At Padre Pio Academy in Shawnee, Kansas, Catholic education is being redefined. Students in kindergarten through ninth grade are taking Latin and advanced mathematics, and the school community prays together thrice daily.
Founded in 1999 by a handful of parents who had been homeschooling their children, the Padre Pio Academy now serves about 40 students in kindergarten through ninth grade with five full-time and three part-time teachers.
Kay O’Connor, a former Republican state senator, has been teaching a variety of subjects, including Latin, grammar, and reading, at the school for four years. Known in Kansas legislative circles as “the voucher lady” because of her strong support for school choice, O’Connor finds her work at Padre Pio rewarding.
“I love teaching, and I love teaching Latin,” O’Connor said, “and I love that our school requires this, and it’s one of the steps we are taking to having a truly classical curriculum.”
Padre Pio Academy is slowly evolving to a fully classical curriculum, said Principal Kevin McNeill, who emphasized the changes are incremental. Classical educational programs are each unique, but typically feature languages like Greek or Latin, coupled with a strong grammar program, logic and rhetoric instruction, and an interdisciplinary focus on the canon of the Western tradition.
“As far as academics go, we share a lot with other schools in terms of typical math, reading, and history,” McNeill noted, “but we are also striving to implement the classical curriculum, and one step with that is starting to teach Latin. We teach students prayers in Latin, as well. We also have an art program. At Padre Pio, we are trying to create an overall academic experience, both intellectual and cultural.”
Because of the school’s small size, students are grouped together with their peers in grade blocks–for example sixth, seventh, and eighth grades together. McNeill and O’Connor agree that one benefit of this arrangement is the flexibility to allow students to work and advance at their own pace.
“Sometimes new students need some assistance catching up,” O’Connor said. “They can work as fast as they want, and get themselves up to grade level. When they arrive they take a diagnostic, and we place them. We have to give them the proper foundation so that they are competent. Failure is not the goal.”
Though O’Connor herself has only a high school education, she believes importing some of the rigor and discipline of her 1950s schooling is essential to a strong educational program. A self-proclaimed grammar stickler, she teaches students the “lost art” of diagramming sentences.
“The diagramming of sentences, when I went to school in the 1950s, was something we did from about the sixth grade through probably the twelfth grade,” O’Connor explained. “Diagramming teaches so much about precision in communications, whether reading, writing, or speaking. It teaches you not to be ambiguous, and to avoid errors.”
Teaching students to think creatively and earnestly about history, literature, and religion, McNeill said, is also an emphasis, particularly for students preparing for high school.
Padre Pio Academy takes its name and inspiration from the recently canonized Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, a Roman Catholic priest from Italy who lived from 1887 to 1968. Padre Pio was known for his humility and his commitment toward helping the suffering.
The school is not affiliated with any Catholic order, but it is officially recognized by the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, the Reverend Joseph F. Naumann. The school follows the authority of the Church, respecting its hierarchy and trusting its requirements. Practicing Catholicism daily is a priority.
“Elsewhere, prayer life has been lost,” McNeill lamented. “But here, prayer is emphasized.
“At the time [that Padre Pio Academy was founded], there was a strong connection with the Fraternity of St. Peter,” McNeill continued. “They acted as a chaplain, saying Mass, for a few years. But since then, the priests have gotten so busy, our ties are not really there any more. There is no official connection with the diocese.”
Because the school operates independently, it is fully funded by tuition and donations. McNeill charged O’Connor, eager to share her ample political and social connections with Padre Pio Academy, with spearheading the school’s scholarship fundraising efforts.
“As a former legislator, I have a lot of connections with people sympathetic to conservative ideas about schooling,” O’Connor explained. “The entire school taking Latin, grace every day and in Latin, and students working a full grade level ahead of the norm in many subjects is appealing.”
In addition to providing a strong educational program infused with the Roman Catholic faith, Padre Pio also serves a large number of formerly homeschooled students. Many of those, O’Connor and McNeill both said, arrive well prepared for the rigorous curriculum.
McNeill suggested the school’s size and small classes benefit all new students.
“We look at new students and say, ‘What is he or she capable of?’ and we assess each student,” McNeill explained. “We tailor the academics such that kids can go at their own pace, as fast as they can, and that helps a lot. The ones who need more work can get that, and the ones who want to move faster can, particularly at the lower grades.”
Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.
For more information …
Padre Pio Academy, http://www.padrepioacademy.org