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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the September 3, 2003

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Modern-Day 1-Room Schools

by Jamie Saxon

Big is bad. Big schools have big problems; small

schools

have small problems," says Francesco Perrulli, headmaster and

founder of Princeton Science Academy.

"Small is better," says Arthur Poulos, principal and founder

of SciCore Academy of Science and the Humanities.

But these two private high schools, opening their doors in September,

are not getting attention simply because they are small — even

though they are very small: Princeton Science Academy has a mere four

students in its incoming freshman class, and SciCore has 13.

Rather both academies are putting a remarkable spin on the traditional

prep school experience. They are a radical departure from the typical

blueblood stomping ground for trust fund kids.

First, both are founded on the belief that high-quality private

education

should be affordable to the middle class. SciCore costs just $6,000

a year; Princeton Science Academy costs $13,000 — a fraction of

the tuitions of Hun, Peddie, Princeton Day, and Lawrenceville, which

run from $21,000 to $23,000 a year for day students.

Second, offering a rigorous core curriculum of science, math, history,

philosophy, and literature with no electives, Princeton Science

Academy

and SciCore are 21st century one-room schoolhouses, a throwback to

the days when school was, well, just school, and there were no

cotillions,

football games, or productions of "Grease." Princeton Science

Academy is housed in one small building on the campus of Princeton

Latin Academy, the private K-8 school Perrulli founded in 1988 —

the "winter tenant" of the upscale Rambling Pines Day Camp

in Hopewell, which itself was originally a school.

"What is a school?" asks Perrulli. "A school is a teacher,

a student, and a book. The rest is all frills." The school’s motto

is mens et materia — Latin for mind and matter. "I’m

starting this school for intellectual pursuit."

SciCore’s "campus" is a 1,750 square foot

commercial

space in Hightstown, refurbished into one large lecture room, a

computer

room, a multi-purpose laboratory, a library/seminar room, and an

eating/relaxation

area. "What is the requirement that there be a campus?" says

Poulos, 52, a former Rutgers chemistry professor and consultant.

"People

go to an office building every day. And there are one-room

schoolhouses

in Africa. We need to think creatively." When parents question

the school’s lack of a campus, Poulos archly counters by asking,

"How

well does your daughter write or speak? How well did she do on the

PSAT? Does she know the role of James Madison? Can she solve an

algebraic

equation?"

Poulos proclaims that we have "lost track about the most important

thing about being in school" — the school part. At SciCore,

every student takes the same core curriculum, "a stamp of

uniformity

and of essentials." The name SciCore itself "was a fusion

of science in a general way with the core curriculum; an idea which

is very dear to my heart."

Similarly, at Princeton Science Academy, all students follow the same

curriculum — the morning is devoted to literature, history,

language,

and philosophy; the afternoon is devoted to science and math.

"We are in the age of math madness, math insanity, everyone’s

anxious about math," says Perrulli, 65, the son of Italian immigrants

in Jersey City, where his father ran an oil delivery business and

his mother stayed at home raising six children. Perrulli, now an

"inactive"

priest, was ordained with a doctorate in theology in 1964 from

Maryknoll

(the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America), worked in the hills

of Chile with local cowboys and farmers, setting up clinics and

schools.

"I rode my horse and visited the sick. I delivered babies, lots

of them named Francesco, after me."

Later he started a school in New York to teach hotel employees

English,

while attending NYU to earn masters degrees in both English

linguistics

and Spanish literature. He taught briefly at a New York Catholic high

school, then came to Princeton and started the fine languages

department

at Princeton Day School in 1982, before founding Princeton Latin

Academy

in 1988.

Perrulli admonishes the typical approach of teaching math and science

as separate entities. "Mathematics is the beginning of science.

The transistor could not exist until some mathematician abstractly

formulated the necessary relationship of numbers." Students at

the Academy are taught "about the scientists and the history of

science to inspire them to become future scientists." The school’s

website proclaims, "A student is truly educated only when he can

relate one branch of knowledge to another and grasp not only difficult

concepts, but the historical development of those concepts as

well."

Whereas most high school students study only one science a year —

generally biology, chemistry, and physics, students at Princeton

Science

Academy will study four sciences every year for all four years:

physics

with astronomy, chemistry, and biology. "I’m not worried about

[not having] big labs, etc.," says Perrulli. "Science exists

in the mind: Einstein did not put his hands on the stars —

impossible;

Newton did not need a government grant to discover optics."

Perrulli

says the school’s mission "is to restore the place of mathematics

and science into its proper place for the silent minority of children

who are interested in it but are not encouraged [at other

schools]."

He is deeply critical of the way most schools rush through science

textbooks. "What typically happens is this: It takes

three-quarters

of the year to cover 40 percent of the book, then they rush through

the remainder in a month. The only thing they covered was their

tushies."

At the Academy, he explains, there is no rushing. "We finish

books.

The very meaning of curriculum comes from `curro,’ which means to

flow uninterrupted, so a curriculum is a river and the children are

in a boat somewhere in the river. I row to wherever they are and get

in their boat and help them start rowing."

SciCore’s Poulos criticizes the textbooks themselves. "Textbooks

are the bedrock of the academic experience." He notes that

textbooks

produced by the major publishing houses very often "read like

they were written by committee — they probably were; they have

far too many pictures and too little text; the reading levels are

generally one or two years below par; and they may be littered with

irrelevant or one-sided political and social messages." He says

that SciCore has made every effort to identify high-quality

"serious

works by excellent scholars," and the instructors, 60 percent

of whom hold Ph.D.s, use original sources whenever possible.

Both Perrulli and Poulos are passionate advocates of education reform

in this country (Perrulli’s other soapbox is an organization he

started

called EAST, Educators Against Standardized Testing), and both believe

that reform must begin by educating parents — about their kids’

education.

"We have to educate the parents of New Jersey," says Poulos.

"I say, `Parents of America, put your foot down. Get off these

irrelevancies’," referring to the mentality that high school is

all about friends and socializing and computer clubs. "When a

parent says to me, `But my son wants to be with his friends,’ I say,

`He can be with his friends after three o’clock’."

Princeton Science Academy’s Perrulli is highly critical of parents

today, whom he calls "a whining generation." He claims that

"parents do not want their kids to suffer," and thus they

do not discipline their children, and they don’t assume responsibility

for parenting. The result? "Our kids have turned into a bunch

of wimps. Kids love me because I wake them up."

He abhors the way parents try to step in between the teacher and

student.

"The moment you step between the teacher and the child, you have

destroyed the relationship. Parents have to get out of their kids’

heads. I say to students, `I only want you in your head.’ True

learning

comes when the child’s mind is focused and geared to learn; that is

the job of the teacher."

Perrulli routinely sees parents confused by their role in their

child’s

education, and he tries to explain his philosophy by telling them

that parents are responsible for children as children; teachers are

responsible for children as students. "Children aren’t students

until they come to my school. I teach them how to become students.

I appeal to working class parents who want their kids to become

students."

He is so adamant about his approach that he founded the Princeton

Latin Academy as a for-profit enterprise. "I am a small business

man with a gift for education, and I don’t want a board of

trustees."

He explains that most private schools are headed up by a

"triangle"

of headmaster, teachers, and a board of trustees, with the headmaster

at the bottom of the triangle. "I became the headmaster at the

top of the triangle. I am a private enterprise. Thank God in America,

you can do whatever you want to do."

"I think New Jersey education leaves a lot to be desired,"

says SciCore’s Poulos, who is especially critical of what he calls

"non-course courses" — the "plethora" of electives

that he believes derails students from a constructive high school

education. "Two different students can end up taking two different

tracks — you don’t end up with a core curriculum." He is

shocked

that, in some schools, the number of physical education credits equals

the number of English credits, and the requirements for science are

less than for English.

"History," he continues, "is in terrible shape." He

cites the findings of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an

elementary/secondary

education reform think tank in Washington, D.C., which scored school

curricula across the country on a scale of 0 to 50, with 50 being

the highest. "New Jersey received a zero rating with respect to

history," says Poulos. "Virginia got a 44. [In New Jersey]

it’s as if history is ignored. It’s put into a big blob called `social

studies,’ a mixture of the entire kitchen sink — a little film,

a little psychology."

He adds that American high school students are doing

very poorly not only in history, but also in civics, and in writing.

"Students cannot put sentences together. That’s a major

failure."

At SciCore, the first course of the first semester is writing, and

writing courses continue through all four years. Freshmen also take

classes in speaking, logic, and debate.

Poulos, a Duke graduate, Class of 1973, earned his doctorate in

chemistry

from Northwestern and a post-doc in photochemistry from the University

of California, Santa Cruz. A self-proclaimed "chem jock,"

he says his passion for science started when he received a chemistry

kit for a Christmas present at age five. He grew up in Denville, New

Jersey, where his father ran a dairy farm and his mother was an

elementary

school teacher. Now the father of four (two girls and two boys, aged

12, 8, 6, and 1), Poulos became concerned about education at the high

school level. He got the idea for SciCore after meeting retired

Senator

Russell Long of Louisiana, the eldest son of Huey Long. Russell Long

had spearheaded the establishment of the Louisiana School for Science

and the Arts, a state-funded school for the gifted and talented,

because

he felt the state needed to retain its better students and keep them

interested in academic pursuits.

Neither school is likely to stray far from its core curriculum. Both

Perrulli and Poulos agree that morality, while a tenet of their

respective

academic philosophies, begins at home. "In public school, sex

ed, PE, and other things fill up the schedule, extraneous to

intellectual

pursuit," says Perrulli. "Kids should get morality and sex

ed from family and churches."

Princeton Science Academy is nondenominational but theology is offered

after school. "We do not ignore religion. The greatest

intellectual

philosophical question of all time is forbidden in public school:

`Who is God?’ So we teach the history of philosophy. It’s part of

knowledge. Everything is allowed to be examined in our school."

"We do not want to mess around with the moral standards of the

family," says SciCore’s Poulos. "We especially encourage

families

to conduct moral training; it’s not our business." But at the

same time he explains that his academic approach, while

nondenominational,

embraces certain "non-theistic" positive virtues like

truthfulness,

fairness, charity, and treating others well — values within the

Judeo-Christian tradition. "When you look back at the religious

tradition, there is a sense of fairness, that you have a conscience

which dictates a certain right and wrong. Look to the tradition

itself,

[which says] `I am not the sole arbiter of what I do with my life.’

Let us not throw out the moral code of yesterday because it’s today;

it’s an effective guide."

So how can parents decide if SciCore or Princeton Science Academy

is right for their child? Poulos has long conversations with

prospective

parents, letting them look over the textbooks and the curriculum,

which are also available on the school’s website. The decision is

a big one, he admits. "How do you decide to buy a car or a house?

It is a judgment call. I encourage parents to compare it to what their

child has had before. They have to use their intuition."

Poulos is positively fervent about the "small is better"

approach,

noting that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now giving money

to schools with a maximum enrollment of 16 and has established grants

to start small high schools in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco,

Chicago, and other cities. SciCore’s freshman class is limited to

16 total (if 17 students enroll, he will split the class in two);

the 13 students enrolled so far come from a 15-mile radius. Over the

next three years he will sequentially add a sophomore, junior, and

senior class.

Perrulli has four students enrolled to date, two boys and two girls;

three are graduates of Princeton Latin Academy who in fact asked him

to start a high school, one is new to the school.

SciCore’s Poulos admits his school "is not a big money-making

operation" and says that restricting the school to a core

curriculum

"really helps the financial picture." He may have trimmed

the operation down to Sartre and Socrates, but he hasn’t thrown every

"frill" out — for PE, SciCore students will head down

the street to a local karate school.

Princeton Science Academy , Route 518, Hopewell.

609-924-2206,

www.princetonlatinacademy.com Open house Sunday, September 21, noon

to 2 p.m.

SciCore Academy for Science and the Humanities , 120 Main

Street, Hightstown, 609-426-8900, www.scicore.org. Open house Monday,

October 13, at 7:30 p.m.


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