Deacon Christopher Roberts
Deacon Christopher Roberts is president of Martin Saints Classical High School in Oreland, Pennsylvania.
Is your Catholic school independent, parochial, or diocesan?
Martin Saints Classical High School is an independent, private school. We are a part of the Chesterton Schools Network and an Institute for Catholic Liberal Education member school.
What grades does your school serve?
What is your vision for your school? How do you think of your mission? What do you hope to accomplish?
Our mission is to pass the Catholic faith to our students by rendering a portrait of the faith that is as plausible, compelling, and beautiful as possible. We hope to contribute to the renewal of the Church by passing on the faith, and by being a community of magnanimous, hospitable orthodoxy.
We play offense and defense. Defense means rejecting the unwholesome influences of the culture. We caution our school families against being on autopilot with technology and media consumption. But most of our time is spent on offense. That means cultivating our students’ imagination by running towards all that is good, true, and beautiful.
Our classical education is a means to that end—not an end in itself. It's a good vehicle for our Catholic vision. The purpose of our school is not to cultivate a generation of antiquarians who like old things. We're not here to create a generation of future classics professors. We use the great books to put students in a conversation with great authors and ideas. We use the great books as an antidote to cultural amnesia. We use the classics because this a world confident that truth, goodness, and beauty are real, that virtue is real, and this is the foundation we want to have for discussing how to be disciples in the present day.
How do your school’s culture and curriculum differ from government schools in your area? From other Catholic schools in your area?
I’m hesitant to run down other schools. But I will say that our inherited, legacy Catholic institutions are not bearing the fruit that they should. The statistics tell the story. Too many kids graduate and leave the faith. It’s obvious that we have to try something to raise our game. I would never say that our school is the answer for everything. I simply say that in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, there's room for a classical school on the menu. It's time to have this experiment.
Our local public schools are very modern. They mirror cultural trends—the latest being the normalization of transgenderism. There is a metaphysical difference between what the culture accepts as normal and what the Church teaches is true.
How often do your students attend Mass?
Students attend Mass twice a week.
How else is the Catholic faith integrated into the school program?
On the days students don’t attend Mass, they rotate among various devotions. They pray the rosary, do Liturgy of the Hours, adoration and benediction, Stations of the Cross on Fridays during Lent. The Church has such a treasure of prayers, and we want to introduce students to this breadth.
We have a Theology Question Box in our hallway for students to anonymously submit questions to be answered by a faculty panel once a month. Questions can be either theoretical or practical. Students have asked what angels look like, why we have certain traditions at Mass, and what to say to friends on social media who reject Church teaching on the cultural topics of the day.
Are subjects—such as mathematics, science, literature, and history—integrated in any way?
The Chesterton Schools Network weaves together history, literature, philosophy, theology, and languages in an integrated curriculum utilizing the Socratic Method. Math and science are intimately connected; the logic of math is seen in philosophy and God’s handiwork is seen in the sciences.
Individual teachers don't have their own classrooms. We have one big room where all the faculty have their desks. The idea is to encourage integration and collaboration by having teachers side-by-side.
Our faculty are formally observed twice a year by our administrators. Whether they integrate their classes with other subjects is something they are evaluated on.
What is your school’s enrollment?
Our enrollment is now 48, and I'd like to double that in the next couple years.
Has enrollment been steady in recent years?
This is our fourth year in operation—and our first year with a graduating class. We started with a freshman class of 11 and added a few students and a new freshman class every year.
What is your school’s tuition? Do you offer a sibling discount? If you offer financial aid, how many families receive it and what is the average grant?
Tuition is $10,000 for one child, $19,000 for two children, $28,000 for three children, and $37,000 for four children. Yes, we offer financial aid. More than half of families receive aid.
Our goal is to have an average bill rate of 70%, so that, on average, those families who receive financial aid receive a 30% grant. We are committed to affordability and not allowing tuition to be an obstacle to a Catholic classical education and so the average grant has varied from year to year. This year, the average grant is closer to 50%. We should be closer to 30% next year!
How involved are parents in the life of your school?
We couldn't function without them. They've launched various extracurricular activities, they run events like grandparent's day or the fish fry, and some of them are very involved with admissions and development.
Are you generally satisfied with your school’s teachers? How so?
Our faculty are our strongest selling point.
They are bright, committed educators on a mission to inspire young people with the transcendentals. They are on fire for the faith. They are the people you want mentoring children. I love our faculty. If we had to suddenly turn this place into a small liberal arts college, we could. Most of our teachers have Masters degrees or PhDs.
We probably had a handful of teachers who, in a different world, might be teaching at college. But because the politics of college campuses are so weird, they don't. I hope we provide a haven for them, a community of Catholic intellectual friendship.
Are parents generally satisfied with the education their children receive at your school? How do you know?
I hope they are satisfied! Typically we get a lot of great feedback on back-to-school night, after the parents meet the teachers. That's a great moment, when the parents see how dedicated and radiant the teachers are. To sustain that communication during the school year, our headmaster has a monthly open meeting where any parent can come and talk about any topic.
What are you doing to intentionally build and strengthen your school community? How do you communicate with students, families, and teachers? How do members of your community connect with each other?
Each grade has its own homeroom teacher who is a mentor and the chief culture-former for that grade. We worship together as a whole school community.
Our headmaster sends a weekly email.
I send out a newsletter that goes to students, families, teachers, donors, and anybody who signs up. My newsletter focuses on something spiritual or something to do with the mission of the school.
Families attend school events together and also get together on their own. I often help parents brainstorm about what might be useful and help stir the pot. For instance, I'll introduce parents to each other, or suggest social events that might put the right kids in the right place at the right time. Also, new this year, we have a House system. In the Chesterton network, besides having a homeroom assigned by grade, there are also four Houses named for saints that mix the kids up by grade. Each House has House parents. Finally, we also three or so times a year meet to read and discuss novels and spiritual books—faculty, parents, and students are all invited to these optional events.
How do you utilize volunteers in the operation of your school? What has worked well in making volunteers effective?
We have a volunteer office assistant who comes into the school four days a week and approaches her work like a job.
We try to work with good people and not burn them out. We have a small budget to send volunteer leaders flowers, chocolates, and other gifts from time to time.
Frankly, we need more volunteers. The paid staff and volunteers work really hard. Send more laborers to the vineyard, Lord!
What resources do you recommend parents use at home to deepen families’ understanding of and appreciation for the Catholic faith? For example, Word on Fire, Institute of Catholic Culture, Augustine Institute, etc.
We share links to articles in our weekly email. Word on Fire is a favorite resource of mine and our headmaster recommends the Augustine Institute’s Formed. Several of our teachers are involved in Communion and Liberation, and just the other day, I invited our school community to a CL event.
What do parents value most in your school? How do you know that?
I think they value that we are orthodox while also being hospitable. They like our regular worship and they like that our curriculum takes beauty, wonder, and goodness seriously. Being rooted in the best of Western civilization matters. This is what my intuition tells me.
I think they also like our “Frassati Fridays.” Every few weeks, we take students on three kinds of field trips: (1) adventures in the great outdoors, such as hiking, canoeing, foraging for edible plants, or an Outward Bound ropes course; (2) corporal works of mercy, or acts of service, such as cleaning a house for pregnant homeless women, serving lunch at a soup kitchen, or gardening for an inner city home for recovering addicts; and (3) culture, such as a ballet matinee, a symphony rehearsal, or an art or archeological museum.
Soon, we’ll have more concrete answers because we’re doing exit interviews with graduating seniors.
What marketing efforts (events, social media, print advertising, digital advertising, etc.) have you found most effective in sharing your school’s story with the local community?
The website is key. Word of mouth is key. The email newsletters we send out are helpful. We do five open houses a year and one of our teachers follows up with families by being available to answer questions. Another teacher manages our social media, including Google and Facebook ads. We’ve used “ad remarketing” to stay in front of Internet users who search for us online. This has been helpful.
How do you recruit new families to your school? What resources do you use to share your school’s story and connect with likeminded families? What insights can you share about what parents are seeking for their children and what your school offers that others don’t?
Word of mouth and open houses are most helpful. It's really important to get families in the door for an open house so they can they can hear from us directly and see our school. Following the advice of the Chesterton Network, our classrooms are uncluttered, simple, and beautiful, decorated with bookshelves and good paintings. Each classroom has its own personality. We have a piano room, a woodworking room, and a café with a wooden coffee and snack bar.
How much have you needed to sell your community of parents on the value of the education and formation your school offers? How many parents seek out what your school offers vs. how many need to be convinced? What messaging resonates with parents?
For the first three years, most people came to us because they wanted a trustworthy, orthodox Catholic school. Our classical curriculum helped us communicate our Catholic identity.
Three Catholic high schools have closed in Philadelphia during COVID, so now we have new families from other schools checking us out as word of mouth about us increases. We know that we need to grow beyond the small circle of homeschooling and classical K–8 alumni families. Some of those new families need more convincing. Some families from mainstream schools ask questions about STEM. We sit with them and answer their questions. The stellar academic resumes of our faculty are helpful.
How do you determine whether a prospective family will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your application process? What shared values do current families expect you to protect as you add new families to your school community?
We have an application. Students are asked to submit an essay. Families are asked about the culture at home. For example, we ask families to share technology and media habits.
Most families come to us because they know our mission and are seeking a school to reinforce the values they are teaching at home.
A parent recently sent us an article about how a classical school requires a classical home. Here’s an analogy that’s helpful: if you eat three nutritious meals a day and then go down to the kitchen every night and eat junk food, your diet will not be successful. Similarly, if parents send children to a classical school for eight hours a day, but their home life is dominated by technology and media, with no prayer, the classical education will not be successful.
What do you look for when hiring teachers?
I like teachers who are longing to be a part of a Catholic community, who would contribute to our school culture of Catholic intellectual friendship, who themselves are fully alive in the faith and have a mature interior/intellectual life.
How do you recruit new teachers? What resources do you use to share your school’s story and connect with qualified teachers outside of your school community? What insights can you share about what teachers are seeking in a school community and what your school offers that others don’t?
We have recruited excellent teachers through the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, Chesterton Schools Network, Catholicjobs.com, and our school website. Word of mouth has also been important. We ask those closest to us—our school families, faculty, and benefactors—to forward position descriptions to personal contacts.
We are constantly cultivating awareness of our mission through emails and website updates that those closest to us are eager to pass along. It makes it easier for us to recruit likeminded teachers to strengthen our faithful Catholic culture.
How do you determine whether a teacher you are considering hiring will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your interview process? What shared values do current teachers and families expect you to protect as you add new teachers to your school community?
Through the interview process, we seek to confirm that a teacher understands our mission and will be proactive about advancing our mission, has an awareness of the variety of approaches to education and the reasons for the classical approach, has some insight that the Catholic faith provides an illuminating perspective on the culture, and maintains some independence from the culture because of that faith.
We ask what books the teacher is reading. We also ask for a sample lesson plan and have the teacher walk us through what he or she expects to be happening in class during the lesson. This gives us insight into the teacher’s pedagogy and vision. The best teachers can go deep in their own subject, with passion and focus, but also make connections with other subjects.
How do you train teachers and what have you learned about teacher training?
At the beginning of every school year, all teachers get together for two days of pedagogical workshops. New teachers attend one additional day of training. Every month, all teachers meet for a half-day training.
A member of our teaching faculty organizes our professional development in her capacity as Director of Classical Education. She utilizes resources from the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, the Chesterton Network, the Circe Institute, and other trusted sources. Much of our professional training revolves around how to give creative and stimulating assignments, as well as how to lead seminars and generate discussion among students.
We have found that all good teachers want to be better. They want to grow in creativity and find ways to encourage students to talk more in class. We keep an eye on teachers’ workload and try not to overwhelm them so they can focus on motivating their students.
What percentage of your school’s budget is covered by tuition revenue? How important is fundraising to the continued operation of your school? What works best to inspire families and community members to support your school? What doesn’t work? How have you created momentum in your fundraising efforts and what plans do you have to strengthen your fundraising program in the years ahead?
We are still a new school. As a start-up, we rely more on fundraising until we are fully enrolled. Fundraising revenue currently covers 50% of our costs; tuition covers the other 50%. We hope that will change over the next few years as we increase enrollment. We currently have 45 students. We hope to increase enrollment to 80 or 100 students, which would significantly increase tuition revenue and should decrease our reliance on fundraising. We consider a 75%-25% tuition-to-fundraising ration to be a good goal.
We currently have approximately 200 donors. This includes two donors who have given six-figure gifts, about half a dozen donors who have given $12,000 to $26,000 gifts, and approximately two dozen donors who have given $1,000 to $5,000 gifts. One interesting group of donors are older parents of grown children. They will never have kids at our school. They tell us they wish a school like ours had existed when their kids were younger. They want to be a part of the renewal of the Church and they see their support of our school as the way to do that. There are a handful of younger donors who want our school to be here and thriving in a few years when their toddlers and elementary school students need us.
We have not hosted a gala, but an event that put us on the map early on was a talk at our school by author Rod Dreher.
Are you the primary fundraiser for your school? How many hours do you spend on fundraising every week? How many hours does other staff spend on fundraising?
Yes, I am the primary fundraiser for our school. I spend a lot of time on fundraising. It’s an endless job. Thankfully, it’s rewarding. On the best days, I’m telling the story of our school, building relationships, inviting people to participate in the mission, all while engaging with students and faculty and strengthening the internal life of the school. But that’s a lot to do well every day. We just hired an advancement director and I expect he will be a big help. But there will always be a need for me to be involved in ongoing relationships with donors.
What have you learned about relationships with those who oversee your school? What are common challenges for schools operating under your model and what is your school doing well that would be helpful for other schools to know about? What advice are you willing to share about how to navigate important and/or challenging relationships?
Our board is made up of individuals we know and trust spiritually. It has never been larger than 7 members. Our board members serve three year terms that are renewable. When we began, it was recommended that we keep good members who have institutional memory and don’t let bad members linger. We have quarterly meetings and committees meet in between meetings. We have committees for admissions, fundraising, hiring, curriculum, development, and spirituality. Committees can be made up of a board member, a faculty member, and someone not attached to the school. Inviting someone onto a committee is a way to audition outsiders for board membership.
What is your school known for in your area?
Our school is not well known. A goal is to improve our local signage and build stronger relationships with local K-8 schools.
To the extent we are known, some mistake us for being academically elitist and conservative. Neither is fair. Our Director of Classical Education likes to quote C.S. Lewis as saying, “It’s much easier to read Plato than it is to read a book about Plato.” Our students are interested in the world and hungry for the truth. Our job is to elevate their tastes and appetites—and that happens through exposure, not elitism. The conservative label is similarly unfitting. Any orthodox Catholic will appreciate that Catholicism does not fit squarely within political labels. Rather, our orthodoxy means a Christ-centered worldview that affects all aspects of an individual’s physical, spiritual, and community life.
What is your school’s greatest challenge?
Our school’s greatest challenge is the need to close the gap between tuition revenue and expenses.
What does your school do better than any other school in your area?
We are fully Catholic. We are orthodox. We insist on being “full catechism” Catholics. What does that mean? It means we are pro-life, pro-Catholic social teaching, that we care about the poor, we care about chastity, that we care about doctrinal fidelity, we care about being pastoral. In a divided church, that’s no small feat. In our church and in our culture, there are left-wing and right-wing temptations; there’s an adrenaline rush that comes with picking sides, a security that comes from joining an ideological tribe. No! In 1 Corinthians 1:12, St. Paul warns us against factions. To be fully alive in Christ is not a matter of being “moderate” and finding the compromising middle ground. Orthodoxy is much more creative than that. It’s a matter of letting the faith re-orient and discipline how you pay attention to the world. That can lead to some politically lonely and unusual positions, but in a culture that has gone off the rails like ours, discerning when to step away from the crowd is necessary for fidelity.
What have our questions not covered that would help clarify the success of your school?
I’m interested in hearing from other school founders how those founding years affected relationships with friends, staff, and clergy at local churches. I’ve heard to expect a reshuffling of friendships. Some will understand what you’re doing and that will bring you closer. Others won’t get it.
My experience is that, astonishingly, some people don’t see the crisis in the Church. Some don’t have the language to talk about it. There are some clergy out there who think that all we have to do to fix Catholic education is rally around diocesan structures. Some think liturgical reforms have not gone far enough and that either the Latin Mass or a more folk 1970’s Mass will save us. Others are complacent; they know the churches aren’t full, but they’re not empty either. They see that kids are still getting confirmed, but they don’t recognize the frailty of their faith or their family’s faith.
What is the most important difference between your school and struggling schools?
(Our interviewee asked for our impression and we said, “You know who you are as a school community.”)
Share one custom that is unique to your school.
Frassati Fridays and our camping trip
Share one resource that strengthens your school.
Chesterton Schools Network and the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education
Share one tool—online or otherwise—that increases the efficiency or professionalism of your work.
Share one activity you do regularly that makes you a more effective leader.