College access

Building a liberal arts curriculum, inspiring independent thinkers

By Elizabeth (Betsey) Hun Schmidt June 8, 2016

Two years ago, we decided to do something highly unusual: completely overhaul our entire curriculum, from kindergarten to high school. The new Ascend curriculum would respond to the challenge of the Common Core and realize our vision of a vibrant, empowering liberal arts education for our students.

By providing Ascend students a liberal education in a supportive environment, we would offer an education that prizes critical thinking and questioning, celebrates (and yet challenges) the literary canon; encompasses math, science, music, and the arts; cultivates moral judgment and civic responsibility; and fosters independence of thought and action.

In town halls with teachers at every school and in collaborative planning sessions with school directors, we came together in the spring of 2014 to devise the curricular shift.  We wanted to see increased student engagement with richer content in all subject areas. We were determined to provide a body of core knowledge that our students could draw on confidently throughout their lives – first in college seminars and later in a democracy that depends upon their informed participation and questioning.

Mostly, though, we wanted to hear our students’ voices more often in the classroom. We wanted to know them better – their informed opinions about the books they read, their intuitive math strategies when faced with complex number stories – and we wanted them to know themselves better.

We know that some may question the practicality, in a brutal job market for young people, of such an education. Isn’t studying the history of ideas and great books a luxury? Shouldn’t an education be immediately useful? Wouldn’t students be better off developing specialized, technical skills that employers prize?

No, as it turns out. The majority of organizations hiring today agree that long-term career success relies on college graduates possessing a broad base of knowledge in addition to skills specific to one’s field. We want our students to be free to choose their profession and have the flexibility of mind to adapt easily in a rapidly changing world. We want them to enjoy the freedom of engaging and challenging those in power, to imagine a future worth striving for, and to work hard to realize that future.

Now, nearly two years into the curriculum overhaul, the 12 members of Ascend’s founding curriculum team continue to refine what we’ve developed even as we complete the last remaining curriculum elements, altogether some 2,500-plus creations spanning English Language Arts, mathematics, humanities, science, and Spanish – each designed, in its essence, to increase student agency and voice. Book by book, math problem by math problem, we are preparing our scholars to thrive in whatever field of study they fall in love with in college. And to connect to the world as creative, engaged, and industrious citizens.

For many of us, this audacious project will be the highlight of our working lives.

I would love to hear your questions or comments: email me at