What’s wrong with Idaho’s education system and what can we learn from a successful private school?


Two months ago we had an opportunity to visit The Ambrose School. This is a private not for profit Traditional Christian school with about 400 students from K-12. When we first drove onto the school grounds you would think your were visiting some billionaire’s Tudor Mansion, yet upon entering the doorway we were amazed by the warmth and homelike atmosphere. The architecture that surrounded us was that of old world educational institutions. Immediately to our left you could smell coffee and see a room with a fireplace called The Providence Room, where parents and teachers could gather to have discussions in a relaxing atmosphere that lent itself to harmonious discussions. We were met by the Headmaster Kirk VanderLeest who was going to give us a tour.

The Ambrose School in Meridian, Idaho
The Ambrose School in Meridian, Idaho

Before we take a tour let’s look back at the history of the Ambrose School and Classical Christian Education. The education system itself dates back to the Greek educational system of logic, language, and philosophy merged with the truth found in Christ. Combined this has formed an educational tradition that has trained Christians to think for over 2,000 years. This educational system was how our founding fathers learned, and they in turn established classical Christian schools throughout the colonies. They believed independence of mind, wisdom, goodness, and eloquence were essential for every citizen in our republic. Certainly this is a far cry from today’s government mandated education system and ill conceived learning methods such as common core.

Between 1875 and 1940 our progressive American educators changed what the word “school” meant. They repurposed school to meet the needs of the new society which was essentially to train workers and abandoning educations classical Christian method. Many Christian leaders spoke out in the 1930’s and 40’s and defended the lost art of a classical education. By 1980 the United States was in an education crisis. A few Christian leaders responded and one of those established a school in Moscow, Idaho. Seeing the success in 1995 this inspired others one of which was Foundations Academy started in Boise in a church basement with three students in 2nd grade.

By 1996 Foundations Academy had 35 students, employing some of the leading minds in the classical Christian movement to develop their educational program. In 2005 St. Ambrose Christian High School was established a sports program initiated and the school was accredited the following year. The school was moved in 2009 to Meridian, Idaho and sits at the intersection of Chinden and Locust Grove. The Ambrose School has obtained national recognition for it excellence and ability to recruit talent from across the nation unlike our schools in Idaho today who have to settle for uncertified and substitute teachers because of the low starting pay base.

The Two Story Library at the Ambrose School
The Two Story Library at the Ambrose School

Our tour begins with a walk down the hallway to the library which is the centerpiece of the school. There is a carefully selected collection of children’s books and a computer alcove on the first floor. On the second floor is a library study area and reference library. We continue our tour and pass dedicated science and art rooms for the grammar school and state of the art science laboratories for high school classes. Something we don’t see in public schools is a Media room and rhetoric room to support the schools secondary programs in journalism, trial advocacy and public speaking.

As we walk down the hallways during a class change there is a sense of calm as the students move about in an orderly manner to their next classes. The school also has a sports complex consisting of a full size gymnasium and regulation soccer field. Lockers for the students are broken up into groups called “Houses” consisting of students from youngest to the oldest which gives the students a chance to integrate, interact and learn to mentor each other.

There are three things that make the Ambrose school standout: they are the Teachers, Students and the Program. They seek teachers who make learning a passionate pursuit and a contagious energy for the subjects they teach. They are recruited from around the country and many hold master’s degrees from our most highly recognized learning institutions. They are there to challenge students not beat a subject into the child’s head as we find in many of our public schools. These teachers are hired to reproduce themselves in the image of the children they teach.

The students learning environment is very important with attention being paid to good attitudes, diligence and manners. They try to create a culture where peer pressure is positive. Students are expected to adhere to high standards of both learning and support of their fellow students. With the help of strong support from our student’s families, the culture is complete.

The Providence Room at the Ambrose School
The Providence Room at the Ambrose School

“The Program” is the most tangible element is the school’s curriculum, which is classical Christian education using time tested materials and books, many from original documents and works. The curriculum from K-12 is to create thinking, articulate graduates with an exceptional maturity and strong sense of responsibility. They start with strong foundations in reading, writing and math. Their 3rd grade students typically read two to six years above grade level.

Teaching to the top of the class ensures that nearly everyone is challenged. Average students become exceptional when encouraged and challenged. Uniforms are the dress code of the day and create an environment of order and community strength, the same as structure and order in classrooms keep students engaged.

Rather than simplifying, children are challenged to explore things like the ancient Egyptian alphabet or the detail of a ducks wing. They go beyond the 3 R’s with Shakespeare and classical art and music programs where children can enter an uncommon level of maturity and composure. These programs along with daily hands on activity with science programs and physical activity provide a well rounded education format.

You will not find any signs of Common Core in this school. What you will find is an uncommon way of teaching to the student, how to think well, speak well and defend their beliefs. They use primary sources called The Great Books for reading materials integrating history, literature, philosophy, theology and art broken up into classical, medieval, and modern eras represented twice each between 7th and 12th grades. Students learn around tables using the Socratic Method of questioning and methods adapted from “The Great Conversation”. Students are able to integrate and connect ideas together and draw meaningful conclusions.

Core writing skills are developed early on as they develop not just writing skills, but the ability to orally defend arguments in a major thesis during their junior and senior years. Science begins in 7th grade and includes biology, chemistry, physics and AP versions of each in high school, while their math sequence begins with Algebra I in 8th grade and progresses through calculus. Ambrose also has state of the art large screen video and computer A/V systems in every classroom with servers that store hundreds of maps, art, and other images. There is also a complete media center with professional video and print production systems. There are also 2 computer labs, and 24 fixed stations in the library and a mobile laptop lab with 30 laptops. The books that we found in the library are from a literary standpoint a trip through history starting in freshman year with The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Federalist Papers to senior year where students are studying from Democracy in America to The Wealth of Nations. Some other great works are Sir Thomas More’s Utopia written in 1516 and Plato’s Republic from 380BC.

The way the staff of The Ambrose School thinks about the student is somewhat unique in that everyone there has the same occupation. Their students are pursuing truth, goodness and beauty, and everyone has respect for one another. Students are not there just to learn stuff so they can repeat it on a test and jump through hoops as they do in our public schools, but are learning ideas from thinkers so they can make meaningful judgments about how things should be and not how they are. As a traditional Christian school, thoughts and conversations about faith and Christ are encouraged in a community where they love what God loves.

Compared with some of our larger public schools The Ambrose School is quite small in terms of the number of students attending but in terms of academic achievement they are far above 99% of the public schools in our state. With average SAT scores of 1306 on verbal and math, and 1960 including writing nearly all of their students go on to college, and on average they have two National Merit Scholar nominees each year. Compare these statistics to a recent survey on the academic achievement of our public schools in which only five schools in our state had 50% or more of their students scoring high enough to show they are ready for college. It is clear to us why this school’s method of educating children is far superior to anything being done in our taxpayer financed school system.

Even more interesting is the fact that on average The Ambrose School spends less per pupil than our public schools. The average amount spent per student in Idaho is approximately $6,700 per year while tuition for the Ambrose school runs between $4,000 and $6,000 per year depending on the grade level. We believe it is high time for our legislators to take a more careful look at public schools’ academic achievements from a different perspective, and we think they will find that the problem is not just money, but it is government interference in our school system and not having the ability to attract quality teachers to our state because of inadequate compensation. The undeniable fact is that we have too many Chiefs and not enough Indians in our school system. We have 115 school districts that should be consolidated to pool resources for a more prudent use of funds. We have some rural school districts spending $25,000 to $30,000 per student and then you have the West Ada school district spending less than $5,000 per student. Consolidation would save on resources and cut down on the number of administrators who are being paid top dollars to administrate and seldom teach anything. Idaho’s school system is way too top heavy which makes it inefficient from the standpoint of proper staffing. We need to find a way to get more teachers teaching and less supervisors supervising. We need to compensate teachers so they are attracted to our state and will enjoy working in Idaho. Idaho’s educators should be judged by the standard of end results, not by some test made up by a bunch of government bureaucrats who just want student data to pigeon hole our children’s futures.

It’s time Idaho realized that federal government money comes with regulations and interference which are both detrimental to the learning process. We need to get the government out of our schools and our curriculum. We have seen No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and now we are stuck with Common Core. Many parents would like to be able to afford to send their children to a school like Ambrose, but our state and the federal government give no incentive for that. Why shouldn’t every child be entitled to the best education available? Why couldn’t our legislators come up with a plan that would allow parents to put money away tax-free like an Education Savings Account? If there were more parents with the ability to send their children to a private school, we would see a lot more private schools being created; however; if there is no incentive then everything remains the status quo. We have seen the landscape of our educational system in this country evolve into a monstrosity of bureaucrats spending our tax dollars in many cases without explaining what they are spending them on.

Just look at the botched up job the State Department of Administration did on the EIN contract. Because you had bureaucrats involved who are always looking out for special interests, this internet contract was awarded and then changed to accommodate Century Tel even though Syringa, the other original contract winner, said they could do the job for millions cheaper. Now we find out that when the individual school districts were permitted to go to the free market and get bids for providing internet services for their schools, they were able to obtain pricing that was one half the costs that was negotiated by our state government. There is a lesson to be learned here. If you keep government out of our schools, the individual districts will find ways to cut costs and improve services in the free market, and this also applies to education curriculum. We don’t need the state or the federal government telling us what is best for our children. This is something that should be determined by the local districts at the parent and teacher level by those who are closest to the situation. The tax payers of Idaho should be up in arms at the way our state school system is being run. If you want to be cost effective and transparent, bring the spending decisions back to the local level, and you will find money we never knew existed.

We get levy upon levy each year on the ballot for approval by the voters for more money for education and schools, but we get very little transparency when it comes to how it gets spent. It’s time that we took another look at how to incentivize parents to move away from government sponsored education and to an expanded privatized version where the parents are in charge of where they want their children educated. If you give parents the responsibility of paying for a child’s education, they are going to take a greater interest in that child’s performance as a student. If the students are aware that it is costing their parents a lot of money to give them a good education, they will feel a responsibility to be better students. By the same token, there is little or no incentive for the parents to take an interest when their children are in a government operated school system, and most parents don’t have a clue how much they are actually paying in taxes to give their children a public education. The way our system is set up now the schools have become the day care centers, and our teachers have become the babysitters.

Our legislators do not understand that more federal government money and interference is not doing the job and having over 100 school districts means misallocation of funds. You can’t have a school district with 50 students where we are paying $30,000 per year and a school district where we have 30,000 students and were paying under $5,000 per year. With the technology that is available today, we should be able to find a way to change these disparities and to provide equal opportunities for all of our students regardless what school district they live in. We also need to find out where the money is being spent and redirect administrative salaries back to teacher salaries. How can a teacher with a family survive in rural Idaho on $32,000 per year?

The real answer to our education problem and the costs could be solved if we were to get our land back from the federal government and grow our economy so we have enough funding for our children’s educations. Until that happens, we are nothing more than tenants in our state at the mercy of the federal government to provide enough money in grants and subsidies to properly educate our children.

We would like to hear your thoughts on this subject. Please e-mail bob@gemstatepatriot.com and give us your opinion.

Don't use Facebook? More commenting options below (scroll down)