In 2008, Dale Ahlquist and Tom Bengston opened the first Chesterton Academy, a high school providing a classical education with English Catholic convert and writer G.K. Chesterton as its patron, in Edina, Minnesota.
Now, there are 27 schools in operation in the United States and Canada, a sister school in Italy, and nearly a dozen slated to open in the next two years.
Ahlquist and Bengston both had young families at the time, and they recognized a need for a classical high-school education rooted in and faithful to the Catholic Church. They also wanted to make It affordable so that families of average means could send their children there.
“People are drawn to the model that we have, which is a very classical, Catholic and affordable school,” said Ahlquist, president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and co-founder of the flagship school of the Chesterton Schools Network in Minnesota. “Those three things are very attractive.” Ahlquist acknowledged that there may be schools with any two of those three qualities, but when it comes to all three, “I think we meet a certain need that is just not being fulfilled anywhere else.”
The Chesterton Schools Network was then formed in 2013 to help other groups establish their own Chesterton Academies, with the Twin Cities’ school as a model. The Chesterton Schools Network is now under the aegis of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, formerly known as the American Chesterton Society, which is dedicated to Catholic education, evangelization and the social teaching of the Church.
The Chesterton Schools Network identifies several “hallmarks” of a Chesterton Academy: a focus on truth, goodness and beauty; a joyful learning environment; the Socratic seminar; the wit and wisdom of G.K. Chesterton; and more, according to the network website. The schools utilize a classical curriculum, combining a “broad, liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the development of Christian virtues and an appreciation of beauty,” according to the network’s website. Three pillars provide an overall structure to this education: intellect, character and spirituality. These pillars help illustrate the fundamentally Catholic approach of the Chesterton Schools Network. The intellectual life is not to be separated from the spiritual life, nor from the development of character.
In addition to the humanities (history, literature, philosophy, theology and languages), fine arts (music, art, art history and studio art, drama and performance), and math and science, students also have various activities available to them, including sports (soccer, cross country/track, basketball and baseball/softball), robotics club, mock trial and more.
The Catholic faith is a fundamental and integral part of each Chesterton Academy. Students study Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Church documents. They study Church history and read the writings of the saints. They go on pilgrimages and retreats. They go to Mass, Eucharistic adoration and confession. Sacred art and crucifixes adorn the walls, and faith is incorporated into every subject.
Katie Heggemeier was drawn to the Chesterton Academy of Albuquerque because of the school’s focus on Jesus Christ. Two of her children attend the school.
“Seeing the Holy Spirit move in our little community here has been beyond anything we had hoped for when we first signed up for Chesterton Academy,” she said. The family knew this would not be the typical high-school experience. “Our hope is that future students and their families hear God’s call and can experience the joyful and faith-filled education that we have experienced.”
The Chesterton Academy’s “mission as a classical Catholic school allows the students to discover what it means to be human, with both its physical and spiritual components,” said Mary Fick, a teacher of theology, history and art at the Chesterton Academy of Albuquerque. “The curriculum is designed to encourage the students to pursue a life filled with gratitude and wonder, and it shows them how a life lived in wonder is a life that will satisfy their life’s desires because it will lead them to true happiness in Christ.”
Chesterton Schools and COVID-19
The Chesterton Schools Network showed an incredible resilience during the nationwide and worldwide lockdowns due to COVID-19. While schools all over were closing their doors, nine new Chesterton Schools were opened in the fall of 2020.
“It was remarkable,” said Ahlquist. “While schools were shutting down, we had new schools opening at the very same time.”
The lead time for one of these schools’ openings is typically at least a year or two, but the schools were able to open and successfully begin operations in the midst of a pandemic.
The Chesterton Schools Network unifies dozens of individual schools.
“They are self-started schools,” Ahlquist explained. “We just show them how to do it. We have curriculum, but we also have a template on how to run a school, which is as important as knowing what to teach the students. It’s a ‘school in a box.’”
Rolando Moreno is president of the Board of Directors for Chesterton Academy of the Willamette Valley, in Mount Angel, Oregon. Opened in 2018, the Willamette Valley school was able to continue in-person instruction while following all COVID restrictions, as its enrollment is relatively low compared to the size of the school building.
“We lost a couple of students because of the uncertainty of how the year would go, but we added a few transfer students along the way, as well,” Moreno said.
The future looks bright for the Chesterton Academy of the Willamette Valley, For example, it will be doubling its enrollment this school year, which will also mean adding faculty members.
“Our mission is well supported by prayer and generous financial contributions from many people who love the type of education Chesterton Academy offers, an education deeply rooted in the Catholic faith and oriented towards the pursuit of truth and excellence,” Moreno said.
“Our growth during COVID is the result of the real need for this type of education, one that is not subject to ideologies and the moral confusion of our time,” Moreno said.
Another sign of the growth of the network comes from an unexpected place: This September, the Chesterton Academy of St. Thomas the Apostle is opening in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. After the Islamic State militant organization swept through Mosul and the surrounding areas, Christians fled and settled in droves in Erbil. The school is a collaboration between the Chesterton Schools Network, Franciscan University of Steubenville and Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Erbil. When the archbishop heard of Chesterton Academy’s classical model, he knew he wanted to bring such a school to his flock.
The Erbil school is not the first transcontinental collaboration of the Chesterton Schools Network. That honor goes to the Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy. This school opened in 2008, the same year as the first ever Chesterton Academy. Remarkably, the two schools were founded separately, completely unknown to each other. They were first introduced to each other in 2013, after which they became sister schools and collaborators.
Clare Podczerwinski was initially skeptical about Chesterton Academy of the Holy Family in Lisle, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Growing up in Chicago, she was used to the small Catholic-school education, and after eighth grade, she wanted to go to a public high school.
“I went to Chesterton because my mom forced me, but now I would not trade it for the world,” she said. When her mother, Janet — the drama and choir teacher at Chesterton — made the decision, Clare cried for hours on end. It only took a semester, though, and she had fallen in love with the school.
“When I woke up, I was so excited to go to school with my friends, who I loved, and with teachers who wanted me to succeed and wanted to help me in every way,” she said. “And, most importantly, all of these people had the same goal as me: to get to heaven. We were all on the same journey together.”
“We believe firmly in truth, beauty and goodness as it pertains to a Catholic liberal arts approach to teaching and learning,” said Joseph O’Connor, father of one student and one alumna of the Chesterton Academy of Annapolis, Maryland. He hopes that the Chesterton Academy education provides his children and others with the opportunity “to grow in their love for Christ and the Church that he founded.”
by Paul Senz, National Catholic Register, Septembet 16, 2021