Sandhills Classical School in Transition
Now in its 12th year, Sandhills Classical Christian School has hit its stride even while making major changes.
"We're in a time of transition, very good transition," says interim Headmaster Kelly Poirier.
The school is growing - enrollment has increased by more than 50 percent in the last three years - and with that growth comes the need for more space. Sandhills Classical is addressing it with modular buildings in the short-term and a building campaign in the long-term.
Meanwhile, students are thriving.
They consistently test two years above grade level on the Stanford Achievement Test, and that's without emphasizing testing.
"We don't spend even one day doing any kind of test prep here. That's not our focus," says Poirier. "Learning is our focus."
Parents appreciate that their children are performing well in standardized tests but don't see it as the defining distinction about the school.
"I can see the results in my children that extend far beyond what a standardized test shows," says Sharon Landers, a parent whose three children attend the school.
When a neighbor spoke to Landers in French, her son Kevin, a rising sixth-grader, translated for her. Kevin has never studied French. He picked up on the roots of the French words and translated them from French to Latin, which Sandhills Classical students learn beginning in third grade, to English.
"It's moments like this that demonstrate to me the quality education my son is getting," Landers says.
Students' strong language skills follow suit from the school's emphasis on a solid foundation in spelling and reading. Kindergarteners learn letters, letter sounds and spelling rules using the phonics method. Sandhills Classical's intensive phonics study is one of the most rigorous offered.
Kindergarten teacher Lynette Proulx says the method "automatically gives the children confidence" because they have a significant reading vocabulary as early as the first quarter of school.
Parents regard other, less measurable aspects of the school as equally important.
"I appreciate the character value they're learning," says Suzy Gyles, whose son is a rising fifth-grader. "It's the glue that holds everything together."
Character value is taught starting with the school's companion preschool, Little Friends.
Children learn traits like self-control, thankfulness, and being responsible and respectful. Those themes continue through into Sandhills Classical, where students learn how to treat classmates and why it matters that they care about the rest of the world.
This concept of thinking about the world is key to the school's mission. Students are taught both how to evaluate information from a Christian worldview and how to interact with the world in a loving and caring way.
Teachers in every grade spend a portion of classroom time with Bible lessons. Children learn what is appropriate and ethical behavior from what they see modeled in the Bible. Their Bible knowledge is impressive. Sixth-graders, for example, memorized the entire Book of James then recited verbatim all 2,000-plus words at a year-end celebration.
With this biblical foundation, students are then taught to think on their own. It's not unusual for a teacher of sixth- through eighth-graders - the grades known as the Logic stage of the school - to respond to students' questions with, "Tell me what you think."
Invigorating class discussions ensue. Students are capable of intellectual discussion because a classical education teaches to the developmental stage of children. It's around age 12 that children start to debate, question and point out others' mistakes. Rather than squashing that spirit of contradiction, Sandhills Classical harnesses it to teach children to reason through questions and debate one another.
In fact, seventh- and eighth-graders are taught formal logic, a stepping stone to understanding reasoning and a sound basis for future professions such as law, engineering and math. By the end of Logic School, children will know how to form sound arguments while responding respectfully to the opinions of others.
Another hallmark of a classical education is subject integration. Students see how their studies interrelate.
Art teacher Susan Baer demonstrated with a study of Dutch artist M.C. Escher, whose work was both mathematical and biblical in theme. Sixth- and seventh-grade students learned about the geometry of Escher's tessellations, and they examined his lesser-known series of woodcuts featuring the days of creation.
Fourth-graders learning insect classification saw the crossover among science, Latin and the Bible. Teacher Joy Johnson taught students the Latin names for insects they were required to collect. Part of the collection was a papilio (that's Latin for "butterfly"). Johnson talked to children about the metamorphosis of a butterfly and its parallel to Christians becoming new creations through Jesus.
Though clearly Christian, the school does not shelter students from secular literature or history.
While learning about ancient Greece, for example, third-graders study Greek mythology. They cap off the chapter with a Greek Feast, where parents are invited for a lunch of typical foods from ancient Greece. Students dress as mythological characters and demonstrate what they've learned with a play depicting the history and legends.
"We're not afraid to expose our children to different ideologies," says Dan Askins, who has two daughters at the school. "Some of the books students read in the upper grades may not make it on the reading lists at other schools."
Indeed, the reading lists are impressive. Students read classic works of literature starting in early grades. Fourth-graders read "Beowulf" and "Macbeth," and seventh-graders read "The Epic of Gilgamesh."
In addition to time-tested literature, Sandhills Classical introduces students to source material. They won't read about the U.S. Constitution, for example. They will go right to the source and study the Constitution.
It's this classical aspect of the school that distinguishes it from other Christian schools.
"If Sandhills weren't classical, I'd have to homeschool," said Gyles. "I could never go back to a Christian school that wasn't classical, too."
Gyles need not worry. As the school grows and transitions, the classical building blocks will remain a constant.
"We'll always offer the classical components," said Poirier. "It's what enables our students to achieve their highest potential."
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