Ray Carter | September 6, 2022
Tulsa charter school to be countercultural—by touting Western Civ
Nathan Phelps has never been someone who aggressively pushes against the grain. But he said that’s changed since he began working in 2019 to launch Oklahoma’s first classical charter school.
“I’ve never had long hair. I’ve never had a tattoo,” Phelps said. “I’ve never been considered countercultural—until the world went upside down. And now I find myself engaged in a countercultural endeavor.”
As president of the nonprofit Classically Formed Inc., Phelps has led the charge to launch Tulsa Classical Academy in the fall of 2023. As a public school—although a public charter school—he said Tulsa Classical will buck many current trends in education.
One area where Tulsa Classical will go against the grain of recent educational fads is its focus on “preserving Western Civilization.” And Phelps said the school will also be countercultural by informing students that truth exists.
“Truth is an objective and knowable thing,” Phelps said. “It’s not your ‘lived experience.’ There is objective truth in the world.”
The school’s curriculum will include learning Greek and Latin roots in fourth grade and ultimately four years of Latin study starting in sixth grade; the history and literature of Western Civilization, including a full year of moral and political philosophy and U.S. Government with an emphasis on reading source documents such as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the U.S. Declaration of Independence; as well as art, music, and physical education. And Phelps said the school will “have an emphasis on civic and moral virtue.”
Where many trends in education today focus on tearing down those who founded the United States and Western Civilization for transgressions against current social-and-political attitudes, Phelps said Tulsa Classical will take a different approach.
“We believe that the Western tradition, that Western culture, is worth preserving and passing on to the next generation,” Phelps said. “We spend a lot of time in this country training kids to look down their noses at people who, frankly, were probably wiser than they were, and trying to tell them (the students) that they should be activists before they even understand the world. We want to cultivate a sense of thankfulness and gratitude about this tradition that we have inherited and then … pass it down.”
Another countercultural aspect of the school is the fact that preparing students for college and career will not be the school’s main focus although officials expect to also achieve those goals in the process, he said.
“We want to build good humans,” Phelps said.
The process to create Tulsa Classical began in late 2019 and has included a successful $200,000 fundraising effort. Officials recently closed on a piece of property where the school will be located. Plans call for the school to be a two-story, 50,000-square-foot facility with construction expected to commence soon. Jason Poarch, who previously held similar positions at classical schools in Texas, has been hired as the head of school.
Tulsa Classical Academy will teach its first group of students, grades Kindergarten through eighth, starting in fall 2023, and will gradually add high-school grades until graduating its first senior class in 2027.
“We haven’t started our enrollment yet, but we have more than 1,000 interested students in this school, a brand-new school, K-8,” Phelps said. “We can eventually be a school of 1,100 kids, K-12, so there’s a lot of demand for this. That represents about 600 families in the Tulsa area.”
The open-enrollment process will begin in the fall. All students are eligible for admittance to the free public school. If more students apply than there are spaces, enrollment will be determined by random lottery.
Rose State College is serving as the sponsor for the Tulsa Classical Academy, and the school is part of the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School initiative. Tulsa Classical will be Oklahoma’s first charter school affiliated with Hillsdale College, which is providing the school’s curriculum.
“We’re a school that’s about justice, not ‘social justice.’ Virtue, not virtue-signaling. Objective truth, not ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth,’” Phelps said. “And finally, we’re about great books, not necessarily Chromebooks.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.