Building a school community: notes from the Great Hearts Monte Vista open house

Notes from the Great Hearts Monte Vista open house | San Antonio Charter Moms

Lea en español aqui.

Great Hearts Monte Vista, the first campus of Great Hearts Texas, held an open house on March 27, 2014. The open house was an important step in the process of building a community around the new school. 

Standing-room-only audience at Great Hearts Monte Vista open house | San Antonio Charter Moms

The Barshop Auditorium at Temple Beth-El was standing room only—the organizers estimated that more than 700 parents, students, and supporters attended. School leaders discussed the school culture and shared practical information about the new campus.

This is a long post, so I have broken it down into sections. First, I will summarize the nuts-and-bolts information from the open house. Then, I will include a brief section about each speaker at the open house, including:

  • David Williams, Executive Director, Great Hearts San Antonio
  • Peter Crawford, Headmaster, Great Hearts Monte Vista
  • Briana Rafidi, an alumna of Glendale Prep, a Great Hearts school in Arizona
  • Joy Hanks, Assistant Headmaster, Archway North Phoenix, a Great Hearts K-5 school in Arizona
  • Emily Sarbacker, a 12th grade student at Glendale Prep
  • Katherine Sarbacker, mother to Emily and three more Great Hearts students

For more information about the leadership team, see this earlier post.

Campus Information

At the open house, Crawford shared some key dates on the school calendar:

  • First Day of School: August 18, 2014
  • Fall Break: October 13-15, 2014—no school
  • Thanksgiving Week—no school
  • Spring Break: March 9-13, 2015—no school
  • Last Day of School: June 5, 2015

Also, Crawford noted that parents will be able to drop off their students as early as 7:30 a.m., and perhaps earlier, at both the North and South campuses. Great Hearts Monte Vista North, at Trinity Baptist Church, 319 E. Mulberry Ave., San Antonio, Texas 78212 (map), will serve grades 6-9 (expanding to 6-12); Great Hearts Monte Vista South, at Temple Beth-El, 211 Belknap Place, San Antonio, Texas 78212 (map) will serve grades K-5.

Peter Crawford, Headmaster of Great Hearts Monte Vista | San Antonio Charter Moms

Peter Crawford, Headmaster of Great Hearts Monte Vista

Crawford introduced several teachers who will be working at Great Hearts Monte Vista in the fall. Several, including Great Hearts Monte Vista Athletic Director Joel VanDerworp, will be relocating from Glendale Prep. Learn more about athletics at Great Hearts Monte Vista in this email newsletter—they are looking for parents to help coach a wide range of sports.

Joel VanDerworp, Athletic Director, Great Hearts Monte Vista | San Antonio Charter Moms

Joel VanDerworp, Athletic Director, Great Hearts Monte Vista

Great Hearts Monte Vista will have a Parent Service Organization; there was a sign-up sheet at the open house. Based on the high turnout at the open house, I expect that it will be an active parent group.

Great Hearts Monte Vista uniforms | San Antonio Charter Moms

While looking at the sample school uniforms (more information in this earlier post), I spoke with Rachel Zanardi, Executive Assistant at Great Hearts Texas, who confirmed that there will be plenty of recess and P.E. time for the K-5 students. Great Hearts Monte Vista South is close to signing a deal for a playground space within walking distance of Temple Beth-El.

David Williams

David Williams, Executive Director of Great Hearts San Antonio, expressed thanks for the warm reception in San Antonio. He feels that Great Hearts Monte Vista is coming together well. Headmaster Crawford is hiring great-hearted teachers.

David Williams, Executive Director, Great Hearts San Antonio | San Antonio Charter Moms

David Williams, Executive Director, Great Hearts San Antonio

Williams announced that the Great Hearts America board has unanimously approved a second Great Hearts campus in San Antonio to open in August 2015. Great Hearts is in final negotiations to purchase a property for the new campus; this summer, Great Hearts San Antonio will announce the location and the timetable for enrollment.

Williams noted that we would be hearing from a Great Hearts alumna, Briana Rafidi: “We are building great-hearted young men and great-hearted young women. The best proof of that is the graduates of our schools.”

Peter Crawford

Crawford commented on the high turnout and the sense of energy and anticipation in the room. “We are doing something important: forming a community together.” He sees his job as not just setting up a school and hiring teachers (see available positions on the careers page), but also connecting with families and the San Antonio community.

Peter Crawford, Headmaster, Great Hearts Monte Vista | San Antonio Charter Moms

Peter Crawford, Headmaster, Great Hearts Monte Vista

Crawford addressed a question on many parents’ minds: What will Great Hearts Monte Vista be like?

It will be a school where children are free to pursue excellence.

We serve children in their adventure to become great hearted young men and women. It’s in the way we speak, in our uniforms, the books we read, our behavior, and our sports.

Students thrive when given order, but the order has to come from authentic love. Children desire structure, but the rules and laws have to be founded upon love.

Great Hearts Monte Vista is a rigorous school. It’s considered to be two years ahead of a typical Phoenix public school. We will challenge your student, but it’s not a “sink or swim” environment. The challenge comes from having a dialogue with the great books and works of art and music. We provide the support and coaching for children to be successful.

Great Hearts teachers are energetic and are people of true character. We have a low student-teacher ratio, which allows us to bring a classical, great books curriculum to a public school. Great Hearts teachers have love for their students. Formerly, a great books education was only for the wealthy. Now, it is open to all.

The Great Hearts Monte Vista culture is an affirmation of the dignity of the human person. The school is an opportunity to pursue what is true, good, and beautiful.

Briana Rafidi, alumna

Crawford introduced Briana Rafidi, an alumna of Glendale Prep, and a current student at Arizona State University. (She was homeschooled up to 7th grade, skipped 8th grade, then attended 9th-12th grades at Glendale Prep.) Laughing, she said: “I hope you like what you see—me—because if you enroll your kids at Great Hearts, this is what you are going to get.”

Emily Sarbacker, Glendale Prep student, and Briana Rafidi, alumna | San Antonio Charter Moms

Emily Sarbacker and Briana Rafidi

Rafidi noted that the Latin word for “heart” is cor, which in turn is the root for “courage.” She noted that there are many types of courage:

  • Courage to improve yourself, even when surrounded by a culture of complacency.
  • Courage to admit when you are wrong.
  • Courage to speak up for yourself.
  • Courage to think for yourself.

Rafidi feels that her Great Hearts education prepared her with the type of courage it takes to succeed at a large state university, where, she says, “life takes courage.” (I went to a large state university for law school, and I think Rafidi has a point.)

Joy Hanks

Next, Rafidi introduced her mom, Joy Hanks, Assistant Headmaster at Archway North Phoenix. As a parent, I really appreciated the detailed information in Hanks’s presentation.

Her first slide stated the school’s mission:

The mission of Great Hearts Monte Vista is to educate students in the lifelong pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.

That is an ambitious mission, but I believe they are up to the task.

Joy Hanks, Assistant Headmaster, Archway North Phoenix | San Antonio Charter Moms

Joy Hanks, Assistant Headmaster, Archway North Phoenix

I’ve noticed among my peers, especially parents of teenagers, a tendency to assume that their job is sort of done once their children are accepted at a selective college. But what about the well being of your child as a whole person? Hanks said, “There is more to life than getting a degree and a well-paying job.”

I understand when parents are proud to see their children bring home straight-A report cards. But how do they know their children are being challenged? Are their children growing in character as well as knowledge? Report cards at Great Hearts are not just letter grades, but narratives; Hank described them as “paragraphs that document a child’s inquisitiveness.”

Hanks shared some specifics about the K-5 Language Arts curriculum.

  • Spalding Phonics
  • Spencerian penmanship (IAMPETH)
  • Reading daily with a teacher, and nightly at home
  • Grammar in grades 4-5
  • Writing: 5th graders are expected to write a term paper
  • Memorization: Kindergarten students memorize small poems; 4th graders memorize Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; 5th graders memorize the Gettysburg Address
Using base 10 blocks with Singapore Math | San Antonio Charter Moms

Base 10 blocks

For K-5 Math, Great Hearts uses Singapore Math. As mentioned in this earlier post, F.T. and I have been using Singapore Math this year as part of our homeschooling curriculum. It’s working well, but I hadn’t really thought about how it was designed. Hanks said the curriculum is built to move from the concrete, to the pictorial, and then to the abstract. Each chapter starts with some concrete examples that you can build out of math manipulatives; we’ve been using plastic base 10 blocks. Then, the workbook offers problems using pictures; sometimes the student needs to color or draw to show his work. Finally, the workbook will present a problem using mathematical notation, e.g., 20 – 13 = __, and ask the student to solve it using the algorithm.

Great Hearts uses a modified Core Knowledge curriculum for History and Geography in K-5. The lessons are a 50-50 mix of Western Civilization and U.S. History. The 4th grade curriculum will emphasize Texas history. Hanks noted that Literature and History are in sync, which helps with reading comprehension.

Hanks touched on other subjects: Science, Art, Music, P.E., and Foreign Language. At Great Hearts Monte Vista, the foreign language offered in K-4 will be Spanish immersion, with a focus on conversation.

Great Hearts does not offer a gifted program; all children are challenged, and have access to the best material.

Hanks posted a slide of the Pillars of Conduct:

  • Responsibility
  • Perseverance
  • Integrity
  • Honesty
  • Courage
  • Citizenship
  • Humility
  • Friendship
  • Wisdom

The classroom walls will display pictures of historical figures who represents each pillar. When it’s time for discipline, an adult will talk to the student about which pillar of conduct was not met, and what behavior would have met the pillar.

Hanks stressed that routines are important: “Your kids may come home and say, ‘Today, we practiced putting our books away.'” It takes repetition to form good habits, but once those habits are in place, then students can learn in an ordered environment. The policy is to remove disruptions, i.e., a student who is acting out will leave the classroom so the rest of the students can keep learning.

Emily Sarbacker, Great Hearts student

The next speaker, Emily Sarbacker, a 12th grade student at Glendale Prep, talked about her experience as a Great Hearts student. She admitted that when she started in 7th grade, “I was not an ideal student. I just wanted to get A’s, I didn’t want to dig deeper. Then, I got it. It’s so much more meaningful when you love what you’re learning.” The classes you take are not just boxes to check off until you go to college. “If you really engage, then it gets so much more interesting.”

Emily said that when she got to high school, people started asking her about where she planned to go to college. She saw her friends at other schools taking IB or AP courses. (Great Hearts does not offer AP courses, although many students take a few AP exams, e.g.English Literature.) Emily talked about an internship that opened her eyes to the possibilities and helped her stop worrying. Also, she said, “My mom was vicious. I filed 15 college applications.” Emily said her college application stood out because a Great Books education is different. At the time of the open house, Emily was considering offers from ASU, Notre Dame, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Virginia.

Katherine Sarbacker

Emily introduced her mom, Katherine Sarbacker, a self-described tiger mom with four children at Glendale Prep.

Katherine Sarbacker, Great Hearts parent | San Antonio Charter Moms

Katherine Sarbacker at the Parent Service Organization table

Sarbacker talked about what she valued most about her experience as a Great Hearts parent.

  • Academics: We all want to our children to be well-educated and have choices about colleges and careers. Great Hearts students are well-prepared, and do well on tests, but the school is not teaching to the test.
  • Safety: Parents worry about safety, but bullying is not part of the Great Hearts culture. Sarbacker told a story about a group of 7th grade boys inviting a shy classmate to see a movie with them; the shy boy’s mom confided to Sarbacker that it was the first time her son—a bright boy with weak social skills—had ever been invited to a playdate.
  • Role models: Great Hearts teachers model the kind of respect that they want students to show.
  • College: Great Hearts students have lots of options, and the schools provide superb college counseling.
  • Moral character: The school supports parents’ efforts at home.

Sarbacker’s comments provided reassurance to parents who might be anxious about enrolling their children in a brand new campus.

You made it this far? Good! This is probably the longest blog post I’ve ever written. If you are a future or prospective Great Hearts parent (or student), or a job applicant, I hope this post gave you a good sense of the school culture, as well as some practical information about the Great Hearts Monte Vista campus. If you want to read more, here are some related posts:

  • From January 2014, my earlier post about the lottery, and how it feels to be on the waiting list. (As of this writing, F.T. is 3rd on the waiting list for second grade.)
  • From April 2013, my post about visiting Veritas Prep in Phoenix, Arizona. (Disclosure: Great Hearts paid my travel expenses.) I have written only briefly about that trip, but it had a profound impact on me, and was a factor in my decision to homeschool F.T. for one year until Great Hearts Monte Vista opened.
  • More about the homeschooling decision in this post from October 2013.
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  1. Great Hearts is opening in Dallas and I have concerns, that based on your existing experience, you may be able to address.
    Concern 1: The big proponents for the school (in Dallas) are mainly staunchly conservative Catholics. My child has two mommies and we’re Jewish. Will we fit in? Will our son experience problems?
    Concern 2: Is there as much lack of diversity as the pictures above reveal? What is the ethnic makeup of the school?
    Question 1: Is Great Hearts a good transition for a child who has been in a Montessori school? Theoretically if the Socratic method is in place, it would be, but I’m not sure I can imagine a Socratically taught kindergarten.
    I went to a Classical/Charlotte Mason driven school for Middle School and feel like public high school taught me only Chemistry and Physics after the experience, so I love the idea.

    • Hello. My son is currently enrolled in 3rd grade so maybe I can answer some of your questions. 1. Great Hearts is a non-dominational school so there are no times in which a religion is practised. The lower Monte Vista school is inside a Jewish temple so the parents are asked not to bring lunch with pork products in respect for the Temple. I just changed my son’s lunch to turkey for sandwiches which is fine with my kiddo 🙂 As far as your family fitting in, I dont see it being a problem with the school, but I think that depends more on the community. The teachers I have worked with and talked to are great and want to help the students based on who they are individually.
      Concern 2: There is a wide Diversity of students in the school at Monte Vista, but again that is due to the diversity of the San Antonio community. The enrollment is based on a lottery so race, religion, and income are not a part of the selection process. The diversity depends on who submits an application.

      Question: we came from a public school so I can’t speak to your question here, but I like the teaching method. The teachers are focused more on the students understanding what they are learning instead of teaching to a test. They use different techniques to help them better grasp concepts which I enjoy.

      Hopefully this helped answer some questions and I would be more than willing to answer any more you might have.

      Thank you

    • I want to second Nicole’s reply. She is spot on. I have kids in 2nd and 4th and we love the school. The curriculum is both challenging and accessible. Based purely on observation, I would guess that the school is less ethnically diverse and has attracted wealthier families than other nearby public schools, but that is in no way by design. I imagine that as more people learn about the school and Great Hearts opens more campuses, the schools will begin to more accurately represent the composition of the communities where they are located.

  2. Hi – I’ll weigh in with our experiences so far. I have a kindergartner and a 3rd grader. We were in our neighborhood public school for 3 years before coming to Great Hearts Monte Vista. Re Concern 1 – GHMV is currently housed inside a Jewish temple, so even though the curriculum is not religious (at all), we’ve learned more about Judaism than I’ve ever known before. 🙂 I’d say it’s unique to GHMV though, due to the school’s host building. There are a wide range of beliefs and families. Definitely some conservatives (our school has seemed to pull a lot of former homeschoolers and most that I’ve met have been rather conservative), but also an eclectic bunch from the surrounding neighborhoods. Overall I would not say it is an overly conservative environment, but I imagine that varies from campus to campus depending on the surrounding neighborhoods and the families that enroll. As to diversity (Concern 2) – I’d agree with the above commenters. It all depends on who applies to the school. Since there is no school bus system, it does limit somewhat the families that can apply, as it requires a commitment to drive to and from school. Hopefully charter schools will get more funding, allowing for a bus system in the near future. It is as diverse as our previous public school.

    We didn’t come from a Montessori school, but from what I know of Montessori, the environment at GHMV is more formal. There is also homework and a very definite behavior code, which may not be the case at a Montessori school. I suppose it depends on the child and how they respond to a more structured, formal and teacher-driven classroom.

    We have been very happy with our experience and feel quite lucky to have found this school. It’s taken a full family commitment, but that’s been an unexpected joy of this school. My kids are happy, excited to go to school and engaged in a way that is so very heartwarming for me. Is it perfect? No. Are there things I might change? Yes. Are we staying at Great Hearts? Absolutely.

  3. 1. I do not feel religion is a part of curriculum. However they do learn about all the religions and their history as part of the history curriculum ie trade routes and influences.
    2. GHMV is diverse, I would even say economically as well. San Antonio is diverse. It is a lottery system so it can only be as diverse as the people applying.
    3. Transition – you would have to help w the transition. I feel it is highly structured from the classroom setup to the notebooks, everything is organized and there is a method for the organization. It is taught to the children as well. I enjoy the depth of the curriculum. They do not just gloss over a topic, they delve in deep so that the children become experts and can discuss the topic. I like the how they connect their lit with their history unit. This also rolls over into art and music.

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