and anticipates opening in the fall of 2018.


Q: What grades will the school serve?

The school with offer grades K-12 and expects to open with grades K-10, adding a grade a year.  Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County will offer a half-day kindergarten, consistent with the Core Knowledge program.


Q:  Will Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County serve students with special needs?

Yes, the school will serve students with special needs.  The structure and coherence of the Core Knowledge curriculum along with the Riggs phonics program are very effective and they school is likely to be able to support a broader spectrum of special needs.  The focus of the school and its Student Services is to provide support and tools to enable all students to be successful in school and life.

Ascent Classical Academy does not ask applicants if they have special needs until they are offered a seat in the school.  At that time, the school will evaluate any Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or 504 plans to determine the school’s ability to serve an individual student and ensure they will thrive and be successful.  Douglas County Schools will make any determination if the needs of a student exceed the capability of the school.  Visit Douglas County Schools for more information on charter schools partnering with the district to serve special needs.


Q:  Where will Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County be Located?

The application team is working with Douglas County Schools to determine areas of growth and need, as well as considering the locations of families completing Expressions of Interest.  A final location will be selected as more data on interest and need is received.


Q: What is Classical Education?

Read our page on classical education and our content-rich curriculum.


Q:  What are the Core Elements of the Academic Program?

Ascent Classical Academy takes a classical, liberal arts approach to educating young people, as described above.  Other key elements of the academic program include:

  • Core Knowledge sequence in grades K-8;
  • Riggs, an explicit phonics approach to literacy.  The school also requires a mastery of spelling and proper grammar as well as good handwriting and cursive;
  • Singapore Math;
  • Highly engaging, direct, teacher led instruction with increased use of Socratic techniques as students progress through the school;
  • Primary source documents used to the maximum extent possible.

Q:  Will Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County Require Teachers to be Licensed?

All Ascent Classical Academy teachers will be highly qualified.

Ascent Classical Academy will hire the most highly qualified teachers for our classrooms and seek out content experts.

After involved parents, it’s known that highly effective teachers, using an excellent, proven curriculum in the classroom, have the greatest impact on student success. Ascent Classical Academy seeks staff with expertise in their content area and the best teachers for each position may or may not be licensed teachers.

One of the automatic waivers granted charter schools by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) is a waiver from teacher licensure requirements (Colorado Revised Statutes 22-63-201), which most, if not all, charter schools in Colorado have.  View a complete report of all waivers granted to charter schools throughout Colorado.

Rather than having licensed teachers, the state of Colorado allows charter schools to hire “highly-qualified” teachers.  To earn this designation a teacher must have a college degree or other demonstrated expertise in a content area that person will be teaching.  At the 6th grade level and below, a teacher may take a placement test.   Details on the “highly-qualified” qualification is found on the CDE website.

This waiver allows Ascent Classical to hire a teacher with a master’s degree in Chemistry to teach science, or a retired college English literature professor to teach high school English.  Liberty Common School in Ft Collins, the school that set the all-time ACT record in Colorado, does not have a single “licensed” teacher.


Q:  How Did Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County Get Started?

Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County is a joint effort of several Douglas County parents, other parents who have been involved in starting classical schools, and classical school leaders in Colorado.  The application team is excited and committed to replicating a strong classical charter school in Douglas County.


Q:  What is the Role of the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative?

Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County will collaborate with the Barney Charter School Initiative, a win-win for the school and Douglas County.

With assistant from the Barney Charter School team, Ascent Classical Academy is replicating existing, highly successful classical, liberal arts schools in Colorado, such as Ridgeview Classical School, Golden View Classical, and Vanguard Classical (Colorado Springs) Academies.

Rather than starting from ground zero to recreate these schools from scratch, our group initiated a partnership with the Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College..  The Barney Charter School Initiative is a program that is replicating much of Ridgeview Classical School ‘s model, which is also very similar to Liberty Common and Vanguard Classical Academy.  Golden View Classical Academy in Golden, Colorado is a sister Barney Charter School, currently in its second year.

Hillsdale College is a national leader in liberal arts education and has provided help to K-12 schools across the country to create high-quality classical, liberal arts programs.

Mentorship and Experience

While Ascent Classical is working directly with people involved in Ridgeview Classical School, Golden View Classical Academy, and Liberty Common Schools, Hillsdale brings additional mentorship and experience to the table to help ensure our team is replicating a high-quality school. This reduces the risk to Douglas County by providing the Ascent Classical Academy team has more guidance and advice to facilitate our implementing a top-notch program and establishing our culture.  The school will also have a close relationship with Golden View Classical Academy, that will be available to provide mentoring and other support.

Help Identifying a Great School Leader

In addition to Ascent Classical’s own efforts,  Hillsdale helps conduct a nation-wide search and screening for a school leader with the skills and background to run a K-12 classical, liberal arts charter school.   The local application team for Ascent Classical Academies will make the selection of school leader.

Teacher Professional Development

Before opening, a team of professors and staff from Hillsdale College will come to Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County for two weeks to conduct initial teacher training.  The team from Hillsdale provides training on Core Knowledge, Riggs phonics, Singapore math, classical education philosophy, and other topics critical for success in the classroom.  This is in addition to the professional development Ascent Classical Academy staff conducts among itself.

In subsequent years, Hillsdale College will assist Ascent Classical Academy with professional development for its staff at its annual training program in Michigan, with other teachers from across the United States. This allows our teachers to receive high quality training from college-level instructors with experience in the liberal arts and classical education, while also having the opportunity to network and connect with teachers from other classical, liberal arts charter schools.

The professional development provided by Hillsdale College is conducted at no cost to Ascent Classical Academy.

Traditional, Liberal Arts Education as the Most Daring Reform of All

Traditional, Liberal Arts Education as the Most Daring Reform of All

In the era of thinking public schools should be focused on “21st-century-skills” and preparing American students to be “college and career ready,” Diana Senechal writes true education reform should be a return to a traditional approach to education, without adopting fads. Ms Senechal suggests we examine education’s meaning, purpose, and content and advocates a content-based education core in the liberal arts and sciences acknowledging the value of tradition.