Catholic Classical Education in the City of Brotherly Love
By Philip D. Cialini
Photos by Margaret Coppa
The first Regina Academy, Regina Coeli Academy, began as an idea in 2002. As an undertaking, it may sound novel, but to thousands of parents it is simply a re-imaging and rekindling of a tradition of faith and academics long jettisoned from American public schools, and even nearly forgotten among Catholics.
Today there are four Regina Academies, bastions and harbors for Catholic and non-Catholic families alike in the Philadelphia area. Here, their children are cultivated in classrooms where the virtues are celebrated, the faith is practiced, and academic achievement remain inextricably united to both.
It was in September 2002 that Barbara Henkels and her late husband Paul, both veteran board members of a myriad of Catholic colleges and universities across the United States, felt called to found the first Regina Academy. Their idea was to educate children through a Christocentric, classical curriculum.
In this far-ranging article, Philip Cialini interviews Barbara and some of today’s administrators, parents and teachers on the remarkable success of the Regina Academies.
REGINA: What inspired you to start Regina Academy?
BARBARA HENKELS: “Especially as parents, many of us saw the failures to teach the faith in our Catholic schools, and decided to stop wringing our hands and instead to try do something about it!”
ONE PARENT WHO SHARES BARBARA’S IDEALS IS TONY HAYDEN, chairmen of the board of Regina Angelorum Academy, which he helped found in 2006 in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, and which all five of his children attend. Tony and his wife Mary Kate have remained deeply involved ever since, seeing that Academy grow from under 50 to 122 students.
ALL FOUR ACADEMIES HAVE GRADES PRE-K TO 8; each of a similar size. In 2010, Regina Luminis in Dowingtown, Pennsylvania, opened a four year high school, thus extending the Regina curriculum to a secondary school.
REGINA: As a parent, what do you hope your children will take from a school like RAA?
TONY HAYDEN: “First and foremost, I think a lot about a quote I heard recently that, ‘It’s harder to be kind than clever.’ So first off I want my kids to be kind. One of Pope Benedict’s biggest enemies said in an interview about him that, ‘he was unfailingly kind.’ The easier part in life is to be clever.”
“AT RAA THE WRITINGS AND PRECEPTS OF ST. JOHN BOSCO, THE 19TH CENTURY ITALIAN SAINT AND FOUNDER OF THE SALESIAN SYSTEM—a preventative system founded on love rather than punishment—are revered. Teachers are encouraged to become familiar with his philosophy of education, while students are daily reminded of his words, “to be kind and cheerful.” Though St. John Bosco and many other saints are esteemed, it is Our Lady who is patron, and it is very much through her intercession that the Regina Academies seek to accomplish their mission.” – TONY HAYDEN
“THE ETHOS OF THE REGINA ACADEMIES, through the intercession of Our Lady and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is to assist parents in the formation and education of their children.” BARBARA HENKELS
OUR FOUNDING PRINCIPLE IS TO PROVIDE A DYNAMIC CHRIST-CENTERED ACADEMIC MILIEU CENTERED ON THE ROCK OF PETER; a milieu of love –academic excellence and catechesis–Christian witness, character, environment and atmosphere. The mentoring adults who supply that witness and teaching are the parents, faculties, administration, boards, and donors who generously live and foster the well-being and amazing vitality of the Regina schools.” BARBARA HENKELS
REGINA: Why is it important for Catholic students to engage with classical based learning?
BARBARA HENKELS: “Classical learning is time tested in educating the children in the true, the good and the beautiful. Our culture needs strong Catholic Christians who are broadly educated, can think critically, and are at home publicly presenting truths utilizing the dynamics of right reasoning. Such strong and faith filled young men and women are essential to guide and lead the next generation. Classical learning provides a foundation that is irrefutable on which those qualities can flourish in our youngsters and will ultimately prepare them to be of holy and substantial influence in the culture.”
Susan Brown and her husband Brian, president and co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), were new to the Philadelphia area in 2011, and were anxious to find a Catholic school for five of their eight children which shared their values. They discovered RAA through other families in their parish who, like the Browns, had previously homeschooled their children.
“BEFORE OUR CHILDREN ENROLLED AT RAA, THEY HAD ONLY EVER BEEN HOMESCHOOLED. As my husband and I began to consider sending them to school, we of course had certain reservations. We worried that they would not receive enough academic attention and that perhaps the curriculum would not be truly classical. We worried that even though we knew many of the families, our children might be exposed to ideas and language we had tried to shelter them from. We wondered if they were ready to be away from our guidance each day. I can happily say that the transition from home schooling to RAA has been seamless.” – Susan Brown
“I HAVE BEEN EXTREMELY IMPRESSED WITH THE CURRICULUM AND THE TEACHERS at RAA. I am floored by the amount of poetry they have memorized. One of my daughters has developed a deep love of poetry and loves to write her own poems. I know this is thanks to the RAA curriculum. I have been able to witness the dedication of so many of the faculty members not only in the classroom but at church and other Catholic cultural events.” – Susan Brown
“It is clear to me that my kids are being guided by practicing, faithful Catholic adults and this is key. RAA has been an answer to our prayers. This community is truly unique and we have been thrilled with the progress our children have made both academically and spiritually.” Susan Brown
The curriculum committee, which was founded in 2007, ensures that teachers remain dedicated to the Academies’ classical ethos. Diane Toler is director of Regina Luminis Academy and serves as co-chair of the committee.
REGINA: Many parents in the Catholic world desire their children to be educated classically in the liberal arts; the Regina Academies were born from that very concern. Yet how does Regina seek to be more than simply another Catholic school in the Philadelphia diocese?
Diane Toler: “What distinguishes us is our classical model. Employed is the idea of the ancient Trivium as applied to a 21st century school and outlined by Dorothy Sayers in her famous essay, ‘The Lost Tools of Learning‘. In a classical school, pedagogy reflects this trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric by applying it to the natural developmental stages of the children: roughly the grammar stage in elementary school, the logic stage in middle school, and the rhetoric stage in high school.”
“A CLASSICAL SCHOOL BRINGS FOCUS ON OUR INTELLECTUAL AND CULTURAL ROOTS IN ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME, brought to maturity in the light of our Savior and manifested brilliantly in Christendom especially during the Middle Ages. We keep alive the glories of Western Civilization’s culture and intellectual tradition. We retain our patrimony of literature, music, art, theology and philosophy.” Diane Toler
“BRINGING TO EDUCATION TRUTH, GOODNESS AND BEAUTY IS AN IMPORTANT GOAL. Students learn about the Iliad and the Odyssey in elementary school and read the real Homer in high school. They learn Gregorian chant and study great works of art. Mathematics is taught the ‘old fashioned’ way, which includes a good deal of memorization. The Baltimore Catechism is memorized and the truths of the faith are evident throughout the curriculum. Cursive is still taught.” – Diane Toler
REGINA: What academic freedom do the Academies afford for administrators and teachers, in contrast to schools in the public sector?
Diane Toler: “Our teachers are free to teach the truth. God is not left out but given His due as creator of the universe and savior of mankind. This does not mean that academics take a back seat. Rather, the curriculum is enriched with the Catholic perspective, giving a true telling of history, a sense of awe and wonder in science, a purpose to the study of mathematics. At Regina Luminis, we say that we are raising ‘Smart Saints’. “
“THE FORMATION OF STUDENTS IN VIRTUE is a very important aspect with regular attendance at Holy Mass as a school and other Catholic religious practices.” Diane Toler
REGINA: What is your vision for the Regina Academies community in the years to come?
Barbara Henkels: “Our vision is to continue to educate, foster and nourish the children in these educational and joyful oases of Christian love and learning that describe the Regina Academies. We are very grateful for the participation of so many generous individuals that give ‘wealth, work and wisdom’ to make our effort possible. We shall continue to expand, if and when the Holy Spirit and Our Lady open the way.”