New private school to open in Smithfield

Published 3:12 pm Wednesday, July 15, 2020

A new private school in Smithfield plans to welcome students to class for the first time Aug. 18.

Hampton Roads Classical Academy is slated to open at 13490 Benns Church Blvd. 

Although the school is located inside Hope Presbyterian Church, it is not a parochial or faith-based school. 

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“We’re not affiliated with a particular faith or religion,” founder Andy Gist said, who added that the school has an independent board of directors and everyone’s freedom of religion and worship will be respected and honored.

However, he added, “we teach from the centrality of the Western tradition. So students learn their heritage going all the way back to ancient times, ancient Greece and Rome but they also learn about the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition on our own American founding, and we don’t shy away from that.”

Gist said they plan “to start out very small” with a goal of opening with 30 students in grades kindergarten through six. Eventually, they aspire to operate as a full pre-K through 12th grade school.

The classically-based philosophy of education “is fundamentally rooted in the belief that the purpose of education is for the acquisition of wisdom and the cultivation of virtue to help children become more human and not just about getting a job,” Gist explained. “Not everyone is going to go to college, but we want all children to grow up to be independent, responsible, free thinking adults regardless of what their vocation becomes.”

Gist and his children were educated in public schools. He is a graduate of the University of Florida and has a Master of Business Administration from the University of Georgia. Gist also is a Navy veteran and has a military educational background, having worked as an assistant professor at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk. It was during his tenure there that he noticed a concerning trend.

Many of the young people he taught weren’t good at writing or public speaking, and they didn’t have a good understanding of history or the government and how those things influence public policy and life, Gist said.

“By the time you get to college, your character, your values, your education is largely set at that point,” he said. “It was becoming apparent to me that the best way to really affect how people were being educated into adulthood was not in higher education but in their primary education, K-12 specifically.”

So he’s decided to focus on younger students.

Among those joining him on this endeavor are Gary Porter, who will serve as a member of the academy’s board, and Amanda Barnett, who will be the curriculum director and lead teacher. 

“Learning how to think and how to learn for yourself are two key principles that we think are lacking in the public school system right now, which are a fundamental focus of classical education,” Porter said.

Porter is an Air Force veteran. He has a master’s degree in education and a state teaching certificate, although he has not worked as a teacher. Barnett has about 10 years of teaching and educational experience. Her daughter, a rising fourth-grader, will be joining her at the school. She also has a son, a rising eighth-grader.

Barnett plans to teach kindergarten.

“My particular passion is for literacy, and really, kindergarten is where you lay the foundation for literacy skills for life. Also mathematics as well,” Barnett added. “You have to be literate in both letters and numbers.”

As lead teacher, she also will be responsible for training other teachers, setting a standard of excellence “and being there for them as a coach and mentor.”

The push to open the school, nearly two years in the making, was nearly derailed by COVID-19.

As local, state and federal government, businesses, schools and churches shut down as the pandemic grew, “we went from March to June, really kind of in suspense,” Gist said. “We weren’t sure if we were even going to open this year or if we were going to have to delay it.”

But as restrictions were eased, they decided to move forward and open with in-person classes while following all of the state’s health and safety guidance. Western Tidewater, he added, is a good place to start and grow.

“We looked at the area, the market, the growth of the area, the projected growth of the area and we felt like the timing was right and (we are) in the right location,” Gist said.

Hampton Roads Classical Academy is hosting open houses through the end of the month and hiring teachers. Visit or call 757-285-2024 for more information.