The eighth-graders stood ramrod straight, violas and violins perched on shoulders or cellos and basses in front of them as they worked through a piece of music.
“Again,” said Cathy Hanson as the group ran through a half-dozen measures. “Better. Let’s do it again.”
Once proper orchestral posture is assured, perhaps they’ll sit.
Down the hall in Carter Young’s seminar for literature and composition, a group of ninth graders were in an animated discussion about the relationship between a man and a fish. They cited page numbers and quotes as Young asked them to support their arguments.
They’re reading, of course, Ernest Hemingway’s "The Old Man and the Sea."
This is the Thomas MacLaren School, where about 70 students in grades six through nine are finishing the charter school’s inaugural year. In the fall, the school will expand to include 10th grade and is expecting about 130 students, said Mary Faith Hall, head of school.
The school, which leases space in Pulpit Rock Church on Austin Bluffs Parkway, will add 11th and 12th grades in subsequent years.
The school offers a classical curriculum with no electives. Every student takes literature and composition, math, science, four years of Latin and three years of a modern language (or five years of Latin and two years of Greek), music, social studies and studio art/art history/drama.
The core classes progress through various subjects. For example, students start with life science in sixth grade and then take earth science, physical science, biology, chemistry and two years of physics.
Classes have about 20 students, and when possible the classrooms are single sex.
The coursework is designed to provide students with a solid foundation for whatever they choose to do and an appreciation of culture.
“Everyone takes the same courses,” Hall said. “We are trying to emphasize learning. We don’t emphasize grades and standardized tests, although we do those things.”
Students quickly learned that a lack of emphasis on grades didn’t mean they could slough off, Hall said. Each student gets a two-page written semester evaluation for every course, along with a discussion on progress with teachers.
“You can’t take the easy way out at this school,” said Jared Mannar, a ninth grader who previously was home-schooled. “I like how the teachers are real involved.”
Other students, too, had high praise for the teachers who are leading them.
“The teachers give us respect,” ninth-grader Thomas Brophy said. “They don’t talk down to you. They bring us up to their level. If you’re willing to work they help you.
“We are going to come out so far ahead of everyone else,” he added when asked how he felt about the demanding core curriculum.
Proof of the MacLaren school’s concepts are a few years off, after its first graduates head on to college or the work world, Hall said.
But it’s clear she believes strongly in the school’s goal to “develop young men and women who are fully human and fully awake to the world.”
“We tell our students that we want to open more doors for you,” she said. “We know they can master much, much more. After just one year in music the kids can do so much. We’re seeing tons of progress already.”
Teachers said most students are quickly rising to the challenges the school offers, and they are too. Professional development at MacLaren means the teachers study and discuss their own profession, including reading Socrates and books on education reform, said Hanson, the orchestra teacher.
“I’m just so excited about MacLaren and the philosophy behind it,” she said. “There is a great vision for this school.”
Hanson, the principal violist for the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, said the requirement that every student learn to play a stringed instrument has “created a really neat culture at the school.”
“Since everyone does it, they are a little competitive with each other,” she said, explaining that one grade performs weekly at Friday assemblies and everyone knows when a mistake is made.
“I think they’ve enjoyed it,” she said. “They’re very engaged.”
Young, the literature teacher, said the students have grown tremendously during their first year.
“When we started the Socratic seminars in September they didn’t know what to do,” he said. “By the time they are juniors and seniors, they’ll be leading the discussions.
“This year, we’re coaching the system. The kids are learning how to talk, how to debate.”
Literature and medieval history teacher Bridget Rector, who also leads a seminar class, said the change from the first semester to the second has been dramatic. The students, especially the ninth graders, take their studies more seriously and realize they’re learning a new way of thinking, she said.
“I think they’ll be well-equipped for their futures,” she said.
Learn More about MacLaren
Open house: 6:30 p.m. May 13 at the school, 303 Austin Bluffs Parkway (in Pulpit Rock Church).
Student shadows: Schedule a time for a child to attend classes with a MacLaren student by calling 313-4488.
Fine Arts Night: View student art and listen to the orchestra at 7 p.m. Thursday at the school.
Website: click here