It’s Elementary: How Herron Prep Academy Implements Classical Liberal Arts for Early Grades

In our new series, ‘Meet Our Schools’, Teach Indy will share the work of schools across center township uplifting the vision and mission for student success through the eyes of educators in the buildings.

Herron Classical Schools is a network of three Indianapolis schools whose educational model is grounded in the classical Trivium. This methodology is a three-legged stool of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. A focus on the classical liberal arts is hardly strange at the college or even high school level. But it’s far less common at the elementary level. 

Yet when Herron Classical Schools added an elementary school to its two high schools a few years ago, there was no question that its academic cornerstone would remain the Trivium. How that looks in practice when comparing their flagship Herron High School and Herron Preparatory Academy (Herron Prep), the elementary school, is quite different.  

Herron Prep currently serves K-3 and will add 4th and 5th grade next year. For those grade levels, grammar involves a focus on foundational literacy skills. Logic emphasizes critical thinking and constructing well-founded arguments. And rhetoric is about articulating ideas and thoughts with others, often using the Socratic seminar method.

The Importance of Habit Formation

The school’s liberal arts model also emphasizes habit formation as a means of building character. It focuses on 12 different habits throughout the year, which are captured by different themes like ownership, leadership, wisdom, responsibility, and respect. 

First grade teacher Elizabeth Guynn described how they build these habits on a daily basis: “We discuss one habit per day during our social-emotional learning lesson. We offer examples of the habit and students can share their experiences. Every day, I am constantly referencing our core values and that trickles into kids using it in their language and displaying habits that support academic and personal success.”

Meanwhile, 3rd grade teacher Megan Burger focuses on the core questions that are behind forming habits in her classroom. Questions like ‘How can you be a respectful classmate?’ and ‘How can you push yourself to learn and grow?’ “We practice those things every day,” she shared. “These habits free up their mind to use brain space for productive things.”

Hands-On Classical Liberal Arts

An emphasis on classical liberal arts for elementary school students means much of what they do is hands-on. “Students engage with the material, often in physical ways,” Burger said, “versus how it is done in high school where you are exposed to a lot of intellectual discussion.” For Burger, engaging the liberal arts is all about digging into student creativity and letting students try different things to unlock their passions.

That naturally shows up in the way Herron Prep provides music, art, and language instruction for every student at every grade level. Nicole Deckard is an instructional coach at the school. Not only did she choose to work there, her kids also attend the school. “Part of that decision was the level of visual and performing arts and foreign language instruction,” Deckard said. “Students receive a little over an hour per day of this kind of instruction.” 

Throughout each school year, students are exposed to Spanish, French, and Latin. They also experience STEM, physical education, music, dance, yoga, and theater. For Guynn, the focus on languages starting in kindergarten is deeply tied to Herron Prep’s celebration of diversity. “Learning languages at a young age exposes children to different cultures and people,” Guynn said. “It’s really cool to see them learn and use other languages and it opens them up to our world and its cultures.”

Once students enter 5th grade, they will choose a single language track and study it more intensely. Burger also shared that they hope to create a student exchange program so students can travel and experience other cultures firsthand before they get to high school.

None of this is to say that Herron Prep ignores the basics. In fact, using the Trivium as the academic foundation ensures students achieve necessary skills in reading, writing, problem-solving, and mathematics from an incredibly young age. But it is clear that Herron Prep is setting a standard for the level of exposure and well-roundedness that is possible for elementary schoolers without sacrificing rigor in critical early grades.

A Great Place to Learn and Teach

In addition to how unique the student experience at Herron Prep is, Guynn, Burger, and Deckard all clearly love teaching at the school. “My past teaching experiences can’t compare,” Guynn noted. “I feel supported, I feel heard; administrators genuinely care about the well-being of students and staff.”

For Burger, Herron Prep has been a respite from the burnout she felt at the end of the 2021-22 school year. She almost gave up teaching but applied on a whim and trusted the reputation the Herron Classical Schools network had built over time. Her decision was affirmed early first semester when her admin actively helped problem-solve a classroom issue by listening to her concerns. That cemented that joining Herron Prep was the right decision.

And for Deckard, her appreciation for the school is informed by the multiple schools she worked in before winding up at Herron Prep. It was no-contest for her: “Scholar to scholar, teacher to scholar, teacher to teacher, and teacher to admin, the culture and relationship-building here is unmatched.” 

We thank the incredible educators of Herron Preparatory Academy for sharing their experience: Megan Burger, 3rd Grade Teacher, Elizabeth Guynn, 1st Grade Teacher and Nicole Deckard, Instructional Specialist.