The following “State of the Academy” address was delivered by Brandon Vogt, founder and chairman of Chesterton Academy, at our 2023 Gala Dinner on May 6, 2023.
To form saints! That’s our mission. That’s why Chesterton Academy of Orlando exists.
Thank you all for coming tonight. My name is Brandon Vogt, I’m the founder and chairman of Chesterton Academy. I deeply appreciate you joining us.
As I’ve heard many of you say, Chesterton Academy has already become a sign of tremendous hope in this community.
But hope rarely arises in good times. When things are going well, hope is not necessary. Hope is always born in times of crisis.
Two Crises: Education + Evangelization
I’d like to speak to you about two major crises we’re facing today: an education crisis and an evangelization crisis.
First, education. Our education system is collapsing. We all know this; we see it. The Brooking’s Institute just released a report titled “The Alarming State of the American Student in 2022.” It found that students are suffering dramatic increases in anxiety and depression. Math and reading scores have plummeted at historic rates. The Washington Post put it more bluntly: “Test scores are down, and violence is up. Parents are screaming at school boards, and children are crying on the couches of social workers. Anger is rising. Patience is falling. For public schools, the numbers are all going in the wrong direction.”
We’ve lost the path. Students are suffering, parents are upset, and schools have abandoned the tried and true methods that have worked for centuries. That’s the education crisis.
But second, we also have an evangelization crisis. Evangelization simply means drawing people into the Faith, helping them encounter Jesus through his Church. We Catholics generally struggle with evangelization, but we are especially struggling to evangelize our young people. We all sense this. We all know young people—our own children or grandchildren, nieces and nephews, other young people we know—who have drifted away from the Faith.
A recent Pew Research Center study found that 50% of young people who were raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today. Fifty percent! Imagine a business losing 50% of its customers, or a company losing 50% of its workers. That’s a crisis.
What’s interesting is that the vast majority of Catholics (80%) who leave the Faith leave before age 23. In other words, most Catholics drift away when they’re young.
Many leave in middle-school or in college, but the data shows that the real pivotal moment, the most important period, is high school.
High school is the fork in the road. High school is when they either grow deeper in their faith or start to drift away. And right now, lots are drifting away: that’s the evangelization crisis.
The Response: Classical and Catholic
So, we’re facing these two big crises—education and evangelization. And high school is ground zero for both of them.
It was from these two challenges that Chesterton Academy of Orlando was born. Our new high school was conceived by families and parishioners who became convinced that the answer to both these crises—the education crisis and the evangelization crisis—is a classical high school, fueled by the Catholic faith.
Let me say a brief word about each of those pillars, classical and Catholic.
First, we’re a classical high school. This is our answer to the education crisis. While most schools drown students in standardized tests, technology, sports, and college prep—all good things, in their proper proportions—we return to a traditional focus on generating wonder and cultivating wisdom and virtue.
At Chesterton Academy, our goal is not to prepare students to do something after they graduate but to help them become someone now, to become now a fully-formed human who is wise, joyful, virtuous, and holy.
That’s why we teach not only math and science, but the classical liberal arts, which include literature, philosophy, theology, Latin, and debate.
Instead of dry modern textbooks, our students read the Great Books of the Western world, enduring works that have shaped the brightest minds and hearts throughout history. Our students read Homer, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, and Thomas Aquinas.
And we don’t use screens in class—no iPads, no phones, no laptops. Instead, students have actual discussions, face to face. We discuss the Great Books in the “Socratic style,” as you heard in the video, in conversation with each other and with the teacher.
We also emphasize the fine arts. Every student at Chesterton Academy learns to draw and paint, sing in the choir, act on the stage, give speeches, and engage in debate. The result is that by the time they graduate, our students are poised, articulate, thoughtful, and well-rounded, full of joy and faith.
That’s the result of a classical education, and that’s our first pillar—we’re a classical high school.
Our second pillar is Catholic. This is our answer to the evangelization crisis. To put it simply, we love our Catholic Faith. We love Jesus Christ and his Church. We take pride in our Catholic identity. At our school, Faith is integral to all subjects, not just one. It infuses everything from our curriculum to our decor, from our prayer and feast day celebrations to our school culture. It’s all living, breathing, joyful Catholicism.
Every teacher, staff member, and board member is a committed Catholic. Every student at Chesterton takes four years of Catholic theology and four years of Catholic philosophy. They study the whole Bible, cover to cover, and the whole Catechism of the Catholic Church.
This is how we address the evangelization crisis, by welcoming students into a culture of vibrant, joyful, intelligent faith. While millions of young Catholics are leaving the Faith in high school, our students are deepening their faith, becoming more committed and more in love with God.
Updates on Chesterton Academy
So, that’s who we are, and what we’re about. But how has this vision unfolded this past year?
Well, as soon as we announced we were opening this new school back in 2021, hundreds of responses poured in. We knew there was massive excitement for something like this in Orlando.
We established a Board of Directors, an impressive group of parents, educators, and community leaders. We then became an approved high school by the State of Florida and a registered non-profit with the IRS, to begin fundraising.
We then worked with an executive search group to find our inaugural Headmaster, who would lead the school. We were delighted to hire Mr. Jim Hickel. Mr. Hickel brings over 40 years of experience as Headmaster in classical Catholic schools around the country. He’s seen it all, experienced it all, and he’s been successful everywhere he’s been.
We next hired a team of six fantastic teachers, each gifted in their subject and vibrant in their faith. Our students look up to these teachers as mentors who live their faith with joy and confidence. Rather than undermining their students’ faith, our teachers grow and strengthen it.
We then needed a location for our school. We prayed intensely, asking God for a good place. Through a stroke of divine grace, we were blessed beyond measure when two generous donors, Nathan and Anna Bond, who you’ll hear from in a moment, acquired a turn-key school building in Winter Park and graciously offered it for our use. The building was the former home of the Geneva School, also a classical school, so it was perfect for our needs. It has 27 classrooms, a full gymnasium, a music room, and an art room. Since we didn’t need the whole space for Chesterton Academy, we partnered with another classical Christian school to share the space with us, Highlands Latin of Orlando, which teaches Pre-K through 8th grade. So, together with Highlands Latin, we now offer on one campus a full Pre-K through 12th grade classical Christian education.
And with that, we opened our doors in August 2022, excited for our inaugural school year. We welcomed 30 initial students, primarily in 9th and 10th grade. Very quickly, we knew we had something special. Lives were being changed, students were growing and coming alive.
We were especially delighted to hear many students share that they actually enjoyed school for the first time. In the early months, one parent messaged me to say:
My husband and I are extremely grateful and blessed for the opportunity to send our daughter to Chesterton Academy. The car rides home are always full of joyous stories recounting her day, and the weekends can’t pass by fast enough. She’s actually eager for Monday to roll around! In fact during our recent weekend beach getaway, our daughter asked my husband and I, “Is it weird that I can’t wait to get back to school?”
Have you ever heard a high-schooler say that: “Is it weird that I can’t wait to get back to school?”
That’s what we’ve built at Chesterton Academy of Orlando. It’s a school that young people love to attend, because we offer what their hearts genuinely long for: beauty, truth, goodness, God. It’s here they find themselves becoming fully alive.
What’s Coming Next?
So, that’s where we are, after less than a year. But what’s coming next? Well, frankly, a lot—this is just the beginning.
Next year, we plan to grow—significantly. We just opened enrollment and so many applicants poured in that we’ll have to cap and cut it off. We’ll begin next year with 60 students, which means we’re doubling in size, from 30 students this year to 60 students next year.
But this obviously requires more resources. To continue all this great work and more, we need to raise $265,000. That’s the key number. That’s what we’re hoping to raise tonight—$265,000. That amount will allow us to do all the things I’ve already described and more: to continue our joyful culture of learning, to shape these students into future leaders and saints, and to provide a real solution to the twin crises of education and evangelization.
However, here’s the thing: we’re hoping to raise even more than that to carry out three dream initiatives, three accelerator projects.
First, and most exciting, we’re hoping to construct a big, beautiful chapel, right in the heart of our campus. We want to place God first. He’s the priority. Our students already pray together at the beginning and end of every school day. They chant, sing hymns, and share devotions such as the Stations of the Cross. But they currently do all this in an unused classroom space, which is plain, bare, and small—it barely holds 30 students. We need a bigger, more beautiful space, a sacred space worthy of their prayers.
After working with an architect and liturgical designer, we now have plans to combine a few unused rooms located right in the middle of our campus, combining them into a large chapel space. The new chapel will seat about 160 people and it will be impressive: it will have an altar, pews, a sacristy, and a confessional. Planning has already begun. We have preliminary designs and renderings, and we’re eager to get started with the first phase.
If we raise an additional $20,000 tonight, we can begin work this summer with some of the demolition and structural work, which we desperately need because again, at a minimum, we must expand our current chapel space into a larger room that can hold all 60 students for next year. So, raising that initial $20,000 is key.
But as we raise more funds, we can begin work on the full chapel as soon as next summer. Look: our mindset is God first. God first. God is the focus of our school. And if God is first, the chapel must be central—that’s the priority.
A second big goal we have is to build out our science lab space. This first school year, we didn’t need a science lab because our students all studied astronomy. But next year, we will be teaching three lab courses—biology, chemistry, and physics. Thankfully, we already have the lab space but we still need to purchase all the furniture, tables, and lab equipment. If we can raise $11,000 tonight, then we can provide Chesterton Academy with a top-notch science lab for our students that will be used for years to come.
A third and final big goal: we’re hoping to raise money to provide our students life-changing faith experiences beyond the classroom—to evangelize them. If we raise $12,000, we can provide a full year’s worth of retreats, conferences, and speakers.
These experiences are crucial because they allow students to encounter the Lord personally and powerfully. Many faithful Catholics can point to a single retreat, talk, or event that changed their life, that transformed or deepened their faith. That’s what we want to provide at Chesterton. If we raise $12,000, we can fund a whole year of these life-changing experiences for our students. We can adequately evangelize them.
One exciting fruit of all this—the chapel, the retreats, the prayer experiences, the culture of faith—is vocations. Frankly, we expect a surge of vocations from Chesterton Academy over the coming years, and we have data to support this. There are over 50 Chesterton Academy high schools across the country, all sharing our same model and curriculum, and over 1,000 students have already graduated from those other Chesterton schools.
Of those 1,000 alumni, more than 20 young men have already entered the seminary. Amazing! 1,000 graduates, 20 seminarians. Most impressively, the original Chesterton Academy in Minnesota, which was co-founded in 2008 by our keynote speaker Dale Ahlquist, sends on average, 1 out of every 9 senior boys into the seminary. Just incredible! 1 out of every 9 senior boys!
Why does this happen? Well, it’s because Chesterton Academy helps students discern who they are, what God made them for, and how to find happiness through their vocation.
Imagine if over the next decade, our little high school in Orlando sent 20 young men to the seminary. Imagine how 20 new seminarians would transform our diocese! Or even just half that number—10 new seminarians! Even that would be a game changer. And, of course, that’s not counting all the other vocations we expect to emerge from this school, from religious life to holy and happy marriages.
But, again, to do all of this, we need your help! We need your help to reach our basic goal of $265,000 tonight, but we especially need your help to achieve our bigger, more ambitious goals! $20,000 will allow us to start work on the chapel, $11,000 will build our science lab, and $12,000 will fund life-changing retreats and faith experiences, to cultivate more vocations.
We need more partners on this mission. And to speak to that, I’d like to welcome Jim Dempsey to the stage, so thank you, and please join me in welcoming Jim Dempsey.
If you would like to help Chesterton Academy accomplish these goals, please consider supporting us on our donation page: https://chestertonorlando.com/donate