IW planners vote 8-1 to support Hampton Roads Classical relocation

Published 6:06 pm Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission voted 8-1 on May 23 in support of Hampton Roads Classical Academy’s plans to repurpose a shuttered school campus on Benns Church Boulevard as its new home.

Headmaster P. Andy Gist has applied for a conditional use permit to return elementary and middle school students to the former James River Christian Academy for the first time in 16 years.

Hampton Roads Classical has 41 students in grades K-7 and is planning for 60 K-8 students when the next school year starts in August. The school has operated out of Hope Presbyterian Church for the past three years, but is nonsectarian.

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Remaining at Hope is “no longer an option,” Gist said, citing the roughly 20% annual enrollment increase Hampton Roads Classical has seen since 2020.

Commissioner James Ford cast the dissenting vote. He’d sought additional time to evaluate the school’s proposed relocation and objected to comments by parents and faculty at a public hearing urging a decision that evening in light of the time it would take to renovate the former James River campus ahead of the scheduled August opening. Commissioner Jennifer Boykin was absent.

James River Christian operated from 1975 to 2007. The 25-acre campus consists of two roughly 9,200-square-foot classroom buildings, each dating to the 1970s, a detached 6,300-square-foot gymnasium built in the 1980s and seven townhouses built as teacher housing.

Hampton Roads Classical’s application specifies the school would, for now, only use one of the two classroom buildings and the gymnasium. The requested permit would allow a maximum occupancy of 125, including students, faculty and staff members.

The school’s faculty currently consists of full-time teachers, three part-time teachers, an office administrator and Gist himself.

Classical education, Gist told the commissioners, is rooted in “standards of truth, goodness and beauty” and “celebrates American heritage.”

According to the school’s website, Hampton Roads Classical offers a 12-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in its classes and a “trivium-based approach of grammar, logic, and rhetoric,” where Latin is introduced as early as the first grade.

In 2021, Hampton Roads Classical became licensed to use K-12 curriculum developed by Michigan-based Hillsdale College, including but not limited to components of Hillsdale’s “1776 Curriculum” which Hillsdale President Larry Arnn has said predates his role on former president Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission that called for “restoring patriotic education.”

“We hold to tried and true traditional methods,” Gist said.

Among the speakers at the commission’s public hearing, held the same night as the vote, were Hampton Roads Classical board member Gary Porter, who called classical education “critical to the success of the American experiment,” and Jim Comstock of Hampton, whose daughter attends the school.

“A growing movement in our country is rediscovering classical education,” Comstock said.

According to Gist, Hampton Roads Classical has drawn in students not only from Isle of Wight County but also nearby cities like Hampton, Portsmouth and Suffolk.

Vincent Carollo, who owns the former James River campus, began renovations in 2021 when Isle of Wight County supervisors approved a proposal to turn one of the two classroom buildings into a day care center. In 2022, supervisors approved a proposal to turn the gym and an adjacent athletic field into a private sports club. Hampton Roads Classical’s application includes a request to “extinguish” existing conditional use permits for the day care and sports club. According to Carollo, the plans for the day care fell through and the sports club has terminated its lease and relocated.

With the commissioners’ vote of support, the matter will head to Isle of Wight County supervisors in June for a final vote.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the relationship between Hillsdale’s 1776 curriculum and the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission.