Florida is a hotbed for classical education. It’s home to at least 15 classical charter schools and dozens of classical private schools, including many that are classical Christian schools. Those now include several rooted in the Catholic tradition.
The Chesterton Academy of Orlando is another fresh example – but with a twist.
The parents who got it rolling in the fall of 2022 had earlier established a classical Catholic home-school co-op. As their children advanced through middle school, they decided they wanted something different for high school. And because what they wanted didn’t exist, they did what more and more parents and teachers in Florida are doing: They created it.
The Chesterton School of Orlando is affiliated with The Chesterton Schools Network. The network began in Minnesota in 2008, encompasses roughly 50 schools nationwide, and is on pace for 100 schools by 2025. It calls itself “joyfully Catholic.”
“What the state of Florida is doing is taking the burden off the parent,” said Headmaster Jim Hickel, who has more than 40 years of experience in classical education and moved from Idaho to lead the new school. “Choice changes everything.”
“We just knew this was our moment to create something enduring and impactful,” said Brandon Vogt, who co-founded the Orlando school and served as a board member for the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, which sponsors the network. The society’s namesake, G.K. Chesterton, was a beloved Christian writer and intellectual who converted to Catholicism late in life.
Using the network’s blueprint, Vogt and the other parents raised the start-up funds, found a facility, recruited faculty, and hired a headmaster – all within 18 months.
Last year, the school had 31 students, 27 of them using state education choice scholarships. (The scholarships are administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.) This fall it has 55 students, all of them on scholarship. Eventually, it expects 160 students.
The scholarships “are the difference maker,” Vogt said. “Without them, our school would not exist.”
The Chesterton Academy represents several compelling trends beyond the surge in classical education.
For one, it’s another good example of the growth of Catholic education in Florida, a story line with national import.
My colleagues Lauren May and Patrick Gibbons and I documented the trend lines in this new white paper. Over the past decade, Catholic school enrollment in Florida grew 4 percent, in contrast to most of the rest of the country, where Catholic school numbers continue to fall. And that doesn’t count this fall’s enrollment, which is likely to show even bigger gains.
The Chesterton Academy of Orlando would not be included in the official counts, because it’s not affiliated with the diocese. But the model resonates with many Catholic parents. Another Chesterton Academy opened in Pensacola this fall, a third is set for Sarasota next fall, and there are discussions about others.
“We’re absolutely faithful to Catholic teachings,” said Emily de Rotstein, executive director of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. “This is a movement of parents working together with the Church.”
More broadly, the Chesterton Academy of Orlando reflects Florida’s pivot to educational pluralism – and who has been empowered to do the pivoting. All kinds of dynamic new models are emerging, in response to different visions and values, and enabled by education choice.
In yet others – like the Chesterton Academy – it’s parents themselves who are taking the reins.