How many Orthodox children often fantasize about attending a full-time Orthodox school? While the children may dream of having their days off coincide with the great feasts of the Church, parents would more likely be focused on them receiving a wholesome education in an Orthodox environment. What if there was an opportunity to send children to a school that follows a centuries-proven classical model of education, as well as teaches students to be good stewards of God’s earth by going green and organic? These are the questions that the directors of the Paideia Classical Academy asked themselves for several years before opening the first full-time Orthodox school in the Eastern American Diocese.
Christian schools have always been a proud tradition in the United States, dating back to the early 17th century, when the Jesuits and Puritans first started organizing schools in America. Today, there are public school systems in virtually every municipality across America, but religious schools continue to offer an alternative to the often progressive and unchristian-oriented curriculums offered in public schools. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, over 7,500 Catholic schools currently operate in the United States – far more than the 54 full-time Orthodox schools that can be found in the fifty states, according to the Orthodox Christian School Association. While there may be a huge difference in the number of Catholic and Orthodox schools in America, the Paideia Classic Academy in Coconut Creek, FL, is an example of what can be achieved when Orthodox faithful come together for the sake of educating America’s youngest generation.
Located approximately 35 miles north of Miami, the Paideia Classical Academy is the newest full-time Pre-K–8th grade Orthodox school in Florida. Dr. Paola Weber is the founder and current principal of the Academy, and she credits the idea to her late father, Bishop Peter (Bukawyn; jurisdiction of the former Alexandrian Exarchate) who reposed in 2010. "My father believed in the St. Basil model of ministry – helping others by establishing hospitals, clinics, schools, etc. in order to bring them to Christ. For over thirty years, our Spanish mission church in Miami saved money to start an Orthodox school, and we constantly prayed and lit candles in our Orthodox Homeschool program in order for God to open the door." Their prayers were answered in the beginning of 2012, when the Paideia Classical Academy officially opened its doors as the only full-time Orthodox school in Florida.
"Christ-centered, Organic, Green, and Classical" is the motto that the school uses to describe its unique approach to education. Dr. Weber explains that "a classical education nurtures the mind, body, and soul of students. It is the way the Three Hierarchs, the Great Martyr Catherine, and other great saints were educated. It allows for students to grow in wisdom as they see and learn about Truth, beauty, and goodness in everything, for everything is given to us by God!" This type of model is different from the reformed education model used in American public schools which, according to Dr. Weber, does not teach children to think critically or problem solve, and where the child’s soul is not nurtured.
Another major difference between the Paideia Academy and a typical public school is the Academy’s steadfast commitment to raising children in an organic and green environment. Students are fed organic lunches and participate in gardening activities at least once a week. "It is important for students to learn how these practices ultimately lead them on the path of being a good steward of the earth, their environment, and their bodies," explained Dr. Weber.
While the directors and faculty of the school are responsible for the physical wellbeing of the students, Priest Demetrio Romeo is the one who is responsible for the children’s spiritual health. In March 2013, he was assigned by His Eminence, Metropolitan Hilarion, as rector of the newly established St. Luke the Blessed Surgeon Mission Church, a parish of the Eastern American Diocese located inside of the school. Besides serving All-Night Vigils and Liturgies every weekend at the chapel, Fr. Demetrio leads morning prayers every day in the school and serves at least one Liturgy during the week for the students. He sees his role as the school’s chaplain to be an extension of his function as the parish priest at St. Luke’s and, in his own words, he is there to address moral and ethical issues according to Orthodox dogma. While there is absolutely no room for clergy to teach in a religious capacity in public schools, the workload of a priest at an Orthodox academy is tremendous. "Besides the services, I deliver sermons that instruct the children about meaning of the Liturgy and teachings of the Holy Fathers, and I provide spiritual support to the staff, teachers, students, parents, and other members of the school community," said Fr. Demetrio.
By incorporating Orthodox divine services and classes into the curriculum, Paideia Classical Academy is not just an educational center, but also a missionary presence in the community. Enrollment in the school is open to both Orthodox and non-Orthodox students. According to Dr. Weber, "only about 25 percent of the students are Orthodox, but that number has been growing. Non-Orthodox parents appreciate their children learning about virtues, goodness, and beauty in all things." Exposure to Orthodoxy through St. Luke’s chapel has already led two of the teachers and five families to baptism, and parents are constantly asking new questions about the ancient Orthodox Faith. "They inquire about the meanings of the Orthodox services and traditions to which they are exposed, including discussion about the veneration of icons, censing, reverence, candles, and Orthodox chant," said Fr. Demetrio. What may start in the school as a simple dialogue about Orthodoxy is quickly brought into the homes of students. Fr. Demetrio recalled how a parent came to him and explained that his child now refuses to eat dinner or go to sleep without first saying prayers. "Families who have never been exposed to this tell me they see significant positive changes in their children’s attitudes."
The success of the Paideia Classical Academy is reflected in the increasing student enrollment numbers. "We started out with 24 children and we currently have 48 students enrolled. That is a growth rate of 100% in just one year," said Dr. Weber. By the beginning of the 2014 school year in September, the directors of the Academy are projecting up to 80 students.
The school also boasts a superb campus. On January 30, 2014, with the blessing of Metropolitan Hilarion, Eastern American Diocesan secretary Archpriest Serge Lukianov traveled to Miami and toured the state of the art facilities which house the academy. According to him, the facilities, formerly used for a Catholic school, are truly incredible and offer much potential for future growth and development. "I was very impressed with the vision of the school’s administration, which is clearly evident in the physical location that they chose. The school building, cafeteria, gymnasium, and chapel sit on a ten-acre campus, which can easily house up to 250 students, if not more," said Fr. Serge. During a meeting with the school’s directors, Fr. Serge was briefed on the challenges associated with operating and expanding a school of this magnitude. The administration signed a lease/purchase contract with the Catholic Church, which will require them to purchase the complex by February 2015. There are plans to add a high school on the spacious campus once the property is fully purchased. "That way we would serve Pre-K to high school students in a classical, organic, and Orthodox Christian environment to the glory of God," said Dr. Weber.
Metropolitan Hilarion visited the school at the end of 2012 and gave his blessing for the continued work being done on behalf of America’s youth. Looking toward the future, His Eminence not only praised the Academy, but encouraged others in the Diocese to consider organizing similar schools. "The work that is being done in the Paideia Academy is indeed holy by nature, because it is helping nourish the souls and minds of our children, while at the same time shepherding those who have not yet been illumined by the Light of Christ into the saving fold of the Orthodox Church," said the Metropolitan. "The school’s administrators should be commended for their excellent work, and I pray that they will continue to serve as an example to others who feel strongly about the education of our children in an Orthodox environment."
The Paideia Academy: "Christ-Centered, Organic, Green & Classical" - 03/03/14