Count the Cost is a blog series designed for prospective parents. In our third installment, we asked the Poortenga family about the steep costs of pioneering at such a small school community in which each family plays a major part in shaping the school culture. The Poortengas co-founded Trinitas Classical School, a Michigan K-8 classical Christian school, 14 years ago with nine other families. Since graduating from Trinitas, their five children are now in high school, college, and law school. The Poortengas continue to be as actively involved now as they were in the early days, despite no longer having children at the school.
While there were certainly costs of time, talent, and treasure in helping to start Trinitas, they rarely felt like costs. Throughout the last fifteen years, the primary feeling has been one of gratitude. G.K. Chesterton defined gratitude as “happiness doubled by wonder.” That’s mostly what we have felt, not because we are particularly virtuous, but because the experience of starting a classical Christian school with friends was in fact a real, energizing joy, doubled by the wonder of God making it happen in a few short months. It was not without stresses, of course. There were worries and sacrifices associated with finances, teacher turn-over, facilities, enrollment, and sleep. Every once in a while, my husband and I would wonder if we should just enroll our kids in the school down the street and step down from all the responsibilities. That temptation never lasted long.
The school has been a labor of love. We remain deeply grateful for the education they received during those formative years and for the impact it still has on them. Each of our children continues to be curious. They all love learning about God’s amazing world, making connections between subjects, and sharing in discovery with others. The orderly schedule, high standards, and rigorous curriculum at Trinitas required good study habits that they’ve carried with them into high school and higher education. The joy in good and beautiful things, the appreciation for clear thinking, and the warmth of a multi-age community that surrounded them from the time they were young has helped them to see through much of what is shallow and false and temporary in the wider world and to seek what is deep and true and lasting instead.
I asked our children to spend ten minutes reflecting on their K-8 education in their small classical start-up. Here is what they wrote.
From our daughter (9th Grade):
The small size of the school doesn’t take away from a student’s experience, it enriches it. The small class setting allows for teachers to help individual students who may be struggling and to challenge those who may need to go further. The small classes also helped to form very close friendships between other classmates and teachers. Because of the relationships I had formed with my classmates and teachers, school was something I could look forward to. Because the class was so small, I got to know everyone really well and I actually got to be myself. I also felt like I could be myself partly because no one had cell phones to record things, and everyone was always “present” with each other.
From our daughter (12th Grade):
I was recently talking with a couple classmates about a very small college I was applying to. They expressed concerns that I would “get sick of everyone there by the end of four years.” It made me stop and think about our modern culture’s quick access to many things, including friendships.
Due to large schools, large branching organizations, and especially social media and other technologies, one can simply pick through people and decide which ones are “worth my time.” People tend (and I can hardly blame them) to select others who think similarly to them, act similarly to them, behave similarly to them, and in some cases, look similarly to them.
I wonder if this is partly why our culture is so polarized, because people no longer need to interact with people different from them or people, heaven forbid, who are genuinely annoying or rude.
This might not seem like the most comforting thing in the world, but attending a small school sometimes forces you to interact with someone you don’t like or don’t see eye to eye with. While this may not be pleasant in the moment, this is crucial to character development, and will help your child (and potentially you — adults don’t always get along either!) learn how to respectfully interact with those whose company they enjoy as well as those whose company they do not.
I’m grateful for the fact that I learned this early in life, through attending a small classical school, and also partly through my church’s small youth group. I can honestly say that I handle unpleasant interactions and irritating people much better than some of my classmates do, and I have a small primary school to thank for that.
From our daughter (a senior at Calvin University studying philosophy and economics):
A small school does not stifle relationships. Instead, it enables deep, rich friendships in a way that larger schools sometimes cannot. I had between six and ten kids in my classes when I attended Trinitas at its beginning. But because the classes were small, it really wasn’t possible to form cliques in the same way that it is when you have dozens of potential friends from which to choose. Yes, sometimes there were conflict or disagreements between friends. But in a small school setting, students learn to sort through problems themselves (or with the help of parents or teachers when necessary) instead of just avoiding the problem altogether.
Students who otherwise might not hang out together become close friends. From a young age, students learn to see the similarities that bring each other together rather than the differences that could separate them. At Trinitas, my best friends were kids who were sporty, nerdy, interested in theater, interested in the outdoors. When I graduated and went on to a large high school, I was surprised to see that these types of people did not spend time together. When you have the option to form cliques, people are naturally drawn to those with similar interests. That’s not all bad, but being in a small school helped me develop a wide variety of interests and helped me see others and their unique abilities as worth my friendship and time. In high school, I did not fit into a neat “group” like a lot of people in my grade. I was friends with “nerds” in my AP classes, with the “theater kids,” with athletes, and most importantly, with those who didn’t fit into a neat category and were struggling to fit in. I never felt like I had just one group of friends. If I hadn’t gone to a small school, I think it is safe to say I would have found myself in a “group” at a very young age which maybe would have kept me from getting to know other people or pursuing other interests. I am so grateful for the ways that attending a small school shaped the way I view friendships and the way I treat others.
From our son (a first year law student at the University of Michigan):
I graduated from 8th grade with a class of five. That includes me. However, there are no four other people I would have chosen to spend some of my most formative years with.
A friend of mine once distinguished “friends of the road” and “friends of the heart.” Friends of the road are those with a shared temporary purpose, but there is a deeper connection of ultimate purpose with friends of the heart. One of the ways that I have made some friends of the heart was through my time at a small classical Christian school. We journeyed through elementary and middle school, and while parting ways (somewhat) in high school, we nevertheless maintained contact. I realize that even among classical Christian schools, this was a particularly rich and fulfilling experience. And it wasn’t always quite like that. There was certainly some childishness and immature squabbling (human nature isn’t different, even at a classical school), but the environment there provided my classmates and me with the opportunities for such friendships. We grew up together. Years later, we have attended each other’s weddings, had dinner parties, and maintained a group text.
Despite the small size and close-knit community, being at a classical Christian school expanded and deepened my worldview. With the focus on thoughtful reasoning and the simultaneous ecumenism and shared commitment to Christianity, Trinitas was the first place that I came to understand what it means to disagree in good faith with someone. That’s a lesson that especially sunk in during Bible class, when we studied the Scriptures with various denominations represented in the classroom. To be honest, the lesson is still sinking in. Not only did this give me a greater appreciation for traditions of which I might not be a part, or a greater understanding for conclusions I might not reach, it also gave me a greater appreciation for the traditions of which I am a part and a greater understanding of the conclusions I have reached.
Much of who I am today can be traced back directly to spending my formative years in a small classical Christian school. But just as an experience in a close community paradoxically broadened my horizons, my time in a classical Christian environment has better prepared me for education not only in non- classical environments, but also in secular environments.
Any educational environment will shape a child. A classical Christian education can profoundly shape a child for the better.