Hillary Clinton would love Amherst, Massachusetts, a town aptly nicknamed “The People’s Republic of Amherst.” A stroll down Main Street quickly reveals that Birkenstocks and Volvos dominate the landscape. Amherst’s legislative body, the Town Meeting, often votes on the kind of citizen petitions that call on the community (population 35,000) to join the AFLCIO’s “union cities” movement or to block off a busy street so spotted salamanders can make their annual trek to breeding ponds without becoming roadkill.

Amherst, situated in the picturesque Pioneer Valley, is the quintessential college town. Once home to Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, it now insulates old hippies and left-wing scholars from the traditional values of ordinary Americans. The town’s public schools are, of course, fertile ground for the country’s most ambitious social engineers. In 1996, the town’s four elementary schools displayed a gay and lesbian family photo exhibit with accompanying text. This winter, the Fort River Elementary School principal hosted a blacks-only breakfast for staff and families.

The problem with Amherst educators indoctrinating their charges is that they sometimes succeed in unexpected ways. This winter, junior and senior high students skipped class to join University of Massachusetts/Amherst students who had occupied an administration building to demand an increase in minority enrollment. Most of the time, however, the kids are bored by the propaganda of their elders. And bored kids, particularly adolescents, tend to behave badly. Recently, the junior high school had to be evacuated because four students had stashed homemade bombs in a locker.

To combat this situation, in this Mecca of “value-free” education, Wid Lyman, my husband, decided to start a private, alternative school, the Harkness Road High School (HRHS). Wid is suited to teaching and molding teenagers. He’s well-educated (Ph.D. in civil engineering), athletic, lively, goal-oriented, and a strict disciplinarian. However, to assume there are any similarities to a New England headmaster who reads the New Yorker and sips cognac is laughable. The son of working-class parents from Massachusetts, Wid’s educational philosophy is a combination of the three R’s and three C’s—conservatism, constitutionalism, and Christianity. Amherst’s worst nightmare.

Harkness Road High School, a coed day school, was launched ten years ago in what was formerly a retail poultry business situated on a small, five-acre farm. Animals are raised in a backyard barn which abuts conservation land. HRHS educates students in grades seven through 12, utilizing a mere 2,400 square feet (four rooms) of class space. It is charter-school small —no more than 20 students attend each year.

The academic program is a back-tobasics curriculum with some interesting twists. Each week vocabulary lists of 50 words are handed out for memorization, and students are required to take semester-long courses such as World Geography, U.S. Presidents, and Grammar before graduation. In literature classes, the current high school fare of Alice Walker and J.D. Salinger is eschewed for Charles Dickens and Frank Peretti. Electives have ranged from Constitutional Law, Wars of the United States, and Practical Etiquette, to Communist China and Russia.

Dubious practices like Outcome-Based Education and feel-good multiculturalism are considered heresy. Or, as Doug Bandow recently editorialized about HRHS in the Washington Times, our students are likely to be “refugees from political correctness.”

While HRHS students good-naturedly complain (sometimes whine) about assignments, they appreciate the personalized atmosphere and tough academic standards —standards which are not for the shiftless. Students in grades 9 through 12 must earn at least a B to pass each class. If not, the course has to be repeated. The concept harkens to the old-fashioned notion that learning involves hard work, not just a superficial acquaintance with the material.

Wid is the full-time teacher and is assisted by three part-time instructors. Like a schoolmarm of yesteryear, he shuttles between Latin, calculus, and the Bible. He also assumes the burden of suspending unruly students. Fortunately, there are few behavior problems because the school simply is not alluring to potential juvenile delinquents.

Dennis Petrides is Wid’s Man Friday, a pal from his own schooldays. Blessed with a gentle manner, he teaches the younger students and gets voted “nicest teacher” in informal polls. At break time, Denny and Wid challenge willing students to pitch games.

I am also a part-time teacher. My Spanish class recently wrote, starred in, and videotaped a program for children, “Espanol Para Nznos,” which we hope to air on a local cable station. One day a week I drop the Marva Collins persona and imitate June Cleaver when I serve the students a hot lunch.

Ken Robinson, our newest addition, is an attorney and the father of one of our students. He teaches honors U.S. History and uses a book authored by Southern apologist Clarence B. Carson. Ken’s syllabus to his students reveals a blunt attitude to modern education: “This is not a ‘dumbed-down’ high school text for public school cretins; it would challenge most college freshman. But don’t let that frighten you, most college freshmen are cretins, and their texts are written accordingly.”

A vocational component, built into the school year, allows students to participate in the work world for five weeks in May and June, as they volunteer at nursing homes, business offices, farms, newspapers, and elementary schools. One student’s 500 hours of vocational work for the U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center made him eligible for a college scholarship. Another student’s involvement with the Advocate, an alternative newspaper, led to a full-time job with the company after graduation.

In general, the school’s decentralized, task-oriented approach works. The dress code is casual but neat, and the atmosphere is orderly but not oppressive. Tuition is priced at a relatively low $3,500 per year in order to retain the working class, often nonreligious families which the school attracts. Even Amherst’s municipal employees—the town assessor, the assistant fire chief, and an elected select board member—have enrolled their children in the school, which has helped our status with the local superintendent and regional school board that approve the school’s curriculum every few years and then leave us be.

Our teachers are not “certified,” nor is the school “accredited.” Our students must create their own extracurricular activities, be content with the daily basketball games during their recess time, type on outdated computers, and make do without science labs. The austere surroundings raise the question: Is it worthwhile to deny a student the perks of a well-funded, albeit eccentric, public school to transfer to our bare-bones operation? Here’s one student’s perspective.

Nicholas Keenan transferred to HRHS from Amherst Regional High School in his junior year. Nick was well-liked by his public school teachers, and his peers were the school’s most articulate students. A published essay Nick wrote comparing his public education to his private education is illuminating. Nick (now a 4.0 honors student majoring in Japanese at a state university) noted: “I knew about the heroic efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass; but I had barely heard of other historical greats such as James K. Polk, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster (I thought he wrote the dictionary), Andrew Jackson, and even Thomas Jefferson. Although I had been taught about Darwinism, I was almost completely ignorant of Christianity and the Bible.”

He continues: “I could also talk a blue storm about how racism has ripped apart America, but my math, English, social studies, and even French were compromised because of it. In other words, my teachers deemed it necessary to jeopardize my education by filling my brain with ‘What I Should Believe’ and ‘How I Should Act’ propaganda.”

For skeptics who insist that little schoolhouses are a step backward into the 19th century, I offer the following academic tidbits: 14 of the 16 HRHS graduates have gone on to college; alumnus Craig Webster was named a National Merit Scholar in the school’s third year; and last year, sophomore Morgan Robinson scored a perfect 800 on the verbal portion of the PSAT and has since then been selected as a semifinalist for a 1998 National Merit Scholarship.

Character education proponents might be impressed that a group of HRHS students were hired to tear down a barn in Connecticut, a two-day job for which the crew was paid $3,000. Amherst Town Hall employees regularly request our students to work in the collector’s office. And when a serious drug problem among Amherst teenagers became a town-wide crisis, Joe Hession, a junior, organized a collaborative letter-to-the-editor explaining how HRHS students are educated in a drug-free environment.

This summer, HRHS embarked on its most ambitious project to date: the building and selling of a home. The profits will be used to upgrade the facilities and allow the school to accept two or three more students.

Wid and I liken this modest endeavor in a hotbed of liberalism to the labors of the monks during the Dark Ages. Even if we only teach a tiny percentage of western Massachusetts’ teenage population, we feel we are following the advice that says if you cannot feed 100 children, feed one. Our prayer is that our tribe—educators that honor the 2,300 years of the Western tradition and that can speak the language of teenagers—would increase. We are encouraged that one woman who sought our counsel founded a classical Catholic school in a neighboring county.

Meanwhile, we are looking forward to the class of 1999’s commencement. That’s when Daniel, our son, will graduate from HRHS—that is, if he passes all his courses (with at least a B).