Classical education includes work on farm and pro-life activism at Ecce Veritas
On a drizzly Monday morning, a dozen girls carpool from Portland to a seven-acre farm off a gravel road in rural St. Paul - just southwest of Wilsonville - and begin their school day not at their desks but in the mud.
Instead of their studies in Latin, medieval literature and moral theology, they'll spend today scooping slugs out of their garden, learning a 'whipping' technique to keep ropes from fraying, and helping to cut a stovepipe for the greenhouse they've been building since last fall.
'It's about being able to improvise, work with what you have,' says 17-year-old Kristen Neal, an aspiring engineer. 'I like being here. I don't have to stress.'
Spending every Monday in an agricultural setting is the farm day tradition at Ecce Veritas, a small, coed private school in inner Northeast Portland that opened three years ago to give students a classical education in the Catholic tradition.
While Portland is home to several parochial schools, Ecce Veritas - which means 'behold the truth' in Latin - doesn't technically call itself a Catholic school because it's not directly funded by the archdiocese, but by private donors.
That said, the Holy Rosary Church and Dominican Priory, next door to the school, leases the school part of a nondescript building at a discount and provides church space for students' daily Mass, confessions and practice of their Gregorian chants, the monastic ritual that is part of their music education.
To many parents, the school's unique offerings are a dream come true - especially at an annual tuition of $2,500, with the promise that no student will be turned away based on financial need.
'Trust me, you'd not have this opportunity in Connecticut,' said Beverly Stevens, a financial writer who moved from the East Coast last year and enrolled her son, Dan, as a seventh-grader, then volunteered to teach algebra at the school part-time, as many parents do.
'Latin's really big on the East Coast,' she said. 'I was surprised that none of the schools out here offer Latin. People are starting to recognize how important it is to have that kind of rigor at the high school level.'
In fact, Northeast Portland's Grant High School is the only Portland public school with a Latin program; it was nearly cut last year, but retained after some public outcry during the budget process.
The program at Ecce Veritas stands out for another reason in liberal Portland. The school follows the teachings of the Catholic Church, which opposes abortion and homosexuality.
And the school, at 1333 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., which enrolls 40 uniformed students in grades 7 through 12, doesn't shy away from such controversial issues, but embraces them as teaching moments.
'Any time moral issues come up, especially given the current climate, it's a springboard for discussion,' said John Gallagher, the dean of students. 'We try to follow the approach of the catechism. Objectively, (homosexuality) is a grave evil, grave sin. But the disposition is not a sin on the part of the individual.'
During class discussions, he said, 'students are not to argue with teachers about moral issues, but we want them to ask questions for clarity, things that don't make sense.'
The lessons on morality don't stop in the classroom. On occasion, students have taken class trips to the grassy lot on MLK and Northeast Beech Street, about a mile north, to protest the Planned Parenthood clinic that is slated to be built there.
Many were home-schooled
Stevens, who comes from a long line of Roman Catholics, said that while outsiders might see the school as a political entity, 'this is not a political organization. This is a school designed to teach the classics. Part of it is teaching the Catholic Church's 2,000-year-old philosophy.'
Nick Rocco Denicola, owner of Rocco's Pizza, on West Burnside Street, has sent two of his six children to Ecce Veritas, one who's now moved on to Portland Community College.
A couple of his children attended Portland Public Schools when they were younger, but he and his wife decided to home-school them after their daughter developed special needs that they thought were best tended to at home.
'We believe in public education,' he said. 'You do what you can for the community at large, but when it comes down to it, it comes down to what's best.'
Ecce Veritas 'is conservative,' Denicola says. 'Catholicism asks a lot of you. Some things have no gray area. (Being) pro-life is one of them.'
The school admits students regardless of their religion, Gallagher said, and in the past there have been a few non-Catholics. But this year all happen to be Catholic; many come from families who've been attending Holy Rosary Church for years, making it a tight-knit community that parents consider comfortable and safe.
'After a few weeks there, I told Dan, 'You can marry any one of these girls,' ' Stevens said of her son. 'I'm fine with that.'
In fact, three-quarters of the school's students were home-schooled before enrolling here; there's a sizable Catholic home-schooling community in Oregon and nationwide. The other quarter of students come from private schools here and in other states.
Public school kids are certainly the minority. Sophomore Nick Clements, a product of Gresham public schools, came to Ecce Veritas last year after hearing about it through his church.
Because he already was familiar with the church community, it wasn't that big of a culture shock, he says. To him, the switch was a welcome one: 'I used to be kind of extremely wild,' he said. 'I've become more mature. They teach boys how to be gentlemen.'
Students grow veggies
One recent Monday morning, the Ecce Veritas girls wore rubber boots, sweatshirts and jeans - more casual than their usual attire - as they stood shivering on the farm the school uses as its rural campus.
One of the parents owns the farm, which school leaders eventually hope will include a fully built greenhouse with a meeting and dining area, planting tables, a workshop, and space to play as well as pray.
Boys and girls alternate trips to the farm every Monday because it's easier to stay focused on their tasks in this casual setting when the sexes are separated, school leaders say.
Students use the site's organic garden to plant everything from peas and carrots to greens, which they'll hope to harvest next month for the salad at their annual fundraising gala, set for April 25.
John EddyBlouin, one of the three full-time teachers who leads most of the farm day activities, came here this year from Maine, where he taught in a public school and lived in a yurt with his wife and five home-schooled children.
In Maine, he said: 'Kids had so much knowledge about science, but no experience with it. They got it from the nature channel or a museum. This is an attempt to give them those basic experiences.'