By LINDSAY MYERS — In a move to cut lengthy waiting lists for admission, St. Jerome Academy (SJA) has announced an expansion plan that will begin this fall with the addition of a third Montessori pre-K class and a second kindergarten. An additional class will be added each successive year until enrollment — currently 333 students — caps at around 530 in the 2027-2028 school year.
“When we began making admissions this winter,” said SJA Principal Danny Flynn, “there were four applicants for every opening in our two Montessori Primary [pre-K] classes, and three applicants for every spot in our kindergarten. We weren’t even able to admit all of our sibling applicants. Clearly, there was a pressing need to expand capacity.”
Flynn said that SJA has received between 175 to 200 applications each year for the past few years, and is on track to exceed those totals this year. Some families are even moving across the country to attend SJA. Flynn noted that in the last 12 months alone, at least eight families contacted school staff for help in finding housing and were successful in renting or buying a home near SJA.
After conducting a feasibility study, the school received approval for the expansion plan from the Archdiocese of Washington in April, according to Flynn.
In the current economic and educational environment, a Catholic school adding students is almost unheard of. According to the National Catholic Education Association, within the last ten years, Catholic elementary school enrollments have declined by 27.5 percent in urban dioceses. And yet, after eight consecutive years of the school’s increasing enrollment — and despite the expansion — 56 students remain on SJA’s waitlist for the 2018-2019 school year.
Nine years ago, SJA nearly closed because of budget shortfalls and low enrollment. The local archdiocese gave the school one year to close their budget and enrollment gaps. The parish rallied, raising more than enough money to save the school. Meanwhile, a group of parents came together and pitched a radical idea: What if SJA abandoned the standard archdiocesan curriculum and adopted a classical model of education?
Classical education draws from a 2,500-year legacy of education in the Western world, beginning in ancient Greece. Students study the most enduring texts of Western civilization in an approach that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all areas of knowledge. Grades at SJA are organized around a historical time period, and the core class for the students each year examines that time period through historical documents, literature, music and religion.
Classical schools have been on the rise since the 1980s, gaining mainstream attention in the early 2000s when Great Hearts Academies, a public charter version of classical education, opened a network of schools in Arizona and, later, in Texas. Before SJA made the transition to classical education in 2009, few Catholic classical schools or curricula existed. While the curriculum committee consulted existing Christian classical curricula, they wanted something unique for the growing Catholic community in Hyattsville.
“Being able to offer the fullness of Catholic culture in the school is important,” said Flynn. “I think the takeaway the [curriculum committee] had was that if we are doing this, we need to do something really unique for this community and not just grab an off-the-shelf program and try to get everyone on board. If we are trying to lead everybody to ponder the truth, we need to give them something beautiful to ponder in the first place.”
The curriculum at SJA isn’t just for the students. This year, the school offered a curriculum-based monthly book club for parents. The group studied Homer’s Odyssey, which first- and sixth-grade students at SJA encounter, albeit in adapted versions.
Jane Murphy, one of the book club coordinators, emphasized the importance of parental involvement in classical education: “SJA recognizes that parents are the primary educators of their children, and that these parents can better reinforce the curriculum when they are familiar with the texts.”
Flynn says it’s the fruits of the classical model that parents and children find so appealing.
“Classical education speaks to the true, the good and the beautiful. Ultimately, you’re offering a chance to discover truth in a way that is in harmony with the way a child develops,” said Flynn, adding, “It is not perfect for every single family, but the overwhelming majority of people who have pursued [classical education] have come here with an open mind, and it’s been a really good fit. I think that if you have something really good and people want it and are willing to wait outside in line for it, then you should expand from the inside.”