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Julia Duin

Special to CNN

(CNN) -- In Maryland, a group of students ponder which depiction of the Nativity shows true beauty: A 14th-century Giotto, a 16th-century Barocci or a 20th-century William Congdon. The students are in seventh grade.

Outside Houston, second-graders learn Latin amid the Doric columns, Romanesque arches and the golden Renaissance hues of a gracious brick building.

And in West Tennessee, a first-grade classroom lists virtues - reverence, discipline, diligence and loving kindness - along with Aristotle's "four questions," a simplified version of the Greek philosopher's four causes.

The students attend some of several hundred "classical" schools around the country - institutions designed to reflect the scholarship from the past three millennia of Western civilization, rather than the latest classroom trends.

Classical schools are less concerned about whether students can handle iPads than if they grasp Plato. They generally aim to cultivate wisdom and virtue through teaching students Latin, exposing them to great books of Western civilization and focusing on appreciation of "truth, goodness and beauty." Students are typically held to strict behavioral standards in terms of conduct and politeness, and given examples of characters from history to copy, ranging from the Roman nobleman Cincinnatus to St. Augustine of Hippo.

Parents like them, too; the number of classical schools - public and private - is growing. The curriculum has helped to boost enrollment at religious schools and inspired new public schools.

There are more than 55,000 members on the forums at welltrainedmind.com, a site started by Susan Wise Bauer, an author and educator who in 1999 published "The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home." The book has sold more than a half-million copies, and has become a bible for the classical education movement.

Some supporters will gather this week at the annual meeting of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools - an organization of 235 schools with more than 38,000 students. They'll attend workshops about how to delight students with poetry and strategies on how to introduce Van Gogh and Matisse to kindergarteners. Also in June, the Lynchburg, Virginia-based Society for Classical Learning will meet in San Antonio, where seminars focus on everything from rhetoric skills to overviews of ancient and medieval education methods.

For newcomers to the movement, these gatherings can feel like a trip back in time. Don't look here for discussions on No Child Left Behind; chit-chat in the hallways focuses more on Saint Chrysostom, Tom Paine and how to make it interesting to modern kids.

"As the movement has grown, there's been an increasing tendency to define a classical education as 'This is what Plato or Aristotle would have recognized,'" Bauer said. "But there are whole new fields of knowledge since then. We wouldn't reproduce their view of women, which was that they shouldn't get an education. What we're really doing now is neo-classical education."

The schools don't just add a few Latin or Greek classes to a modern curriculum. Classical education methods are a revamp of what it means to be educated. Many modern classical schools divide learning into the trivium of medieval institutions: Grammar, logic and rhetoric.

During the "grammar" years of kindergarten through fourth grade, children memorize facts and poetry, learn the rules of phonics and spelling, explore animal and plant kingdoms, music, basic math and the history of civilization beginning with ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

In the "logic" stage - grades five through eight - children evaluate, analyze, discern and question. They study algebra and how to propose and defend a thesis. They engage in focused discussion, begin to think through arguments and understand cause and effect. They're still parsing Latin verbs. At St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, the seventh-graders race to see who can write past and future tenses the quickest on individual stylus-like chalk boards.

The "rhetoric" stage - grades nine through 12 - concentrates on applying knowledge and expressing ideas through writing and speaking.

It's different than the typical school, but far from new. The concept of fusing the stages into modern education was popularized by a 1947 essay by British author Dorothy Sayers called "The Lost Tools of Learning."

"Classical education has never disappeared," said Christopher Perrin, publisher of Classical Academic Press, based in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. "It got eclipsed by the modern education movement starting in the 1890s, but you find these pockets where it's never gone away."

Now, the pockets are expanding.

Many classical educators are evangelical Protestants who launched a revival of classical education in the early 1990s. At institutions such as Augustine School in Jackson, Tennessee, prospective students are handed an admission packet that says they'll be taught "to pursue truth, goodness and beauty through the seven liberal arts and sciences under the universal lordship of Christ."

The135 students in the low-slung brick building study classical ballet, piano and violin. At the end of each quarter, students recite memorized poems, whole psalms and pieces of the Westminster Catechism, a set of Christian doctrines and beliefs. Students there begin Latin in third grade.

"Classical schools are committed - to some degree - to the importance of the classical languages," said Brad Green, co-founder of Augustine School. "Students will take several years of Latin and possibly some Greek as these are the languages of Western Christendom."

In recent years, more and more Roman Catholic schools have joined the movement. This started when, faced with steep enrollment declines, Catholic dioceses around the country began looking for innovative ways to attract students.

Four years ago in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., officials were looking for ways to save St. Jerome, a failing school for students pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. St. Jerome had to come up with a solution or be one of hundreds of parochial schools across the nation to be closed. Thus, a group of parents, parishioners, scholars and homeschoolers came up with the country's first-ever Catholic version of the classical curriculum. This 119-page document has detailed objectives for each grade, moral qualities to be acquired and reading lists. The curriculum describes how the "building blocks of learning" can be used in "the shape of the soul."

The curriculum says the "kind of person we hope would emerge after nine years at St. Jerome would desire truth, understand courage, modesty and prudence and understand what difference God makes to all the facets of the world."

Today, St. Jerome is a thriving classical academy with quotes about chivalry and other virtues on the hallway walls. Second-graders might wear togas, make laurel wreaths out of paper plates and recite Mark Antony's 35-line oration from Act III of "Julius Caesar." First-graders study Aesop's fables. Pasted on the walls of the seventh-grade classroom is a Joan Didion quote, "Grammar is a piano I play by ear," and another translated in Latin, "Verbum caro hic factum est: (The Word was made flesh here)."

The school is bursting at the seams, with 130 applications for this coming fall, when it plans to increase enrollment to 300. Catholic schools near Rochester, New York, Denver and Lexington, Kentucky, have adopted St. Jerome's curriculum and the emerging Catholic classical movement will hold its first conference in July.

"When we started developing a new curriculum, we were trying to save our school," said Mary Pat Donoghue, St. Jerome's principal. "But now, in an era of growing malaise and cynicism, we're equipping young minds and hearts to save civilization itself."

Rania Rosborough, a doctor who sends three of her children to St. Jerome, said she was less-than thrilled with the instruction she got from public schools while growing up in Maryland. She and her husband wanted more for their kids.

"We liked its chronologic approach to history, the thorough treatment of grammar and training in Latin," she said. She liked how the school trains kindergartners about ancient Egypt, first-graders about ancient Greece and second-graders about the Roman Empire, onward through history.

"We feel a basic timeline of world history provides context for understanding current events," she said, "and a fractured presentation of history impedes its lessons."

Although the majority of classical schools are Christian and conservative, the ideas transfer to schools of all political leanings, said Jonathan Beeson, a Yale Divinity School graduate and former Protestant minister who converted to Catholicism and became the principal of St. Theresa Catholic School in Sugar Land, Texas.

"There's nothing in classical education inherently conservative or liberal," he said. "And we're not scared of memorization. Kids need content in their brains and they're wired to absorb it. You can't reflect on something if it's not in your brain in the first place."

At St. Theresa, students attend classes in buildings designed by ecclesiastical architect Duncan G. Stroik. The Doric columns, airy atrium and white-and-green terrazzo floors import Mediterranean classicism onto the Texas prairie.

"When I saw the plans for this building, I wanted to join this project because the priest here understood the aesthetics necessary for academic formation," Beeson said.

When his pre-K-through-fifth-grade school starts again in the fall, it will have 160 students. Second-graders learn Greek history with the help of children's versions of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." Latin lessons start in first grade.

"I hope they'll be reading Latin literature some day," he said. "That's the main goal. Kids who understand grammar have a better chance of being writers."

Educators couldn't point to independent studies on classical education's effectiveness. Each year, the Association of Classical and Christian Schools compares the SAT scores of classically educated students with national statistics. The class of 2012 averaged 621 in reading, 606 in writing and 597 in math, scores much higher than the national average. A 2011 survey of its member schools' alumni showed that 98.3% attended college. Of those students, 34.8% attended a Christian university. Their top secular picks were Georgia Tech, the University of Southern California and the U.S. Naval Academy.

"Most schools report that their graduates are very competitive, and many enter selective colleges," said Classical Academic Press' Perrin, who blogs out of insideclassicaled.com.

The idea is catching on with parents and educators alike. Some school systems have adopted classical models in public charter schools. Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colorado, got into the act with Ridgeview Classical Schools, a K-12 charter school. It's ranked 103 in the country on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best high schools.

In the Phoenix area, there is Great Hearts Academies, a network of 16 public charter classical schools. The schools' stress that even their students' down time, like their after-school dances, must be classical in nature. One of the "philosophical pillars" on its site states: "We believe, with Plato, that the highest goal of education is to become good, intellectually and morally."

And Hillsdale College, a private, liberal arts institution in southern Michigan, is starting up classical charter schools around the country with funding from the Barney Family Foundation. It opened schools in Moriarty, New Mexico; and Lewisville, Texas; last fall. A third will open this fall in Savannah, Georgia, and four more are planned for Atlanta, Las Vegas, Columbus, Ohio; and Naples, Florida.

"A comment I constantly hear is 'I want my child to learn to think' and that is what we specialize in. Our children memorize reams of grammar, Scripture, history facts and chants; things people don't bother to do any more," said Seth Drown, dean of academic affairs for Augustine School in Tennessee, where enrollment has increased every year for the past decade. "What education needs to have is knowledge, skill and understanding. Most people think education is about the first one on that list. But knowledge is just the platform for the other two.

"Deep down, don't we all want meaning in life? It's when you step back and look at the big picture, that is when meaning gets attached to learning. And that is what we all desperately want."

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