Unlike most private, Christian schools, Aletheia School bases its curriculum on classical education. The school's educational philosophy is rooted in the educational traditions of ancient Rome and focuses on the building blocks of language, logic and rhetoric.
Aletheia School is located in what was once the infirmary of St. Joseph's Home and is now the back part of Cross Baptist Church.
Classrooms are small, sometimes as cramped as a hospital room though class sizes average five or six students each. Space heaters are as prolific as old-fashioned chalkboards and erasers. Hallways veer off from a large windowed common room, another tangible reminder this was once a nursing home with separate wings.
Down one hallway, second- and third-graders conjugate verbs in Sandra Spengler's Latin class. Five students, six desks. Down another hall, at another time, Thad Powell's history class, second-through-sixth grades combined, begins, as always, with a time-line chant of the nation's history they've studied so far, including naming each president - up to Nixon, for now - and sing-song dates of key events and eras, such as the Monroe Doctrine, California Gold Rush, Reconstruction, Battle of Little Big Horn, the Spanish-American War.
In another hall, the sign taped to the first door on the right reads "Future Science Lab (Lord willing)." The word 'future' is scratched out in pencil.
A single scratched-out word conveys faith in the school and its future. Aletheia will endure, the scratch suggests, and it will have a science lab one day. For now, the school is at another crossroad.
A major donor stopped financial support last year, forcing a school-wide restructuring. Classes were combined, the headmaster, a paid, professional position, was laid off and, for the first time in the school's seven-year history, the board appointed a parent volunteer, Amy VanAusdall, to serve as headmaster, or principal.
Parents, willing to pay tuition and teach for no pay, have always made up the bulk of Aletheia's staff, mainly to keep overall costs low. Twelve of the 14 teachers are parents. Along with all the other quirks that affect school enrollment year to year, too many changes were coming too fast for some parents.
"We probably lost about 31 kids," Van Ausdall says. "It was devastating."
Even co-founder Dra Wiersma took three of his four school-age children out of Aletheia, though he stayed on as board president. Enrollment dropped from a peak of 43. But as some students left, new ones came, bringing current enrollment to 29.
The school is at a crossroad every year, Wiersma says.
"I didn't think it would survive last year. Amazingly, it's come through. This year we've run a balanced budget without significant donations. I would never have thought that."
Wiersma credits parents who discover the Christian classical education movement. "Once they get into it, they really love it."
Aletheia = Truth
Aletheia is the Greek word for 'truth.' The school, private, Christian and conservative, operates from 8 a.m. to noon. It started in 2002 in Van Ausdall's Hanna City home with five students, including her three. As enrollment grew, the school added more classes, eventually moving to Redeemer Lutheran Church and outgrowing it before moving to Cross Baptist.
Unlike other private, Christian schools in the area - except for a high school that opened and closed in a few years - Aletheia bases its curriculum on classical education. Like many parents who enroll their children in the school, Van Ausdall had no idea what "classical education" meant when she made room for the school in her home.
Wiersma and the Rev. Phil Henry, then pastor of Van Ausdall's church, Hanna City Presbyterian Church, had several, intertwined missions when they founded Aletheia. One, they wanted an affordable private school. Two, they wanted a school with a curriculum that relied heavily on the rigorous educational traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. And three, they wanted a school with a Christian worldview that didn't shy from tough issues, a school, Wiersma says, that was "more offensive than defensive" about Christian education.
So, while Aletheia's teachings are rooted in creationism, the goal is for students to know more about the theory of evolution than 98 percent of their peers, Wiersma says.
While some Christian schools might ban certain books, very few books would be banned in a classical education environment. While some Christian school curriculums seem intent on protecting students from "bad" influences, a Christian school with a classical education curriculum would teach them the tools to question, analyze and express themselves about any influence logically.
But that aspect of classical education doesn't begin until the middle and high school level. Before that, Aletheia focuses on the building blocks of language, logic and rhetoric.
By second grade, all students are taking Latin, which enhances English grammar and language skills. Primary grades center on memorizing facts, often in songs, chants and rhymes. Young children like rote memorization, the thinking goes, and young minds retain information best that way.
As older students head upstairs for a tennis class, younger students swarm into the lunch room for a snack.
"Let's do the Africa song," one says. In unison, they chant the countries of Africa, from Algeria to Zimbabwe. Next, they sing-song the traits of insectivores.
"In the grammar stage, the classical method is memory, memory, memory," says Sheila Dalton, a parent/teacher.
Classical education is not confined to private Christian schools. Some public charter schools and home-schools have also embraced the method, making for something of a resurgence. But conservative Christians have been most responsible for its growth, says Emil Kramer, a classics professor at Augustana College.
Aletheia isn't necessarily reflective of all Christian classical schools. In some ways it resembles a home-school cooperative, but it's not. It's a school, dependent on enrollment and parental involvement to survive.
Teachers' meetings devolve into parents' meetings easily because so many teachers are parents. They can go from discussing an upcoming teachers' training session and classical education conference to comparing notes about how their children react to certain school requirements.
Some of them are as willing to send their children to public schools as to Christian schools, some aren't particularly attracted to home-schooling. Some are still learning what a classical education is, others, such as Spengler, the Latin teacher, chose Aletheia specifically because of its focus on classical education.
"In spite of the sacrifice, the hard work and the commitment, I wouldn't change my children's school for any other in the area," she says.
Eyes on the future
Ideally, Van Ausdall would like to see it grow to its full capacity, about 88 students. As more students enrolled, more parents would volunteer as teachers and, perhaps, they'd get to the point they could have a teacher per grade, rather than combined classes, and hire a professional headmaster again.
But, with the school year almost over, she's come to see losing a major donor and restructuring hasn't been all bad.
"We realized we were relying too much on one donor," she says. "We've had to rely more on God."
Pam Adams can be reached at (309) 686-3245 or email@example.com.