Oklahoma’s first classical charter school opens

Ray Carter | August 25, 2023

At the Aug. 25 ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the opening of Tulsa Classical Academy, the state’s first classical public charter school, Nathan Phelps noted the process to reach that point spread across more than three years.

But Phelps, president of the board of Tulsa Classical Academy and the driving force behind its creation, also noted that planners would “build great cathedrals” in the Middle Ages knowing they would not live to see the project’s completion.

“This may be the end of our three-and-a-half-year effort to open this school, but it’s the beginning of a much larger effort,” Phelps said. “The truth is our work is just getting started. Like a cathedral, we’re making a generational investment—in buildings, yes—but more importantly, in education. We seek no less than the renaissance of K-12 education in Oklahoma and ultimately aim to ensure that every child in every city in Oklahoma has access to a high-quality, classical, liberal-arts education if they want it. And in doing so, we seek to be the kind of school that teaches the best that has ever been thought, ever been written, and ever been said.”

In partnership with Hillsdale College, Tulsa Classical Academy provides a tuition-free, classical liberal arts education.

Among the materials students will study at Tulsa Classical Academy are art, music, Greek and Latin, history and geography in lower grades with ancient, European, and American history in upper grades. Students will also complete a full year of moral and political philosophy and U.S. Government, where pupils will read source documents that include Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the Federalist Papers, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.”

While that may sound daunting to some, it is appealing to many Oklahoma families. Tulsa Classical Academy’s student body in its first year includes roughly 700 students from 62 zip codes in the Tulsa area.

The school has another 400 students on a waiting list.

And the academy plans to gradually expand in subsequent years to add all high-school grades.

Classical education has been growing in popularity in recent years in states across the country.

According to a recent report by The Federalist, the Association of Classical Christian Schools has roughly 500 member schools nationwide and the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education network has expanded from four schools in 2017 to 225 today.

The academic outcomes produced by classical schools are typically much better than what is achieved in a traditional public school.

The website of the Association of Classical Christian Schools notes, “Whether it’s the college readiness index, Verbal, Math, or Writing SAT performance, or ACT scores, students at ACCS member schools score above all other types of schools…”

The ACCS notes its member schools charge an average tuition of $8,000 annually, an amount that is significantly less than the per-pupil funding provided to Oklahoma’s traditional public schools.

In 2019, students from Association of Classical Christian Schools member schools achieved an average composite score of 25.7 on the ACT. The national average was 20.9 that year. In Oklahoma the average composite ACT score was 18.9 in 2019 and it has since fallen to 17.9. A 36 is a perfect score on the test.

While there are several classical schools already operating in Oklahoma, all others are private schools. Tulsa Classical Academy is the state’s first public classical school—albeit a public charter school that operates free of some regulations otherwise imposed on traditional public schools.

Unlike traditional public schools, public charter schools do not have students assigned to attend the school based on geographic proximity. Instead, all students in the school are there because parents proactively chose to enroll their children at the charter school, which is open to all families.

Tulsa Classical Academy operates from a new 50,000 square foot facility built in the Tulsa area thanks to private supporters. While the academy is currently a K-8 school, officials plan to gradually add high-school grades in subsequent years until graduating the school’s first senior class in 2027.

Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a commendation to the academy saying he looked “forward to the excellent, classical, liberal-arts education this institution will provide to generations of Oklahoma students.”

While the academic rigor of classical schools appeals to many parents, Phelps said there are other reasons it appeals to many Oklahomans.

“We also want to be the kind of school that cherishes the family as the basic unit of social order,” Phelps said. “We want to partner with families to educate their children, to pursue truth as both objective and knowable, to preserve and pass down the Western tradition, and to aim not just at college and career preparation—which is wonderful—but also an examined life that is lived in wisdom and virtue.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

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.

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