Chesterton Academy: joyful, classical, Catholic

The new, independent Catholic high school in Knox County opens its doors for the 2023-24 year 

By Gabrielle Nolan

A new Catholic school has opened its doors in Knox County for the 2023-24 academic year.

Chesterton Academy of St. Margaret Clitherow is an independent Catholic high school in the classical tradition that opened on Aug. 9.

The idea for the school originally “sprung out of the homeschooling Catholic community of Knoxville,” said Zach Summers, who serves as the school’s headmaster. Mr. Summers is a parishioner at Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville.

“I was approached about a year and a half ago by another gentleman, Jeff Baker, about starting this school, again expressed by a lot of the home-schooling community. They wanted to finish their children’s education in the same Catholic classical manner that many of them are currently receiving,” he said.

The Department of Education for the state of Tennessee conducted its pre-operational visit of the school in July and approved the school as a Category V Non-Public School.

The Chesterton Schools Network

Chesterton Academy of St. Margaret Clitherow is part of the Chesterton Schools Network.

Based in Minneapolis, the network is an “apostolate of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton” and offers “consulting services, templates for evaluating interest and operating a school, and the Chesterton Academy curriculum framework,” according to its website.

The Chesterton Academy of St. Margaret Clitherow is located at 5919 Rutledge Pike in Knoxville.

There currently are 44 Chesterton schools operating in the United States and Canada, with one sister school in Italy. Several additional schools will open this year.

The Knoxville academy is named after two patrons, G.K. Chesterton and St. Margaret Clitherow.

G.K. Chesterton was an English writer and convert to the Catholic faith, and he was considered “one of the world’s most outstanding men of letters in the early 20th century,” cites the Chesterton Schools Network website. He was chosen as the network’s patron “because he not only represents the fullness of faith and reason but also Catholic joy and common sense.”

St. Margaret Clitherow was a wife, mother, and Catholic school teacher who lived during the 1500s.

“St. Margaret Clitherow seemed very appropriate for us,” Mr. Summers said. “She was a schoolteacher of the Catholic faith, she helped hide and protect Catholic priests during the English persecutions. She was pressed to death with a door and in the process of that it was even believed she was with child at the time, pregnant…. So, schoolteacher, defender of the faith, protector of the priesthood, and pro-life; it just for us embodied all the aspects of our school, along with Chesterton.”

The physical location for the school is in a commercial building on Rutledge Pike in Knoxville.

Carolina DuPont, a parishioner at Holy Ghost and whose husband, Rory, is chair of the board of directors for the new school, said the location is an “immediate answer” and will likely be a short-term solution.

“We’re expecting big growth, even just after the first year, so as we grow we have to continually kind of assess and then hopefully end up in a permanent location that holds us, I think, into year five and beyond,” Mrs. DuPont said.

“We are one of 15 in the cohort of 2023 that will open their doors in the fall of this year, and so one of the pillars that they’ve discovered that has been so successful is understanding and accepting that where you start at within the first year or two is not where you’ll end, and they very highly emphasize that,” Mr. Summers said.

Most beginning Chesterton schools start out with 20 to 30 students, but some start with lower numbers. Knoxville’s Chesterton Academy will start off with 11 students.

“The ninth grade, the freshman class, is usually the largest within the school simply because of parents wanting their children to start and end the entire process instead of halfway through,” Mr. Summers said. “We’ve also already received students in the 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade years, so non-freshmen who simply want to be a part of the Chesterton experience.”

“All four grades will be represented, but all four grades will be receiving the ninth-grade education as far as humanities go, but the math and science is appropriate to their grade level,” he continued. “This is very typical of a Chesterton school when it starts off because the ninth-grade curriculum already encapsulates in its subjects the levels of wisdom and knowledge that might be contained in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade in other schools. Plus, the material is not dated.”

Mr. Summers noted that the new school has hired six teachers and one teacher’s assistant.

“I will be teaching several of the humanities classes as well as being an administrator,” Mr. Summers continued. “My non-negotiable is never fully leaving the classroom.”

Mr. Summers, who holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Alabama, has been a teacher for the past 10 years at a variety of schools. His courses have included English, honors literature, religion, Latin, logic, broadcasting, and debate.

“I had formerly helped convert a Catholic parochial school to classical and had taught at a classical Protestant school a few years, and myself was classically educated,” he said.

As an independent classical school, Chesterton Academy of St. Margaret Clitherow is not associated with Diocese of Knoxville schools.

“We have those who ask us, well what about the other schools in the area, do they not have something to offer? Our answer is they do,” Mr. Summers said. “Each school is a different member of the Body of Christ, just like the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Benedictines. They’re different religious orders but all a religious order.”

“We do notice with a lot of these schools there is a focus, and rightly so, on the technical and the proficient and college and career readiness, and we have college and career readiness as well,” he continued. “But the focus, just like all of them do prepare you for the ‘real world,’ our focus is we also are preparing them to be well-rounded individuals and understand that their education transcends the immediate need. Is it just that they can pass a test, is it just so that they can acquire a skill? These are good things, but are they readers? Are they thinkers?”

“I think it strikes a balance in our communities,” Mrs. DuPont added. “We have a great selection of STEM schools and technical schools in the Knoxville area, and I think this school strikes the balance with giving the arts with dance, too, and presenting it in a really fun way but also rounds out the student really well academically with classic literature, the great books.”

“I think the focus that we are really trying to get people talking about, and I’m really trying to get the diocese buzzing about, is what a joyful approach this is to the classical curriculum and just to our faith all around for these kids,” she continued. “That is truly our hope with this school, and that is the foundation to all Chesterton schools, is that joyful aspect.”

The Pearl Gala

On March 25, the academy hosted the Pearl Gala, its premier fundraising event. The gala included both silent and live auctions to benefit school funding.

Attendees raised $233,000 to fully fund the first year of the school.

Father Michael Hendershott, associate pastor at Holy Ghost in Knoxville, led the group in prayer.

Board member Curt Jawdy gives a talk at the Chesterton Academy Pearl Gala.

“How could we have a gala to support such a great work without quoting St. Thomas Aquinas?” he said. “The great doctor of the Church who spoke so much about virtue and grace, particularly the virtue that we’re here to perform tonight: the virtue of magnificence.”

“This particular virtue is a subset of the virtue of fortitude; it’s difficult work to do something magnificent,” he said. “The purpose of this magnificence is to grow in virtue, to grow in grace. So, we should all leave here tonight holier, more like unto God.”

Father Hendershott gave the example of Father John Dowling, who previously served as pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut and now serves as pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Signal Mountain.

“When he was building the beautiful St. John Neumann, one thing that he did was he spoke of generosity, and not only did he speak of generosity, he lived generosity,” Father Hendershott shared. “He pledged a year of his own salary to build that church. So, like Father Dowling, I’m not going to ask you to do something that I’m not willing to do myself. I’m going to pledge a year of my salary to Chesterton Academy.”

After a round of applause, Father Hendershott added that he also pledged a year of his salary to Knoxville Catholic High School when he previously was the chaplain there.

“Education is a tremendous work, it’s magnificent,” he said. “To bring souls to the knowledge of truth and love of truth that is Jesus Christ, that is what this school is for. I’m grateful for your presence. I’m grateful that you’re here and willing to learn about this great virtue that St. Thomas spoke of, magnificence, to do something great.”

There were more than 90 attendees for the premier gala.

Jennifer Hay, a parishioner at St. John Neumann, said her son will be entering the school as a freshman.

“I love that the Diocese of Knoxville is going to have a classical school that’s small, a small number of students to teachers,” she said. “I think more individual attention from teachers is going to be very helpful for him.”

“Classical education really does take you through the thought process, how to think good thoughts with the best thinkers of history, and I love that there’s not going to be any computers in the classroom, I think that’s a big distraction,” she said.

Priscilla McKinney, a parishioner at Holy Ghost, also said that one of her sons will enter as a freshman.

“We are really looking forward to this option for next year for our son, for fall of 2023,” she shared. “We already have one son who’s at Knox Catholic and he loves it, and it’s a really good fit for him, but we just have different needs and different wants for our other son, and I really think this is going to be the best fit.”

Mrs. McKinney said that she wants to support the school “as much as possible.”

“I want to support another option for Catholic families in the area. I just think it’s really important that we have multiple options for the multiple needs of our different children,” she said. “It’s going to serve certain families really well. It’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t need to be for everyone, because it’s just another option for families that are looking for that classical education.”

Barry Walsh, a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, said he sees “the need for this type of education.”

“There’s a demographic that it works perfect for,” he said. “I’m for pretty much anything Catholic. I love our faith. … I like opportunities for, especially homeschool kids, they’re working their way through and as they get older it becomes more difficult for parents to be able to school them, so to have a smaller environment to be able to bring them through these critical times. And the classical education is solid.”

Following the gala dinner, board member Curt Jawdy and Mr. Summers led presentations about the school.

Pictured at the Chesterton Academy’s Pearl Gala are (from left) school headmaster Zach Summers and board members Carolina DuPont, Molly Jawdy, and Eleyana Nahigian.

“We need Chesterton schools because our society is great at answering ‘how’ questions but terrible at answering ‘why’ questions,” Mr. Jawdy said. “The reason that we struggle at answering these ‘why’ questions is because much of society has gone along with the flow, and that’s towards modernism. And by its nature this denies the existence of anything transcendent beyond the material world.”

“We can create stuff, but we struggle at creating meaning,” Mr. Jawdy continued. “So, we need a Chesterton school now to begin with the wisdom of the past, as we build a generation of Catholics ready to provide a reason for the hope that is in them. We need a generation that can use all of the gifts that God has given them, to reorient society towards valuable ends. We need people to rearticulate the knowledge that God has given in His Word and in the natural order He created. We need leaders, and leaders must be trained from a young age.”

Mr. Jawdy said that the Holy Spirit is active in each generation, “showing new facets of God’s goodness to us.”

“His work at various times and in various places has brought us the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and many orders besides,” he said. “He ministers to us through the Latin, Alexandrian, Maronite, and four other rites. So, we pray that he’s now ready to add a younger brother in the Catholic schools of Knoxville. So, we thank you for joining us in this adventure as we create a community and school to form our most valuable heritage: our kids.”

Mr. Summers addressed the three pillars of the school: joyful, classical, and Catholic.

“We’re here to form souls; we’re here to help form souls. There is nothing more important in anything that we do than to help our children get to heaven,” he said. “We want children who are able to remain holy, to become holy, to remain holy, and to go into the world to increase in their holiness and to help others increase in their holiness. … We want children who can go into the world whole and intact and be able to spread the Gospel, be able to think, be able to articulate.”

Mr. Summers spoke about the school’s patron, G.K. Chesterton.

“He was staunch friends with George Bernard Shaw, the devout atheist,” he explained. “They would argue throughout the entire day. They would debate fiercely. They would hold to their own, but they would be friends at night, and they’d go share a drink together.”

“The first pillar of Chesterton Academy is joy,” he continued. “To be able to have joy in our lives, not just know the truth but be able to share that truth with others. Joy is that levity, joy is that cure, joy allows us to know, love, and serve God but to have humility and to not take ourselves so seriously that we can’t be friends with others and spread that faith.”

“The second part, as Curt touched upon, Curt said our students are taught in school how to do something but they’re not taught why. I would add to that that they’re not taught the ‘should,’” he added. “The ‘should’ is the pillar of what Chesterton Academy is about. ‘Should’ involves wisdom. You can teach a student how to put a sword together, you can teach a student how to use that sword, but have they been taught should they use that sword? When should they fight? When should they apply the knowledge? That’s wisdom, and you don’t find that sense of wisdom in a great many schools. That’s what we want to teach these students is wisdom, how to use the knowledge that they have.”

Mr. Summers said that the third pillar of being Catholic is the most important.

“A joyful classical school in the Catholic tradition, and that’s why at Chesterton Academy we have the Mass every day, hopefully, God willing,” he said. “We have the sacraments. Nothing we can do inside of this school is more important than that Mass in the morning.”

“I’ve taught for 10 years in every different type of school, and there is nothing that we can do better for our children than this education. It not only teaches them holiness, it not only teaches them wisdom, it not only teaches them joyfulness, but it rounds them out; it forms the whole person,” he shared.

For more information on Chesterton Academy of St. Margaret Clitherow, visit knoxchesterton.com.

Comments 1

  1. Marvelous, just plain marvelous. May all the saints and angels in heaven pray for your success!
    God bless you!

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