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When Tyler Horning’s son was born nearly six years ago, he and his wife started thinking hard about where they would send him to school. 

They live in Plymouth, which has a good public school system, but they wanted something more. And they weren’t finding it — even among area private schools.

So Horning started his own school.

Ivywood Classical Academy in Plymouth opened its doors this week as a K-5 tuition-free public charter school, which will keep adding grades in the coming school years. 

Even though Horning, who is president of the school board, and his team weren’t able to start enrolling students until late spring due to difficulties securing a building, 200 students signed up for this first school year.

Ivywood is partnering with Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative, which now has more than 20 affiliates around the country, including two in Michigan. This school is one of only three new charter schools opening in Michigan this fall. 

Horning, a 2006 graduate of Hillsdale, understands the value of a liberal arts education, and wanted his child to experience this kind of learning starting at an early age. (Full disclosure: I'm also a Hillsdale alum.) The Barney charter model is centered on a foundation of classical learning. 

“This curriculum is able to unlock a child’s natural inclination to be creative and have wonder about the world,” Horning says. 

Kathleen O’Toole, assistant provost for K-12 education at Hillsdale College, says the classical charter schools — located in 11 states — are seeing “impressive” results around the country, and that the schools serve students from diverse backgrounds. 

Typically, students at these schools score 17 percentage points higher than state averages on English and language arts proficiency and 4 percentage points higher in mathematics, based on state exams. There are nearly 7,000 students on waitlists around the U.S. 

“We are interested in who the students are becoming as people,” says O’Toole, who was headmaster of a Barney charter school in Texas before her current job. She’s also the daughter of Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn. 

Students receive a classic liberal arts education from the beginning, with a focus on literature, math, science and music — and an emphasis on American government and history. 

“This curriculum resonates with people,” O’Toole says. 

She says this broad curriculum is possible, despite the fact charter schools in Michigan receive less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools. 

“If you focus on the important stuff, you get a lot done,” she says. 

This idea of building a school around a curriculum is refreshing, and should be the most essential element of every school. So much of school reform discussions revolve around funding, teacher pay, test scores, data points and other metrics that miss what ought to be at the heart of every school — a focus on what the students are actually learning. 

Horning says children naturally have a love of learning, but too often kids are losing that in school. This model is different — it fosters that enthusiasm and “keeps the fire going,” he says. 

“There’s a lot of people out there who want something like that for their children,” Horning says.

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

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