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Friday Feature: St. Martin’s Academy

Colleen Hroncich

“Boys thrive when they’re challenged and when they’re doing hard things. Especially when they’re doing hard things together.” This is some of the insight Daniel Kerr has developed after founding and running St. Martin’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys on a sustainable farm in Fort Scott, Kansas.

Daniel’s dream of founding a school was inspired by The Restoration of Innocence: An Idea of a School, an unpublished work by John Senior. After years of dreaming and then planning, St. Martin’s Academy opened in 2018.

“The school is situated on a 5‑acre parcel that was part of the Kerr family estate,” says Daniel. “So the school is literally in my backyard. This is the land I was born and raised on and the school now shares a part of that.” The total acreage on the family farm is around 200 acres, but they have access to additional land for agricultural and recreational use.

The school started with 17 students, all freshmen or sophomores. They added on each year and are now at capacity with 63 students. Daniel is firm on the max size based on his and his co-founder’s own time in boarding schools. “It’s small by design,” he says. “We’ll never get bigger than mid‐​sixties for enrollment because 15 students per class is ideal. In our experience, the cohesiveness and integrity of the classes break down once you get north of 15–20 students.”

St. Martin’s Academy is a rather unique place. As a Benedictine institution, it is robustly and authentically Catholic. They follow the Benedictine practice ora et labora – pray and work. Students attend daily Mass and pause for prayer at regular intervals throughout the day.

Classes are held five hours a day each Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. The school has a rigorous academic curriculum that includes Latin, Greek, logic, physics, and natural history. While classes can be held in the classroom, they’re frequently in the field. For example, in the natural sciences classes, they spend time outside on things like birding, falconry, and beekeeping.

On Wednesdays, they take a break from academics for Work Wednesday where they do larger work projects on the farm. The boys also have the opportunity to pursue other interests on Wednesdays, including the mastery program, which is like merit badges in Boy Scouts.

Daniels calls the farm the “living laboratory” for much of the school’s educational approach. Faculty and students work together on the farm, growing seasonal vegetables, tending the orchard, and raising a variety of livestock. Some people have questioned the value of farming and suggested it distracts from intellectual pursuits, but Daniel disagrees. “I would contend that farm work, far from being a distraction, is as indispensable a pedagogical component as anything else at St. Martin’s. Without this work, we simply aren’t able make good on our vision to educate the whole person.”

The farm also contributes to the overall economy of the school. According to Daniel, “At this point, probably 25 percent of our food comes from the work we do on the farm. Our goal is 80 percent self‐​sufficiency within three years, and I think we’re going to get there.”

Tuition at St. Martin’s, which includes room and board as well as an opening trip, is $21,500. This is impressive when you consider average per pupil spending is U.S. public schools is more than $15,000 without room and board or a trip. And the average annual cost at seven‐​day boarding schools in the United States is $66,500.

The opening trips are significant and intentional. For freshmen, they go out west to Wyoming or Utah and do a mountaineering expedition. Daniel says this trip “is a good way for the boys to start forging friendships, which—especially for the younger guys—is the best antidote to homesickness.”

Seniors start the school year with a three‐​week trip to France. It’s centered around a retreat at Fontgombault Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in France. The trip includes a visit to Tours, where the school’s patron saint is buried. They also travel to Normandy, Lisieux, Mont‐​Saint‐​Michel, and Paris. “It’s really a great trip for the boys, who have been studying the foundations of western civilization,” says Daniel. “For them to go over and see the incarnation of what that looks like, it’s a very important experience for them.”

St. Martin’s Academy has had two graduating classes so far with around 18 graduates between them. Some have gone to college, one is becoming a Benedictine monk, and some have gravitated towards working with their hands and looking to strike out in business for themselves. This doesn’t surprise Daniel. “I think there’s a kind of entrepreneurial spirit about the place that is intentional,” he says. “We really encourage them to be entrepreneurial, which we basically define as just taking responsibility for the outcomes in your life. In the economic sphere, that means you have to have some control over the means of production that you have. I think they get that message—that these sorts of things are not only possible, they’re desirable.”

Daniel frequently hears from people who want to create something similar. “I have folks reaching out nearly every week who are interested in what we’re doing, want to do something similar, and are looking for support, encouragement, and ideas. I think there’s a broader awakening to the fact that our educational models are tired, unimaginative, and they don’t work. And they really don’t work for boys. We’ve got to do something different. Through God’s providence, we’re at the tip of the spear in heading into a new direction. It’s pretty exciting.”

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