Do you want your family to be part of a tradition of learning that goes back centuries? Great Hearts Academies offer a classical, liberal arts education in a free, public charter school setting. We recently toured Great Hearts Northern Oaks and would like to share with you some of the things we saw that make the school unique, as well as basic facts you need to know as you consider enrolling your children.
Great Hearts Northern Oaks is part of Great Hearts Academies, which is a leader in the movement to revive classical education for a new generation. On November 13, 2019, Great Hearts Texas began accepting applications for enrollment for the 2020–2021 school year; open enrollment continues through December 13. Learn more about how to enroll your children at Great Hearts Texas in our recently published Great Hearts enrollment guide.
If you’re reading this post, it’s likely that you are in the process of doing a school search. We recommend that you read this post about finding the right schools. We also suggest you download the San Antonio Charter Schools app and join the San Antonio Charter Moms discussion group on Facebook. Our Founder and Executive Director, Inga Cotton, is a Great Hearts parent, and she had the opportunity to speak to a group of teachers at the Great Hearts Summit—this earlier post includes her remarks.
Facts About Great Hearts Northern Oaks
Great Hearts Northern Oaks serves grades K–11 at a purpose-built campus located on the northern side of San Antonio at 17223 Jones Maltsberger Rd., San Antonio, TX 78247 (map). The architecture is more modern than you might expect considering the traditional curriculum, but is practical and budget-smart. The campus is squeezed into a rocky, triangular parcel near some busy intersections—a difficult situation for carline traffic. Inside, the walls are decorated with reproductions of famous works of art, including Raphael’s School of Athens, a touchpoint for all Great Hearts campuses.
The campus opened in 2015 with grades K–7 and has added a grade level every year; in 2020–21, the school will offer its full complement of grades K–12. As the number of students has grown, the school has also added buildings—funded in part by a family-led capital campaign—including an Upper School building, a full-size gym, a black box theater, and additional parking. The school website is northernoaks.greatheartsamerica.org; you can reach the front desk by phone at 210-888-9483. DeAnna Macias, Director of Academy Giving, gave us a tour of the school; we also sat down with Trinette Keffer, Headmaster at the Lower School, for a wide-ranging discussion of school culture and customs.
Great Hearts Academies originated in Phoenix in 2003, and is now the seventh largest charter school network in the United States, with 18,000 students enrolled in Arizona and Texas. In 2012, Great Hearts applied for a Generation 17 charter. Great Hearts Monte Vista opened in 2014, followed by Great Hearts Northern Oaks in 2015, Great Hearts Western Hills in 2018, and Great Hearts Forest Heights in 2019; Great Hearts Live Oak will open in 2020.
All Great Hearts Texas campuses are open enrollment public charter schools, which means they don’t charge tuition, there are no selective admission requirements (unlike magnet schools), and they are open to all students—including special education, 504 plans, and English language learners. The enrollment area covers wide regions around San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth.
Our Great Hearts enrollment guide has more details, but here are some key dates for enrolling your student in a Great Hearts Texas school. The best time to apply online is during open enrollment, from November 13, 2019 to December 13, 2019. All applications received during open enrollment have an equal chance of receiving an offer through the random lottery, which will be held on January 8, 2020. Applications received after open enrollment will go on the waiting list to be called up when space opens.
Last year, Great Hearts Northern Oaks had about 1,200 students across eleven grade levels. Each kindergarten class has four sections of about 30 students, which means there are about 120 open seats each year—keeping in mind that siblings of current students have priority when enrolling. Student retention is high, but there will be a few open seats in higher grades each year. Students who transfer at higher grades, or attempt to transfer mid-year, should talk to staff about placement and how to earn credits towards graduation.
Great Hearts Northern Oaks School Report Card
The latest official school report card shows that Great Hearts Northern Oaks is a high performing school. Here are the school’s ratings:
- Overall Performance: A (92)
- Student Achievement: A (92)
- School Progress: B (84)
- Closing the Gaps: A (92)
Great Hearts Northern Oaks Curriculum and Teachers
A statement frequently heard from Great Hearts parents is “I wish I could have gotten this kind of education when I was growing up.” A classical, liberal arts education used to be available only in private schools or homeschooling. Now, students in a public school setting are able to read great works of history and literature and discuss them with their peers in Socratic seminars. They can study ancient languages like Latin and Greek. They can appreciate the beauty of math by studying Euclidean geometry.
Keffer noted that prospective families often ask, “Can we be a Great Hearts family?” She says the answer is yes—any family can be a Great Hearts family, and the school is meant to be a welcoming place. However, families will need to adjust their expectations about how to support their children’s learning, such as creating time and space to do homework (such as flashcards for phonics and math facts), and spending time nightly reading to young children—or checking reading logs of older children. As they get to know the school, they will become part of a community of people who share the same loves.
Macias noted that a typical Great Hearts student will read about 144 entire books during their K–12 career. Looking at the Classics to Keep book list gives you a sense of what students will be reading and discussing, from beloved children’s books like Frog and Toad to the challenging moral dilemmas of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
For the Lower School (grades K–6), the curriculum includes Singapore Math, Rocket Math, Spalding phonics (including cursive handwriting starting in second grade), Core Knowledge history and fine arts, and FOSS Science. Students get recess every day (twice a day for younger scholars) and PE every other day.
Young students, especially kindergartners, spend a significant amount of time at the beginning of the school year learning about behavior expectations. They are taught how to sit attentively in “scholarly position.” Between classes, they make tight transitions, walking in lines, hands held down or clasped behind their backs, mouths closed over a bubble of air, and shirt tails tucked in. Their desks are organized with color-coded folders, and they are taught how to quietly and efficiently gather their materials for a lesson. Students’ behavior is monitored on a clip chart, and there are consequences including a visit to the Headmaster’s office.
Visiting a third grade math lesson, we noticed that students were working with Cuisinaire rods, a hands-on tool that helps students learn to visualize math concepts. The students also worked pictorially to draw part-whole bar models to represent multiplication. Using concrete objects and hand-drawn pictures ensures that students are thinking about what they are doing, not just going through the steps of a process with no sense of what the numbers mean.
The teacher, Brandon Aniol, gave students time to work the problems on their own. He softly rang a bell to indicate a transition. He walked around the room and marked the students’ work with a rubber stamp. Processes like these are a safeguard that all students are getting the benefit of the lessons and not falling behind, although the school offers free tutoring for students who need extra help.
We also enjoyed the classroom pets, green tree frogs named Hypatia, Ptolemy, and Euclid, as well as a horned frog named Glaucon. When your children start giving their pets names like that, it’s a sign they are becoming assimilated into Great Hearts culture.
For the Upper School (grades 7–12), the course sequence follows a fixed track—there are no electives (although students can select their foreign language, such as Latin or Spanish). All students experience fine arts courses, including drama. During our tour, we observed eleventh grade students performing the window scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Despite some awkwardness, the students performed with charming sincerity. There was no bashfulness or demurs of “I’m not a drama person.” By requiring all students to try fine arts like music, art, and drama, Great Hearts helps students to discover their hidden talents. As the students are trained in technique, they surprise themselves with their success. Activities like arts and sports are not reserved for students who are already confident experts: they are open for everyone to try.
The peak Great Hearts experience is an Upper School Humane Letters seminar. A combined history and English language arts course, it’s nearly two hours long (with a stretch break in the middle), and mostly student led. The “seminaring” is really cooking when a student makes a point, referring to a dog-eared text (no tablets or e-books in sight), and then another student jumps in with a question, which another student answers in turn. The teacher, having taught the ground rules and expectations, rarely has to step in to redirect the conversation. The students have prepared by reading the texts the night before. They are engaging in deep learning by wrestling with tough questions of right and wrong, such as how to order a just society, or what is the meaning of property. The work the students do in literature lessons in Lower School, such as learning to track the speaker and use textual evidence, builds towards the respectful and autonomous interchange of Humane Letters seminars.
Giving students the space to succeed or fail—and try again—is part of Great Hearts culture. During an eighth grade math lesson, students stood at whiteboards around the room and worked at factoring polynomials. The teacher circulated and monitored, occasionally leaning in to offer a suggestion. Some students worked steadily, while others looked more uncertain, but they all made progress towards their goals. When a student was stuck, the teacher invited others to comment, which uncovered mistakes, such as multiplication errors or overlooked pairs of factors. It was a gentle, collaborative process, without shame. We all make mistakes, and we become more successful as we learn how to recover from them and remember the lessons learned.
The special education program serves students who participate in the general education classrooms as well as specialized classrooms; there are currently nine members of the SPED team. The percentage of students receiving special education services is higher at Great Hearts Northern Oaks than at the surrounding traditional public school district. Learning differences such as dyslexia, Down syndrome, autism, and ADHD are present among the students. Brooke Lucero, a special education teacher at Great Hearts Northern Oaks, was recognized by the Texas Charter Schools Association as 2017 Charter Teacher of the Year.
School Culture at Great Hearts Northern Oaks
As you can see from the Great Hearts Northern Oaks school calendar for 2019–2020, the first day of school was August 14, 2019 and the last day of school will be May 29, 2020. At the Lower School (K–6), a typical school day is 7:50 AM to 3:25 PM. As you can see on the calendar, there are many early release days, especially on Fridays for professional development; on those days, the school day is 7:50 AM to 1:25 PM For Upper School (7–11), a full day is 8:00 AM to 3:35 PM., and an early release day is 8:00 AM to 1:35 PM. The earliest drop off time is 7:25 AM. Families who need child care after school can register for Athenaeum (K–4) or homework club (5–11). The school does not offer transportation services.
Great Hearts Northern Oaks has an athletics program that includes cross country, girls’ volleyball, flag football, soccer, basketball, baseball, softball, and track. Students compete in the Texas Charter School Academic and Athletic League and UIL, depending on the sport. The Great Hearts Northern Oaks mascot is the griffin, and the school colors are dark red and white. The school also offers clubs.
The house system for grades 5–6 is hard to explain to outsiders—you sort of have to see it to appreciate it—but it builds school spirit and good citizenship among the students. It’s like the house system in the Harry Potter books, but with names drawn from the Classics to Keep literary canon. Each house has a crest and a special object. There are various ways that students and houses can earn points, including intramural sports. Regular house meetings track progress and build a sense of teamwork.
Great Hearts Northern Oaks has an active PSO (Parent Service Organization) that organizes parents who volunteer on campus in the library, office assistants, lunch duty, and other roles. The PSO also produces community events such as an annual spring carnival. In September 2019, Great Hearts Northern Oaks had its inaugural Griffin Gala fundraiser. Parent-led capital campaigns made it possible for the school to add the full-size gym and the high school building.
Headmaster Keffer sees the Great Hearts curriculum as transformative, not just of the students enrolled at the school, but also of their families and our entire community. Great Hearts students are likely to ask to visit a museum or go play outside, and dream about taking a family trip to Rome. They are less likely to ask for a cell phone or access to social media at a young age. The “no pop culture rule” asks students to leave those discussions and images (including backpacks or coats with cartoon characters or logos) at the door and focus on shared experiences, such as literature and field trips.
Offering a classical education model in a public school setting is a revolutionary idea that is catching on with San Antonio families. A charter school like Great Hearts Northern Oaks may be the right setting for your family to embrace ancient traditions and prepare your children for bright futures.
- “Great Hearts charter schools are making waves by serving mostly middle-class families,” Max Eden, Dallas Morning News, November 17, 2019 (adapted from City Journal Autumn 2019)
- “A Great Hearts Parent’s Perspective: A Community of People Who Share the Same Loves,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, October 8, 2019
- “San Antonio benefits from school choice,” Chip Haass, San Antonio Express-News, November 12, 2018
- “In San Antonio, the new way to grade schools still correlates with students’ economic status,” Alia Malik, San Antonio Express-News, October 21, 2018
- “Our Back to School Story: Elementary School and Middle School at Great Hearts Academies,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, September 6, 2018
- “Andrew Ellison Gives Commencement Address at Great Hearts Monte Vista’s Graduation,” Great Hearts Academies, YouTube, August 13, 2018
- “Rethinking Cultural Competence at Great Hearts Monte Vista North,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, April 23, 2018
- “Great Hearts, Great Story: An Interview with Daniel Scoggin,” Andrew J. Zwerneman, Cana Academy, January 19, 2018
- “Back to Basics,” John J. Miller, National Review, October 19, 2015
- “Top charter schools in town teach very different groups of students,” Alia Malik, San Antonio Express-News, July 25, 2015
- “Building a school community: notes from the Great Hearts Monte Vista open house,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, April 14, 2014