The Regina Academies of Philadelphia are hosting this year’s Catholic Classical Schools Conference in Philadelphia. Their success, growing out of a meeting of concerned parents in 2003 to four academies, a fifth on the way and a new track in an established diocesan high school, shows the attractive power of a Catholic classical liberal arts education.
The founding group consisted of many parents whose own children had already left home, but whose concern for Catholic education remained. They listened to parents of younger children anxious about the lack of Catholic identity in their school choices, and wanted to do something to help. They were familiar with the success of homeschoolers following Laura Berquist’s Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, and were excited at the possibility of forming real Catholic leaders for the future using the classical approach.
Led by Barbara Henkels, a generous benefactress to many Catholic colleges, they started Regina Coeli Academy that year. In spite of the many ups and downs commonly experienced by such schools, the education was immediately attractive to many parents from the greater Philadelphia area. Within four years, parents who had to travel a significant distance decided to form a second school, Regina Angelorum (Ardmore) in 2007. Regina Luminis (Downingtown) followed in 2008, adding a high school in 2009.
Jim Growdon, who now serves as Executive Director for The Regina Academies, was one of those attracted in the early days, when his oldest daughter, Rachel, reached school age. At the time, Jim was Academic Dean of the College at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. “My wife and I struggled with the idea of homeschooling; our daughter was already fiercely independent. We were immediately attracted by the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program at Regina Coeli, and were filled with hope that our daughter would grow to really make the Faith her own. We have not been disappointed.”An important moment occurred in 2014. The parish school of St. John the Baptist in Ottsville had been slated to close its doors. One of the oldest parochial elementary schools in the country, with a history stretching back to its founding in 1784, had watched its enrollment dwindle to 72 students. Brian Middleton, the new business manager, performed a study of the school to find out why. The consistent answer from parents who were leaving was that they found insufficient Catholic identity. It was at that time that Mr. Middleton and the new pastor, Fr. Simione Volavola, learned of the success of the Regina Academies through the then Elementary Superintendent, Jacqueline Coccia. They decided on a bold course they petitioned the Archdiocese to turn over the SJB elementary school into a Regina Academy. The Archdiocese agreed, cementing a fruitful relationship of mutual support. At the time of its inception, each of the Regina schools petitions for official recognition by the Archdiocese; and teachers and administrators benefit from diocesan workshops. The Regina Academies are largely situated in parochial facilities, with pastors serving as chaplains for the schools. This fall, Cardinal O’Hara High School will open the Regina Chesterton Academy, the result of the initiative of O’Hara President, Tom Fertal, who met with Regina Academies President, Tim Murnane, and Dale Ahlquist, founder of the Chesterton Academies. And 2017 should witness the opening of a fifth Regina school, Regina Veritatis. Growdon shared that strong boards enable each Regina Academy to persevere through trials which inevitably come up. “Each board is committed to its school and the classical education. Generally speaking, members have no children at the school, and so are less affected by tumults that can affect a small school. And they are committed to educating parents about the unique treasure of a Catholic classical approach.” Although the original sister schools are independent, the need for greater accountability led to the formation of the Regina Academies, with Growdon as its first Executive Director. He helps oversee a network that now serves over 400 students, and looks forward to a period of continuing, stable growth. Growdon added “We at the Regina Academies thank the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education for the opportunity to be a part of this vital resurgence in Catholic education, where the classical model is being rediscovered across our land and rightly celebrated.”