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Growing Idaho’s American Classical Academy Public Charter Schools

by Alan Gottlieb 

A three-year-old classical academy charter school in Fruitland has proved so popular that its founder is launching a new organization to help other Idaho communities open schools following the same model.

Despite being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic disruption during its first year of operation, the Treasure Valley Classical Academy (TVCA) has thrived and has a lengthy waiting list. Steve Lambert, the retired Air Force colonel who founded the school, is now shifting over to lead American Classical Schools of Idaho (ACSI), a nonprofit Charter Support Organization.

The new organization will also include a foundation for fundraising, and a governance board. The idea behind having one board overseeing multiple schools, Lambert said, is to promote efficiency and consistency of governance.

TVCA opened as a K-6 school in 2019 and will add a grade each year until it runs through high school. The plan is for any future classical academies also to serve 702 students in grades K-12.

The first replication of TVCA, Idaho Novus Classical Academy, will open in August 2024 in Avimor, a northwest Boise foothills development. Lambert says he has been contacted by groups across the state interested in opening classical academies of their own.

“South Meridian, Kuna, Rexburg, Idaho Falls,” Lambert said, ticking off the names of communities that have reached out to him. “There is an interest in the Bonners Ferry to Sandpoint corridor. There’s interest across the state and so we’re trying to be faithful to that interest in an organized way.”

Idaho Novus Classical Academy has already hired a school leader, veteran educator Vincent Kane, and Director of Operations, Bruce Sims, a retired Marine. Kane and Sims are spending the next two years planning for the school’s 2024 opening. They are supported by Bluum fellowships as they work to open the school.

“We’re thrilled to have Dr. Kane and Mr. Sims on the ground here and we’re very grateful that Bluum is supporting them with fellowships,” Lambert said. “This is the ideal way to get a school opened up, to be on the ground two years out. It gives them a time to get acclimatized to Idaho and to learn the community and the community to know them, and to be prepared for opening Novus. Anytime you open a school it’s a tall order.”

Dan Richter, Avimor’s developer, said he has followed the growth of classical academies for 20 years, and has long known he wanted one placed within Avimor. He said he is so excited about Novus that he has persuaded his daughter to move to Idaho from Phoenix so his grandchildren can attend the school.

Richter also donated land within Avimor for the school, and said he will donate land for “as many more” as Lambert wants to build as Avimor continues to be built out.

TVCA, Novus, and all future classical schools under the ACSI aegis will be affiliated with Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative, a rapidly growing network of charters that adopt the initiative’s curriculum, ‘virtues,’ and pedagogy.

Founded in 1844 by abolitionists known as Free Will Baptists, Hillsdale College has a liberal arts curriculum based on the Western heritage as a product of both Greco-Roman culture and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Hillsdale requires every student, regardless of major, to complete a core curriculum that includes courses on the Great Books, U.S. Constitution, biology, chemistry and physics. These same traditions and values animate the Barney Charter School Initiative and the work of their public charter school partners across the country.

Classical academies, Lambert said, focus on the whole human being, “not just putting bits of data in kids’ heads. Our mission is to train the minds and improve the hearts of our students through classical content-rich curriculum that emphasizes virtuous living, traditional learning, and civic responsibility.”

TVCA is the first school in the barney Charter School Network to earn the designation of a certified school by Hillsdale College. This means, essentially, that the school is an exemplar of the model, from curriculum to pedagogy to instruction to financial sustainability. Lambert said he aspires to having every school in his new Idaho network become certified.

New schools will open only if, and when, there is a true ground-up local movement to bring the model to a community. While Novus and TVCA operate with 54 students per grade level, Lambert said he will explore ways to bring classical academies to smaller communities that can’t provide that many students.

Kane, who moved to Idaho from Alaska, where he served as an assistant principal, principal, and assistant superintendent in remote, rural communities, said he has been drawn to the classical approach to education since first becoming interested in education in college, and reading some of the works of E.D. Hirsch, the creator of the Core Knowledge curriculum.

Kane started college thinking he would train to become a lawyer, but ultimately decided he would rather be “in the trenches” working directly in schools to improve the nation’s education system. He moved to Alaska after a teaching stint in New Hampshire.

He said classical education appeals to him because of its character- and citizen-building components as well as its reliance on primary source documents in the study of history.

“I was a civics teacher, I taught U.S. history. I think it’s extremely important that when you approach the teaching of history that you do so through primary source documents,” Kane said. “Within these American classical schools, what you’ll see is an approach to history where students are reading and talking about primary source documents, having classroom discussions where they’re the ones drawing conclusions from those resources. That’s the way history ought to be taught.”

Sims came to Novus through Mission43, a veterans-initiative of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. He knew he wanted to retire with his family to Idaho after 21 years in the Marines. So he connected with Mission43 as a way of completing his active duty. His final duty as a Marine is finishing up his Master’s Degree in education. He met Lambert through Mission43.

When Lambert invited him to visit TVCA, Sims said, he fell in love with the model at first sight. “It’s vastly different from anything I had ever seen,” he said. “I’m just really grateful that I have a purpose in my retired career.

“Before I left my boss said that when you retire from the military you need to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to continue having that sense of fulfillment you got from military duty. With Novus, I have that. I have a sense of purpose and a way to give back to the community.”

Treasure Valley Classical Academy is a Bluum partner school, and has received grant support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, and also from Idaho’s Communities of Excellence federal Charter Schools Program grant.

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