MADISON — Lake Country Classical Academy in Oconomowoc might just be the poster-child for the school choice movement today, and Exhibit: A on the empowerment of parents seeking a better educational future for their children.
LCCA a tuition-free, teacher-led charter school, opened in September. It currently serves more than 400 kindergarten through ninth-grade students, But this school steeped in classical learning is rapidly growing, taking in nearly 250 applications for new students in the first two weeks of this month’s enrollment window. By 2024, the academy plans to serve kindergarten-12th grade.
And the school’s success — its very existence — has much to do with an Ojibwe College that shares the belief that parents are the primary educator of their children.
Creating a school
LCCA, a Hillsdale College Member School known for its rigorous curriculum, was the brainchild of a group of parents who were fed up with what their children were learning — or weren’t learning — in traditional public schools. They had a dream: to create a school based on ideas, not ideologies, as one parent put it. So in the fall of 2018, they began the eye-opening journey of launching their own school.
“We went down the path of the charter school, but how do you create a school out of nothing, from the ground up?” said Kristina Vourax, LCCA founder and board president.
The parents visited charter schools in other parts of the state, including the Classical School of Appleton. They fell in love with the school’s content-rich approach, it’s focus on “back-to-the-basics” core curriculum, and its emphasis on virtue and character development.
That led them to Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative, which promotes the founding of charter K-12 schools across the country. More than 12,000 K-12 students are enrolled in 24 member Hillsdale schools in at least nine states, with a current waiting list of about 5,000, according to the college.
LCCA would become one of only two public, tuition-free charter schools in Wisconsin offering a classical education curriculum, in a school setting that teaches Latin and the Classics, and prizes pencils and paper over electronic screens.
“What’s wonderful about this program is that families that may not be able to afford private schools now have access to this curriculum,” Vourax said.
But the dreamers of this new school would first have to find a charter school authorizer, which proved to be their biggest challenge. Local school districts turned them down. Independent authorizers, including UW-Milwaukee, didn’t work out.
Cultures coming together
When it seemed the charter school dream was slipping out of their hands, in stepped the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Ojibwe College. The college, located in Hayward, agreed to serve as authorizer. It is one of several institutions identified by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction with such authority.
LCO Ojibwe College President Dr. Richard Swagger said the agreement allows the college to teach more students about the Ojibwe “beyond our reservation boundaries.”
“College leaders created an opportunity for Ojibwe history, culture, and language to be taught to LCCA students who are not aware of commonalities, differences, and shared values between native and non-native peoples,” he said in a statement to Wisconsin Spotlight. “This is an opportunity for Ojibwe people to show the world that political polarization does not have a place in education. There is an intentional willingness between both the LCOOC and LCCA to purposefully cross those lines and become a role model for others. LCCA is an avenue to share our own story with non-native student who benefit from learning accurate history of the Ojibwe.”
Both the charter school and the college support the educational sovereignty of all parents and students, and the core principle that parents have the right to educate their children the way they see fit.
Margaret Daigneau, newly named principal of Lake Country Classical Academy, said the school is grateful to partner with an organization that “values parents as the primary educator of their children.”
“Thanks to the support of the LCO Ojibwe College, LCCA is providing an alternative for parents seeking a more traditional, teacher-led approach to education,” Daigneau told Wisconsin Spotlight. “We employ the Hillsdale College classical curriculum that is already rich in Native American history, and we look forward to partnering with the LCO Ojibwe College in sharing their history and culture.”
Ideas instead of ideologies
Kristin Franke has homeschooled all three of her children, but says she would have preferred providing them an independent classical education. That option was not available or within budget — until LCCA opened this school year. She enrolled her youngest daughter in the school’s fifth-grade class. Her other two children, one in high school and the other in college, missed the window of opportunity.
Franke said she’s always been concerned about the lack of parental involvement in public schools. She said the parents who were looking in a different direction wanted to build a school that focuses on the fundamentals of education — reading, writing (including phonics) mathematics, a focus on history and significant attention to music, art and foreign language.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come into homeschooling because of the frustrations they experienced,” she said. “I have always loved and have been drawn to classical education because it is really focused on ideas instead of ideology … And I love that my daughter is not on a screen all day.”
A recent survey on this National School Choice Week finds a majority of parents who responded (52%) said they were considering, or had considered in the last year, choosing a new or different school for their children. The desire for a better education (36 percent) topped the list of primary reasons parents considered or would consider moving their children out of their existing school, according to the survey. Another 34 percent cited the pandemic and/or school COVID policies disrupting their child’s education as a driving factor for thinking about changing schools. And parents wanting more say in what their children were learning was a leading factor.
At Lake Country Classical Academy, some parents are daily driving their children an hour or more to attend. It comes down to choice, and more parents are looking for schools that don’t lock parents out of the equation.
“Parents across the nation are looking and evaluating all of their options,” Daigneau said. “This first year, we’ve established ourselves as a place of excellence, with growth and future possibilities in front of us.”