Montfort’s Classical Education
What High School is Meant to Be
An interview with the honorable Richard Greco, jr.
FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT OF THE MONTFORT ACADEMY
We are here with Richard Greco, Jr., founder and president of The Montfort Academy. Richard is not only an educator but also a businessman, a public servant, and a long-standing trustees of educational, cultural, and civic institutions. For ten years he served as the Chief Executive Officer of the merchant bank Filangieri Capital Partners, managing a portfolio of nine private equity investments. From 2002 through 2006 Richard served as the United States Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a Presidential appointment requiring confirmation by the United States Senate. In his role as Assistant Secretary, Richard was the chief financial officer of the Department of the Navy. His Fiscal Year 2005 Department of the Navy Annual Financial Report was awarded the Gold Vision Award and was named one of the top 100 corporate annual reports in the world. Richard's strategic vision for financial management at the Department of the Navy, entitled Transforming Today to Win Tomorrow, continued to guide the office of the Assistant Secretary for years following his tenure.
you are a successful businessman. Why did you start a high school?
I started The Montfort Academy out of a deep love for God and His created world. We, as humans, have an in-born desire to learn about the world, and the more we learn about the world, the closer we can grow to the world’s Creator. I also saw a significant decline in educational standards, even in Catholic schools, and a loss of focus on what is really important in life. The aim of any education should be to help the whole person develop in mind, body, and soul, not just to help kids get into the best colleges or to be successful materially but also to help form young men and women who think daily about drawing closer and closer to Jesus and His Blessed Mother, about virtue, and right and wrong, ethics, and living well for the next world. That’s what I found lacking in education today, and I wanted to bring it back at least to the New York area.
The Montfort Academy is a classical high school. What is classical education?
A lot of people think of “old-fashioned” when they think of classical. Nothing could be further from the truth. You see, a classical education is based on the set of all of human knowledge—not just the distant past but also the present. As Columbia University professor Mortimer Adler called it, a classical education is really a Great Conversation, the collective wisdom passed down through the ages through the Great Books of all the great philosophers, scientists, history makers, experimenters, theologians, and entrepreneurs. It starts with Aristotle and Plato in ancient Greece and ends in the current day with people like Steve Jobs and Pope Francis. We draw upon the best that men and women have said, done, or thought in the world. We prepare our students well for a future in the modern world to be successful, prosperous, and virtuous. At Montfort we read the Great Books.
What are the hallmarks of a classical education?
I hear all the time from college admissions officers that our students are different. Not only are they respectful, dignified, and very knowledgeable, but they are also excellent communicators. A classical education rigorously prepares students to speak in public because they are trained daily through the Socratic methodology. The Socratic methodology requires students to think on their feet, to prepare cogent arguments, and present those arguments eloquently. A classical education also prepares students to write. At Montfort, students undertake a rigorous writing program featuring poetry, creative writing, analytical essays, research papers, scientific and technological reports, and finally a Senior Thesis. In our Montfort classrooms, we also read from the original texts. So, in our classrooms we use only a select few textbooks. Our teachers spent hours collecting original speeches, original scientific papers, original books and historical texts. This ensures an unbiased reading, a rigorous interpretation, and a robust debate in class.
What are some of the highlights of The Montfort Academy's curriculum
In addition to typical high school classes, we offer four years of Latin, three years of Greek, four years of Great Conversation History and Literature, Civics and US Government, Chivalry for boys, and Christian womanhood for girls. Studies continue to show the links between professional success and a thorough grounding in Latin and Greek and other classical subjects such as what we offer.
What about Science and Math?
Another hallmark of a classical education, at least at The Montfort Academy, is our focus on science, mathematics, and technology--the elements of STEM Education. Our science curriculum begins with Astronomy, the most basic and original of sciences that produced giants like Galileo as well as the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion. Our students conduct astronomical observations in both the daytime and the night time, using our state of the art Astronomical Observatory; and we have established an excellent relationship with The Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY. The Hudson River Museum just inaugurated their recently refurbished planetarium, now capable of projecting tens of millions of stars and astronomical objects. After Astronomy, our students study Chemistry, Biology, and Physics. As for mathematics, we emphasize the traditional sequence of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus and have room for independent study for those students who enter high school already with Algebra. As for technology, we have a computer room and Robotics laboratory. We embrace technology at Montfort such as our astrophotography video and still camera or our Vernier science lab computer platforms. Even so, we strongly believe that technology is only a tool, not a teacher. Teaching requires a live human being who conducts and educates. The word education comes from the Latin educare, which means, “to lead forth, to bring out.” Technology cannot lead, but it can be used to lead.
What is the Socratic method of teaching?
Another hallmark of classical education is that we use the Socratic method of teaching. Simply put, it’s the best teaching method ever invented. And, it happens to be the oldest and most proven method. It goes back to ancient Greece and was used for thousands of years, really until recently, when it fell out of favor for more experimental methods based on memorization and standardized testing. The Socratic method is one based simply on questions and answers. It sharpens students’ analytical abilities and rhetorical skills. Done properly, it allows a skilled teacher to reach all students at the same time, no matter their ability or level of achievement. The Socratic method gives the teacher to call equally upon the best student in the class to challenge him or her, while asking lesser skilled students level-appropriate questions and involving them equally in the conversation. The teacher is almost an orchestra conductor who hears that the strings need to be a little louder, or the percussion needs to be a little slower. The skilled Socratic teacher conducts a classroom like an orchestra, playing each student’s own strengths and weaknesses, involving them to create something beautiful.
Talk more about that—it is very interesting.
Sure. No student in a Socratic classroom feels left out. Strong students feel challenged by the right questions teachers are trained to ask them, while weaker students feel involved with the right questions addressed to them; and all students consequently are part of a whole dynamic lesson and are pulled upward. The Socratic method is also simultaneously a testing method. The teacher is always aware of the students level of comprehension by the dynamic interaction and is able to offer correction and guidance right on the spot. So, written testing at Montfort is actually kept to a minimum. We rely a lot on oral examination and classroom participation. We believe that this is true, lasting learning as well as more like what will be expected of students when they enter the work force.
What are some of the other hallmarks of a classical education?
Debate & rhetoric. One of the most important skills anyone can acquire in life is the ability to communicate. Right from Freshman year, Montfort students take a course in grammar. This is not just learning the difference between verbs and nouns and sentence structure. This is learning the ability to compose grammatically correct and powerfully persuasive paragraphs. A year of logic follows where students learn the differences between logical truths and logical fallacies. With a lot of practice, they master logical construction of arguments, preparing them for the next year of rhetoric and debate. And through the Socratic methodology in the classroom
What about College Admissions?
College admissions is also a hallmark of classical education. At Montfort we have a 100% college admissions rate, and our average SAT score the 87th percentile, far above the national average. To put that into other words and another perspective, because the SAT is graded on a bell curve, that means Montfort seniors score a full 37 percentage points above the 50% national average. Our students go on to the best colleges and universities, both Catholic and secular, public and private. We aim for our students to be accepted at Ivy League schools and military academies, but we are equally excited and rejoice when our students are accepted at their first and second choices, no matter which colleges they may be. Keep in mind that Montfort is not just for "smart" kids. It's for anyone who wants a good solid education that will prepare them for college and prepare them for Heaven.
What else distinguishes Montfort?
Montfort has a unique sense of faith and innocence. Kids can be kids at Montfort without any pretense or toughness that they may feel they need to project outside of our walls. Montfort is also a very fun and joyful place. There is no bullying; and money, privilege, class distinctions, racial distinctions, even religious distinctions are simply not issues at Montfort. Everyone is part of a single Montfort family. And it is a safe environment for kids to grow up in. We work hard at it.
You must have a unique faculty, too, to help create this environment.
You have hit at the most important element of a classical education—the teachers. From the very beginning, we have been blessed with some of the most devoted teachers, who view teaching as a vocation and not simply a job. In fact, they can earn more money in other Catholic schools and in the public school system. But they know that Montfort keeps tuition low so the all students can attend regardless of socio-economic status. I mentioned before that education comes from the Latin “educare” which means to lead forth. Our teachers are indeed leaders of all works of life. Our teachers are former military officers, a Grammy award winning musician, a Cambridge educated mathematician, a guidance counselor with decades of experience in the public schools, and many, many wonderful other teachers. Our Distinguished Speakers have included Brent Scowcroft, one of the nation's foremost experts on foreign policy and who served as National Security Advisor to two Presidents; Rick Santorum, a sitting United States Senator who went on to run for President; Robert Hormats a Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs who went on to serve as an Under Secretary State; Joseph Tusiani, a world-renowned Latin Poet; Fr. Stanley Jaki, one of the world's foremost physicist and philosophers of science; and Howard Safir, a former NYC Police Commissioner. These distinguished speakers have come to Montfort and have shared their experiences and life lessons intimately with out students. What a privilege!
But even more importantly, our teachers are followers. They are followers of Christ, or to use another word, Disciples. Jesus was called Rabbi, or Teacher, and his followers were called Disciples. And then they were called forth to preach the Good News or the Gospel. In much the same way, our teachers feel a calling to be both Disciple and Teacher, and in a sense, teaching at The Montfort Academy is the perfect union of Teaching and Discipleship. Even our non-Catholic teachers feel a sense that the Catholic Church has contributed so much to our Western civilization, and they respect it and rejoice in it with us.
You could be doing much more with your time, why do spend so much time with Montfort.
You are very kind, but I cannot think of anything else to be doing than to help The Montfort Academy. Much has been done over the past 15 years, but much more work that lies ahead as we grow and expand. We are thrilled to be in Mt. Vernon at the Parish of Sts. Peter and Paul. Fr. Lauri has been a wonderful supportive partner for us. And we thank him. Together we aim to make Montfort the finest Catholic high school in America.