"Be Perfect": Ridgeview’s Second State Championship

Terrence O. Moore

December 1, 2006

The following was written to the parents of Ridgeview Classical Schools.

If you are looking for heart-pounding movies to check out over the break, you might try “Friday Night Lights,” a good movie chronicling the true story of Odessa Permian’s bid for the football state championship in the late eighties. The movie does a great job of capturing the intensity, some would say the mania, surrounding Texas high-school football. Everything seems to be riding on the state championship; the local teams are just warm-up for the Big Game. As everyone in Texas knew at the time, Permian boys did not just start playing football in high school. Their fathers and lower schools drilled them for years. By the time they played varsity, the players for the “MOJO” team were competing on a level equivalent to many small colleges. The mania for football glory has, admittedly, a less glorious underside. The players and the school did not spend a great deal of time or energy on academics. The whole town of Odessa lived and breathed what seventeen-year-old boys did on the football field. After graduating, those who did not go on to play college ball lived the rest of their lives with their glory behind them.

At the same time, one would be a spoil-sport indeed who did not admire the drive of these young athletes. The coach of Permian (played by Billy Bob Thornton) constantly challenged his team in pre-game and half-time pep talks to “Be perfect.” Nothing less than perfection would be good enough. One fumble, one bad pass, one missed tackle or block could lose the game. Perfection at seventeen: is it too much to ask? Not according to champions.

Over the past five and a half years, Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado has been building itself into an academic powerhouse as impressive as any high-school football powerhouse in the country. While it is unlikely that we will fill a stadium with 50,000 spectators eager to watch our juniors take the ACT, while Hollywood has yet to contact me about a movie deal, we should not allow the absence of “Friday-night lights” in any way to dim our glory. Learning is not a spectator sport. Nonetheless, our story needs to be told.

Ridgeview’s story is one of parents: parents frustrated with the mediocrity of neighborhood schools, frustrated with being told that their students would learn important things (such as reading) “eventually,” parents who worked countless hours and faced sharp public disapproval to build a school that would challenge young people’s minds and build their character. It is the story of teachers: teachers who love learning themselves, who in many instances moved across the country to teach in a way they could not elsewhere, teachers who have breathed life into great books and great thoughts and great deeds. It is the story of students: students who have at a very early age embraced the life of the mind over the allure of a big American high school, over the hoopla and Friday-night lights that American education has become, students who have worked diligently for years reading difficult texts, writing papers, and saying worthwhile things in class. The combined efforts of parents and teachers and students have produced a school of champions.

Unfortunately, our standing as the number-one high school in the state still does not tell half the story. That ranking is based on the students’ performance on the CSAPs (Colorado Student Assessment Program). Ask the students of Ridgeview’s high school their opinion of the CSAPs and you will hear loud complaints of how easy, how insultingly easy, those tests are. The math section of the CSAP is actually not that bad, but the reading and writing sections consist of insipid stories and Mickey-Mouse essay topics that pale in comparison to their regular work. More than anything, such tests reveal the diminished expectations of what today’s high-school students can do. Students who have been reading and writing papers on Milton do not find composing a letter to their principal on things they would change about their school (a CSAP question for at least two years) particularly challenging. What if they do not want to change anything about their school? My theory is that the essays and reading selections are made deliberately easy so that every student in the state can find something on the tests “he can relate to” and, more important, so that the stratification among schools does not become more pronounced than it already is. Does anyone doubt that a selection from Virgil or Emerson would confound most high school students in the state? Trust me, anyone can complain to a principal.

Were the CSAPs really to measure the profundity and intensity of what and how schools teach in the same way high-school football measures the performance of athletes, the state might find Ridgeview (and a few other schools that are also quite good) to be on an altogether different educational planet. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of observing a discussion in a freshman Western Civ class on Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. With only a little prompting from the teacher, these students were deriving lessons about the law, shame, ancient and modern liberty, and the nature of empire, in short, the way the world works, from this exceedingly difficult book. They were learning lessons about the nature of civilization that many college professors, when they even try, convey with difficulty. And this with high-school freshmen! Yet don’t expect to see Thucydides on the CSAP anytime soon.

Here is another perspective on Ridgeview as an academic powerhouse. Every year the majority of our students get stronger because they have been with us longer. Teaching Thucydides in the first year of the school was not a walk in the park. But many of this year’s freshmen began with us in the elementary school. Some of our current seniors began in our seventh grade. Few remember that two of our strongest seniors began in a remedial math class. Now they are in calculus. In other words, the earlier we get our students, the stronger they will be when they get to the high school. Just the other day, some fourth-graders were learning that the English word heliotrope derives from two Greek words: helios, meaning sun, and tropos, meaning turn. A heliotrope, then, is a plant that turns toward the sun, or a kind of sunflower. Does anyone doubt that these students will be ready for the verbal and English sections of the ACT and SAT? Last year’s winner of the annual Young Aristotle competition in the sixth grade knew that the Peloponnesian War ended in 404 B. C. There is your head start on Thucydides. So the many critics of charter schools and of Ridgeview in particular who, like the fox in the fable, constantly tell us that the grapes are sour, need to deal with these facts: we’re here, we’re not going away, and we’re only going to get better.

While we may take a moment to bask in the glory of a state championship, I want to remind the parents and students that Ridgeview has no mind to rest on its laurels. However well the school may rank on standardized tests, our real competition comes from within. Our daily practice, that is, our discussions and experiments and tests and readings and paper assignments, are more challenging than Colorado’s academic version of the Big Game. Ridgeview in that respect resembles the Spartans, who always found going to war against an adversary easier, much easier, than their own incessant training for war. With the real goal in mind, that of laboring to understand the human and the natural worlds, I say to the teachers and students of Ridgeview at all levels: Be perfect. Anything less underestimates what you can do.

Terrence O. Moore is the principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado, a K-12 charter school in its sixth year of operation. Ridgeview’s high school has ranked first on the state’s standardized testing for two years in a row.