RICHLAND -- The classrooms at Coram Deo Academy look like any other classroom. There are student desks and chalkboards, colorful posters and maps.
But the fledgling private Christian school is very different from other public and private schools. Third-graders learn Latin. There's an emphasis on ancient texts, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and Virgil's Aeneid.
Memorization and recitation are a crucial part of daily lessons.
And co-headmaster Ben Alexander said, "There's a lot of singing, because kids learn the best through singing."
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School officials describe the program as a Christian classical education, focused on classical literature and culture and where every subject is infused with tenets of the Christian faith.
And while the school is small right now, with just 11 students in its newly opened K-3 grammar school, proponents said they see the program growing as people realize the benefits of an education grounded in faith and cultural context.
Coram Deo -- Latin for "before God's face" -- began as a collective in 2004 of three families who were homeschooling their children but needed support when it came to some advanced courses, said Alexander, who is also pastor at Trinity Church of Tri-Cities, an evangelical Protestant church in Richland. Donald Van Dyken, a retired pastor from Trinity Church, serves as co-headmaster with Alexander.
Students in the program met two days a week, leaving the rest of the week to dedicate to their own homeschooling studies and activities. More homeschool families learned of the program and joined to supplement their children's education.
"I thought it was cool," said Nate Davis, a 15-year-old who's in his third year with Coram Deo. "I took chemistry and Spanish, and my mom can't teach those."
Currently, the school has about 10 teachers in classrooms on the second floor of the Richland Baptist Church. There are combined classes for kindergarten and first-grade and second- and third-grades. Older homeschooled students continue to meet two days a week in various rooms for subjects ranging from algebra to beginning Greek.
Classic education model
The school's education model is based on the Trivium, a medieval education system that was part of the foundation of the liberal arts.
The youngest students are taught grammar, focusing on memorization and recitation of facts. Middle-school students are taught the basics of logic, while the oldest students learn rhetoric, or how to advocate a point of view.
Combined with this approach is a focus on and connection to the Christian faith in all studies and "the classics," or the great texts of Western culture, along with lessons in language and history.
"We want kids to be exposed to the origins of our culture," Alexander said. "We need to understand our history."
School officials said their school is the first of its kind in the Tri-Cities, but it's not a new concept in education or new to the Northwest.
The model has a strong following in Moscow, Idaho, where the Association of Classical and Christian Schools is located and where Alexander said he was first exposed to the model and enrolled his now 8-year-old son, Elijah, in a classical Christian school.
The association says its national membership went from 10 schools in 1994 to almost 230 in 2012, serving more than 35,000 students. Those students reportedly fare better in college-entrance testing than their counterparts in public schools and in some private schools.
"Modern education focuses on teaching subjects. Classical educators focus on teaching students the tools of learning in preparation for further study of subjects after high school," according to the association's website.
Eva Chung, one of Coram Deo's board members and a math teacher, said she's seen firsthand the power of a classical Christian education when she made it part of her son Jacob's homeschooling when he was at a second-grade level.
"It's so much adventure. He devoured the Iliad, all of the classics," she said. Jacob, who is in the seventh grade, currently attends another Tri-City private school because Coram Deo doesn't have a full-time program for his grade level.
School officials acknowledge Coram Deo isn't the only Christian school in the Tri-Cities, or much less Richland. The Catholic Christ the King School and evangelical Liberty Christian School, both in Richland, have hundreds of students, and there are more than a half-dozen other private schools in Pasco and Kennewick.
Chung said Coram Deo isn't seeking to compete with other private schools since most of their students, especially those at the secondary level, still are homeschooled.
"We aren't trying to be another institution, we're trying to bring a solid challenging curriculum to the children where they're at," Chung said.
However, she and other school officials said the school does fit a niche not currently offered in education and is affordable. Alexander said tuition for the grammar school is $2,750 a year, hundreds of dollars less than the tuition rates at many other Tri-City private schools.
And while it's religious, it is described as nondenominational, and officials said the school's board has members from different Christian denominations.
"This school is an ecumenical project," Alexander said.
And while the school is using a old educational model in an age when the emphasis is on careers in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- Van Dyken said a classic education that was once the keystone of a college education is still needed.
"The major thing was a college would teach someone how to learn," he said.
School officials expect the next few years to have their struggles, as they look to expand their offerings. But they say they've received a lot of support and interest from the community.
Chung is considering enrolling her currently-homeschooled daughter, Miah, 6, in the grammar school, having seen how the school's programs benefited her son.
"It's amazing how people say children's minds are like sponges and to see that in action," she said.