Great Hearts Charter Network Makes Classical Education More Accessible

Published March 13, 2018

From work-study to character development, the arts, and civics education, charters provide an alternative to traditional public schools and have soared in growth and popularity, with enrollment tripling in the last decade.

‘Big Ideas of Human History’

Great Hearts Academies is a nonprofit network of public charter schools “dedicated to improving education nationwide through classical preparatory K-12 academies,” the organization’s website states.

Devoted to fully classical and liberal arts education, Great Hearts was founded more than a decade ago in Arizona. It now serves nearly 15,000 students at 28 schools across Arizona and Texas and has become Arizona’s largest nonprofit charter school network. No other network in the nation has more classical “brick and mortar” schools.

“What we offer is an education in the big ideas of human history,” said Jake Tawney, vice president of curriculum at Great Hearts. “Our goal is to help students become intellectually, morally, and aesthetically alive by providing them with an education in truth, goodness, and beauty. At the core of this is our Great Books program, wherein students read the best that has been written in literature, philosophy, and history. Surrounding this program is a set of rigorous courses in mathematics, science, and the fine arts. The liberal arts, after all, include all of this, presented as a beautiful whole to the student.”

‘Classical Education Is Vital’

Jay Heiler, Great Hearts cofounder and board chairman, says the network’s goals have remained consistent.

“When Great Hearts was founded, our dual intention was the same as today: restore classical liberal arts as the standard of excellence in American education and make it broadly available to everyone in a tuition-free, public school setting,” Heiler said. “Classical education is vital to the American future because it is inherently student-centered and directed at the formation of the human person as a free, critical-thinking, lifelong learner. It not only captures the imagination and ignites the love of learning and discovery, it elevates the imagination over the ego and draws us toward the envisioning and achievement of great things.”

The organization had to overcome doubts about the potential popularity of the founders’ vision, Heiler says.

“When Great Hearts was founded, with 130 students in a leased church property, the common critique was that it was a mere niche offering, destined to find both a limited audience and limited faculty,” Heiler said. “That was nearly 16,000 students and 1,200 teachers ago. Great Hearts created its own demand across time, and continues to do so, through the love and diligence of its faculty and school leadership and both the academic performance and personal development of its students.

“It also attracts students through the engagement of the parents and families who have chosen a Great Hearts school for their children and make up a positive, interactive community of lifelong learners,” Heiler said.

‘Long Been Out of Reach’

For centuries, classical education has been integral to the forming of great minds, including America’s founding fathers, yet it has not been widely available to most families in recent decades, limited to private, religious-affiliated, and homeschool classrooms. Heiler says Great Hearts is working to change that.

“For the past half-century or more, the model has long been out of reach to all but those who could afford pricey private schools,” Heiler said. “The distinctive determination of Great Hearts has been to democratize it and demonstrate its importance in the lives of individuals and communities alike.”

‘A Special Character’

The schools, while committed to a unified vision, remain unique to each locale, Tawney says.

“We operate schools in a wide variety of communities,” Tawney said. “Because we tend to operate on a ‘neighborhood school’ model, the demographics of the schools tend to reflect the community in which they are placed. We operate schools in Goodyear, Maryvale, downtown Scottsdale, Glendale, Anthem, Gilbert, [Arizona]. Each of these communities brings a special character to the student body found in their corresponding schools.”

Students at Great Hearts achieve very high scores on standardized tests, although the curriculum is not geared to a test. They earn higher average SAT scores than those attending elite, expensive private prep schools, Heiler said.

Continued Growth

Heiler says Great Hearts’ success is a product of high standards.

“We have accomplished the growth and scale thus far realized through sound execution across a wide, interdisciplinary range of competencies, ranging from the core academic offering to real estate and finance to public affairs to marketing,” Heiler said.

‘We Feel a Moral Imperative’

Heiler and Tawney say the Great Hearts model is designed for growth.

“Because we believe what [the philosopher] Mortimer Adler said, that ‘the best education for the best is the best education for all,’ we feel a moral imperative to provide this model to as many students as we can,” Tawney said. “Great Hearts is always looking to expand, both within the markets in which we already operate—Phoenix, Dallas/Irving, and San Antonio—and into new markets.”

“A nonprofit, mission-driven, and community-supported organization, Great Hearts will continue to expand for the purposes of bringing a world-class, classical liberal arts education to as many children and families as possible, and in so doing continue to lead in the restoration of American education to a standard of excellence our nation must achieve in the 21st century,” Heiler said.

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]writes from Alexandria, Virginia.