New faith-based school aimed at niche market

You might say the Buffalo Chesterton Academy is going old school.

Local public school districts and the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo are moving to shut down schools throughout Erie County, because the area has fewer and fewer children.

But the demographic trends haven’t discouraged a small group of Catholics from planning a new faith-based high school in Cheektowaga that will emphasize classic subjects such as philosophy, Latin and literature and rely on the Socratic method to teach the humanities.

“We’re a boutique school. We’re going to do some things that no one else does. We’re going to teach four years of philosophy in high school,” said Deacon Michael P. McKeating, chairman of the board of trustees of Buffalo Chesterton Academy. “This is not for everybody. It’s for a niche market – both for students and faculty. They will look at this and say, ‘That’s what I’ve been waiting for.’?”

The co-educational school is independent of the Diocese of Buffalo, although it will lease classroom space from St. Josaphat Catholic Church on William Street in Cheektowaga and each school day will start with a Mass inside the church.

Organizers anticipate enrolling 10 to 20 freshmen and sophomores and hiring two full-time teachers and several part-time teachers for this September. Tuition is $6,000 and an open house will be held March 23.

The school will be modeled after the G.K. Chesterton Academy in Edina, Minn., outside Minneapolis.

Named after the English writer and critic Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who was a staunch apologist for Catholicism, the Minnesota school began six years ago with 10 freshmen students and now has more than 150 students in grades nine through 12.

“We also started our school not only in the wake of school closings, but also in the midst of a terrible economic downturn,” said Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society and co-founder of the school.

Ahlquist, who also is the host of EWTN-TV’s “The Apostle of Common Sense,” will give a talk at 7 p.m. Friday in St. Josaphat Church parish hall as part of a fundraising event to benefit Buffalo Chesterton Academy.

The Minnesota school arose from a group of parents discussing where they planned to send their kids to high school and not being particularly satisfied with the options available, said Ahlquist.

“The words just came out of my mouth. ‘Well, let’s just start a high school. How hard could it be?’?” he recalled. “We first created what we wanted the product to look like. And we wanted it to be very classical and very centered on our faith.”

The group raised about $100,000 and opened the school in 2008 inside classrooms leased from a Protestant church.

In addition to math, science and the humanities, including subjects such as theology and debate, the school places a strong emphasis on music, drama and art.

But there are not a lot of bells and whistles, Ahlquist said.

“We don’t have any technology per se. We have books and a white board. The kids don’t have laptops or iPads or anything like that,” he said. “And their cellphones better not go off either. We’re quite unplugged in that regard.”

The school does offer a few sports, but no tuition money goes toward athletics, he said.

McKeating learned of the Chesterton school in 2013 during a trip to Rome to witness the papal conclave and election of Pope Francis.

McKeating was taking a walk around Rome when he stumbled on a group of young people playing soccer outside of a church. He noticed that some of the kids were speaking in English, so he asked an adult chaperone where the group was from and learned that the teens were from the G. K. Chesterton Academy, in Rome on a pilgrimage trip.

The conversation led McKeating to get in touch with Ahlquist by telephone, and he traveled to Minnesota a few weeks later to learn more about the school.

The Buffalo Chesterton Academy is incorporated and is seeking a state charter. An 11-member board of trustees has been in place for a few months.

McKeating said the school already has received lots of interest from families that home-school their children.

But it probably won’t get any larger than 100 students, and it’s unlikely to pull students away from area Catholic high schools that are struggling to fill empty desks.

In Minneapolis, 90 percent of the kids who attend G.K. Chesterton would not have attended other Catholic schools in the archdiocese, said Ahlquist.

Buffalo Chesterton Academy students will not be required to adhere to Common Core standards or take Regents exams, and interscholastic sports won’t be offered because they’re too expensive, said McKeating.

“The curriculum is fixed. Everybody takes the same subjects,” he said. “We’re not trying to be all things to all people. You have to buy into our ethos.”

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