The Cornerstone Classical School in Basalt is one of two of its kind in the state. It’s a non-denominational Christian school, which prides itself on academic rigor.
For example, they teach Latin, and the one senior graduating this year has to write and defend a 5,000-word thesis.
In a classroom with kindergartners and first-graders, a student named Jude sits at his desk. He’s working on a worksheet and, at the top, has written his name: J-u-b-e. The lowercase “d” is actually a “b.”
He and his classmate are working on the sentence, “the busy bee worked quickly.” “Quickly,” they know, is an adverb. The pencils they’re using are too big for their little hands and they keep dropping them on the desk, which makes a drum-rolling sound.
Yet they know what an adverb is? What about a verb?
“A verb shows action, there’s no doubt, it tells what the subject does, like sing and shout!” both children said.
Rhymes, rhythm and repetition are an essential part of the classical pedagogy, said Steve Marshall, who’s the school’s headmaster and one of its 18 teachers for the 40 students. In Mrs. DeBose’s fifth-grade class, three students sing about prepositions to the familiar tune of “The Lone Ranger.”
The goal is to give students the verbal skills they need to articulate themselves precisely. Marshall teaches a seventh-grade class on World War I, called “Omnibus.” It’s history, literature and theology, all rolled into one.
“What’s the difference between murdering and fighting in war?” Marshall asked his class after reading them a poem about mustard gas. One student raised her hand and argued murder implies killing the innocent, while fighting in war is much more honorable. Mid-sentence, however, she got confused and asked what the different sides were fighting for during World War I.
“That’s a great question,” Marshall said. “What were they fighting for?”
Marshall doesn’t want typical “Sunday school” answers to his questions. He wants his students to dive in, headfirst, and wrestle with the material. He’s serious about education. On the walls of his office, five swords are hung. He gives these to his eighth-graders upon graduation, to congratulate them for how hard they’ve worked.
In the morning, when the students get to school around 8 a.m., they first go to a morning prayer. Not all the students are Christians, but that doesn’t matter. There’s singing. One student performs a short sermon. Before all this, they say two separate pledges of allegiance. One to the U.S., the other to the “Christian flag.” Marshall doesn’t want to indoctrinate his students; he wants them to think critically, but he wants them to do so “in joyful submission to God.”
If a student of his excelled in school, and then decided for themselves they didn’t want to be Christian anymore, has the school succeeded or has it failed?
“We have succeeded,” said Marshall. “Our job is not to make students Christians. That’s the parents, that’s the families, that’s the church. We are not a church, we’re a school.” He added, however, that knowledge is a powerful tool and can be “dangerous” without the guidance of scripture.
Along with the swords in Marshall’s office, there’s a shield and a knight’s helmet. The senior graduating in May will have his pick of the two. He’ll leave the school, Marshall hopes, equipped with powerful tools and ones that he knows how to use.