Zion Lutheran School will change its name to “Zion Classical Academy – Est. by Zion Lutheran Church” for the 2020-21 academic year and will adopt a classical Christian education model for its curriculum beginning this fall.
Leaders of the preschool through eighth-grade institution in Hastings hope the classical education model will better serve students and families through a Christian-based curriculum, supported by Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.
Zion Lutheran is working with the Thom Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting Christian education named after LeRoy Thom, to make the changes.
LeRoy Thom, who died in 2018, was the founder of T-L Irrigation headquartered near Hastings.
The school is hosting a “Rally in the Park” at the Chautauqua Park Pavilion at noon Sunday to answer questions for those interested. The event will include food, live music and a drawing for a half-year of tuition.
Sara Nielsen, head teacher at Zion Lutheran, said the classical Christian education will return to a style of teaching that was eclipsed about 100 years ago. Zion Lutheran will be joining other Nebraska schools, including Zion Lutheran School in Kearney, that follow the classical model.
“We’re going to be hearkening back to the way that schools were actually teaching before all the 20th and 21st century educational reforms,” Nielsen said. “A lot of that reform has been politically motivated, not necessarily in the direction that our school and our LCMS beliefs would agree with.”
The reintroduced curriculum will include subjects like Latin and logic and take a different approach to other subjects, like history.
The curriculum is designed to interweave subjects and teach students how to draw connections between them, Nielsen said.
“The classical method teaches how to think so that they can examine everything — math, science, all knowledge — not as disjointed subjects but as an integrated whole, with the scriptures at the center,” Nielsen said.
A core component of the classical education is the trivium, where the students’ education is broken into three stages across their education. In early elementary, students focus on learning fundamentals of academic subjects. Then students will focus on analytical thinking in their later elementary years and on how to communicate their ideas in late junior high.
Nielsen said this structure takes advantage of the “children’s God-given strengths at each stage of growth.” She also said curriculum structure will have to follow tightly between classes and across grades.
The Rev. Paul Warneke, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, said that the school will still remain Lutheran and the Christian values will be more present in all subjects.
Nielsen said the curriculum will be based on the “Great Books,” including some classical literature, to teach writing, spelling, grammar and speech.
“That’s the backbone of our entire course of study,” Nielsen said. “Whenever possible, we use original sources of literature instead of just textbooks or just highlights from certain books.”
Another significant component of the curriculum will be teaching history chronologically, starting with ancient eras and progressing to modern times over the course of a student’s duration at Zion Lutheran.
“It’s making sure that students understand that it is chronological and we make sure that our curriculum ties in with the biblical stories, as well,” Nielsen said.
Zion Lutheran also plans to intertwine the academic teaching with character education. Nielsen said the goal is to teach children “how to live well and how to live virtuously.”
Zion Lutheran is adopting the shift because they see a need for a classical school in Hastings. Leaders also hope the curriculum will better prepare their students for high school, college and a career.
Nielsen said the school already has been utilizing the classical method and will implement most of the curriculum in the 2019-20 year. The only thing missing will be a logics class. Zion Lutheran is working with Hillsdale College to develop the curriculum.
“They are a very well known for their conservative Christian beliefs and their commitment to civil liberty,” she said.
Zion Lutheran is able to make this transition with financial help from the Thom Foundation and funds from Adams County Lutheran Education Association. The Thom Foundation was instrumental in connecting Zion Lutheran to Hillsdale College.
“They’re going to help us with some of the initial costs of getting this off the ground, and then the goal is the school will become financially self-sustaining,” Nielsen said.
The Thom Foundation already has helped the school finance educational conferences pertaining to classical Christian education. Nielsen said the conference saw a strong movement of schools adopting the classical method, estimating there are more than 500 such schools in the nation today.
In addition, Zion Lutheran School will become a 501©(3) organization, separate from Zion Lutheran Church, and be recognized as a service organization of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Warneke said that the church will continue to maintain close ties to the school, but that distinguishing the two will as separate entities will make it easier for people to donate to either the church or school and clarify authority structure and business operations.
Nielsen said the separation also will make it easier for the school to work with other religious schools in the area.
“We’re not just for the Lutheran,” she said. “We never have been just for the Lutheran children, but I’m not sure everybody knew that.”