Classical Conversations, Inc., is a private company, founded and owned by Leigh Bortins and run by her son Robert Bortins, who is the CEO. In addition to CC, Inc., the Bortins family owns many other companies whose services are advertised on the main CC website: Math Map, LLC, Classical Conversations Multimedia Inc., and Homeschool Testing Services Inc. (now dissolved but still advertised on their Corporate website). They also own National Athletic Village, LLC, Twin Fields Farm LLC, a residential rental company called Bortins Enterprises LLC and a variety of other companies that seem to be inactive. Classical Conversations is best known for its affiliated "communities", or privately owned homeschool tutoring programs, that meet weekly during the academic year for ages 4 through high school.
I want to share here a clear review of the K4 through grade 6 Classical Conversations programs, Foundations and Essentials, which are the programs my children attended. (We did not ever enroll in the Challenge programs for grades 7 through 12, so while I have many concerns about those as well, I will leave others to review them). CC promotes its programs as "Classical Christian Community". How well do those terms truly describe this program?
An overview of the Foundations and Essentials programs
Foundations and Essentials classes are held once a week on the same day, with Foundations in the morning from 9:15-12:00 and Essentials in the afternoon from 1:00-3:00.
The Foundations "community day" begins with a fifteen-minute opening assembly led by the program owner/Director, and then is followed by five "crisp thirty-minute sections" of memory work, science experiences, fine arts experiences, review games, and student presentations, all led by paid tutors in classes of no more than 8 students. At home, parents are encouraged to spend time each day reviewing the memory work, which are short one- to two-sentence facts in the areas of history, geography, science, English grammar, Latin, and math. The paid tutors on "community day" present these facts independent of any context, and are in fact told they should NOT attempt to teach anything about them. Whether or not context is added at home is up to each parent. The main thing parents are told to add at home is math and a program to teach beginning reading and writing.
Foundations follows a three-year "cycle" with different topics for history, science, geography, Latin, and English grammar in each cycle. Math and a history Timeline remain the same every year. According to the CC website, the required memory work unique to each cycle is:
- Cycle 1: History and geography: ancient world and historic empires; Latin: noun endings; Science: biology and earth science; Grammar: prepositions and verbs
- Cycle 2: History and Geography: Pre-Reformation to modern history; Latin: verb conjugation; Science: ecology, astronomy, and physics; Grammar: pronouns, adverbs, and conjunctions
- Cycle 3: History and Geography: home country's history; Latin: translating [note - this is memorization, not translation] John 1:1-7 from Latin Vulgate; Science: anatomy, chemistry, origins; Grammar: participles, irregular verb tenses, clauses
When students are in fourth grade, they are encouraged to be enrolled in Essentials, the afternoon program. This is led by paid tutors in classes of no more than sixteen, with 45 minutes of writing using Institute for Excellence in Writing (with topics corresponding to the history in each Foundations cycle), 45 minutes of grammar using Essentials of the English Language, and 30 minutes of math games. From fourth grade on, parents are generally told that CC plus math and lots of reading (to enhance the memory work, or just interest-directed) is enough. While Essentials is touted as a "language arts" program, it does not include spelling or literature (suggested spelling lists are included with the EEL materials and a suggested reading list with IEW, but that is it).
Foundations and Essentials both run for twelve weeks in the fall (week 12 must conclude before Christmas) and twelve weeks from January to May (at the latest).
Foundations: Total without Facility Fee $678 first child/$450 siblings ($743/$550 in California)
Application fee: $140 for the first child, $15 for siblings ($205/$115 in California)
Enrollment fee: $103 per family (paid to CC)
Tuition: $375 per child
Supplies: $60 per child
Facility: varies by location
Essentials: Total without Facility Fee $648 first child/$420 siblings ($713/$520 in California)
Application fee: $140 for the first child, $15 for siblings ($205/$115 in California)
Enrollment fee: $103 per family (paid to CC)
Tuition: $375 per child
Supplies: $30 per child
Facility: varies by location
The enrollment fee is new this coming year. It supposedly provides access to "CC Connected", which will house a variety of digital resources for students. Previously, CC Connected was available for $6 per month for families enrolled in a licensed program, and it was optional. Now, it is required for anyone who wants to join a licensed program, it is only for those in a licensed program, and it must be paid to CC Inc. after the application fee and before any tuition.
The application fee is paid to the business owner, aka Director, who then pays the same amount to CC Inc. for "licensing fees" - a fee that allows the Director to advertise the program as an official "licensed CC community", to use CC's system for record-keeping, to access CC's online business resources, to reproduce certain CC materials, to use their trademark, and to advertise on CC's website.
The Tuition and the Supplies Fee are usually paid to the business owner, aka Director, who uses them to pay the Tutors (generally 60% of tuition for Foundations tutors, and 70% for Essentials tutors), to purchase supplies, and to keep what remains for his or her own income. In California and some other locations, where tutors are not hired or contracted but are "sublicensed" in an entirely different contractual arrangement, parents pay the supply fee to the Director and the tuition to the tutor, who then pays a portion of that tuition back to the Director as a "sublicensing fee".
The Facility Fee is sometimes per family, and sometimes per student, and generally covers both the cost of insurance and the rent for the "host" facility, usually a church. This varies by location.
Since then, I've learned a lot about what classical education entails, and I've now come to the conclusion that CC's approach is far less "classical" than many others, including Memoria Press, Bright Ideas Press, and Classical Academic Press. I no longer believe that using the names of the Trivium skills of grammar, logic, and rhetoric are appropriate labels for stages of child development. I have also came to realize that although CC enthusiasts often encourage parents to "trust the process" and to believe that CC plus math is enough to prepare a child for Challenge (something I told prospective parents for five years as a Director), children really need more than that, especially after second grade.
Here are some specific observations and thoughts about the CC Foundations and Essentials curriculum for ages 4-11.
- The Foundations memory work is presented out of context. Parents may, of course, dig deeper at home, and we tried to do that, but that is a lot easier in history and science than in skills such as grammar, Latin, and math. There is a lot of information that is committed to memory without any understanding at all. Just one year out of CC, my kids remembered almost none of it. Even the Latin memory work was little to no help to my children when they finally began learning Latin for real. I strongly recommend that parents drawn to CC for the memory work consider other programs such as Claritas or Invictus (both of which add context to the memory work), or Memoria Press (which draws memory work out of the lessons taught). And please start Latin in elementary school - it is very possible! If you use the CC memory work, be cautious to see if it is correct. There have been many errors over the years (see the six-page Foundations 5th edition errata sheet here and the fifteen-page EEL 5th edition errata sheet here). Although the errata sheets linked here now indicate many errors have been corrected in the Foundations Guide, most show a correction date of 2021, three years after the Foundations Guide 5th edition was published. Since most families buy one Foundations Guide for the duration, most families are working with one that still has the errors in it.
- The memory work is the same for all ages. When we first started, I thought that was wonderful because I could teach my children together. As a Director, however, I saw the youngest students in my program struggle to pay attention and sit still through lessons that just were not age-appropriate, even though I had amazing tutors who did the best they could with what they were given. I also saw older students get bored, students like my daughter, whose parents were "trusting the method" and not going deeper at home. I strongly recommend that students in fourth through sixth grade be given a robust science and history curriculum, as well as rich literature. I also recommend that younger students be given broad exposure to children's literature, the wonder of nature, the beauty of art and music, and especially to an understanding of the Scriptures. If your children memorize anything, let it be the Scriptures and rich prose and poetry more than out-of-context facts.
- The science experiences are light, and they are mostly taken from Janice VanCleave's 201 Awesome, Magical, Bizarre, & Incredible Experiments. Drawing lessons and art projects are probably the most fun part of Foundations, and the other quarters of fine arts are spent on learning the tin whistle and listening to orchestral music. None of these are bad, but they are also not difficult to duplicate at home. I strongly recommend Ambleside Online or Memoria Press for quality art and music appreciation, as well as simple nature study, and Under the Home for quality drawing lessons for all ages.
- Essentials was a welcome addition to our curriculum for our family because it felt like we were finally going deeper academically. However, we found that the CC grammar curriculum, Essentials of the English Language (EEL), was clunky and awkward. Students go through the same series of lessons for three years in a row, and parents are told that students would gradually learn more each year, or "tour". Our experience was that while the curriculum was more familiar after the first year, it was not easier to learn. I strongly recommend that parents look at an alternate grammar curriculum that is easier to use. Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind is extremely thorough and has a user-friendly teacher guide. English Grammar Recitation, from Memoria Press, is another option that is extremely simple to use and builds on itself from third grade through eighth.
- The writing curriculum from IEW, Institute for Excellence in Writing, is good, but it is hampered by the CC method of using it. Thirty lessons are crammed into twenty-four weeks, and like EEL, the same basic skills (with different themes) are repeated three years in a row. While my daughter did learn some good skills from IEW, he approach is very formulaic and not always easy to transfer to writing outside of the IEW context. After leaving CC, we tried Writing With Skill for a year and have now landed very happily in the Classical Composition series from Memoria Press. I highly recommend these two alternate writing curricula. If you want to use IEW, I strongly recommend using the full curriculum, not just the crammed-in version that CC uses.
History: Cycle 1, weeks 1 and 2 (Ten Commandments)
Science: Cycle 2, week 1 (days of creation); Cycle 3, week 20 ("The heavens declare the glory of God...")
Latin: Cycle 3, weeks 12-24 (memorizing John 1:1-7 in Latin and English; this is purely memorization, with no discussion of the content or even the grammar)
The Bible is used in a few other random ways throughout the Foundations and Essentials curriculum. There are optional Bible memory verses for each cycle. Directors are encouraged, but not required, to use these in their opening assemblies, but they are not part of any class time. Bible verses and sentences about Jesus are used in Essentials for the English Language to practice editing and to diagram, but not to be studied. The IEW materials used with CC do not include any Christian material, although they have some Bible-based writing that can be used as a substitute for lessons in Cycle 1 that discuss other religions.
If the Foundations and Essentials curriculum is not particularly Christian, what about CC is? Well, the company's owners claim to be Christians, and the mission statement is "to know God and make Him known." And Foundations tutors are taught to write "God" in the middle of the white board so students can see that all the memory work is related to God, but they are not really trained in any effective way to do that (trust me, I attended this training for five years). CC Inc. also claims to rely on Matthew 18 to guide them in conflict resolution. However, this passage has been misinterpreted by CC operatives to be used not between believers, as the Scriptural context demands, but between the customer and the CC corporation.
How "Christian" each individual program is depends greatly on the passion of the Director and Tutors to make it so, and it also depends on the customers who enroll.
If you are seeking a truly Christian curriculum, I suggest others that are much stronger in building a student's faith while learning academics - MasterBooks, Memoria Press, and Bright Ideas Press are some of our favorites.
Remember the section above, looking at how "Christian" CC is or isn't? It is not terribly "Christian" in the curriculum, but CC Inc. uses distinctly "Christian" language in their recruitment of Directors and host churches. They frequently refer to becoming a Director as hearing the call of God and as being on a mission, and they claim that "education" counts as "worship" and therefore falls under the mission of a church.
In actuality, nearly all CC-affiliated tutoring programs are not nonprofit ministries at all, but privately owned for-profit small businesses. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but the fact that most of these businesses, with the encouragement of CC Inc., operate solely in church facilities that are almost always exempt from paying property taxes, is one of the most troubling aspects of what ends up being the true cost of this community - because of the property tax exemption laws in most states, churches who allow their property to be used by for-profit businesses may be putting their own exemption at risk, and could be given a bill for thousands of dollars in property tax (as has actually happened). Furthermore, each CC "community" is not just one privately-owned business, but up to seven different programs (Foundations/Essentials, and up to six levels of Challenge), each under different ownership, and usually up to eight or more tutors Foundations and Essentials tutors who are usually business owners themselves.
Yes, most Foundations and Essentials tutors are paid as independent contractors instead of employees, in spite of the fact that they provide the key business activity for the Director's business, a point very much in favor of tutors needing to be hired as employees. These are only two of many points of legal and ethical concern that have been brought up lately in social media and even in two articles on the Julie Roys website (here and here).
While CC Inc. has begun to be more direct about the fact that Directors are, in fact, business owners, many Directors are woefully unprepared for the local, state, and federal requirements that accompany that role, especially those in charge of a Foundations/Essentials program. In addition to the question about how to classify tutors and whether or not the business's presence in a church could jeopardize its property tax exemption, there are issues of local business licenses, writing and using a local "statement of belief" as part of the "interview" process for prospective families, finding insurance, helping to set up a nursery for younger siblings without actually being in charge of it, advertising, and following CC "best practices" contained in the Director Licensing Guide - a guide that licensees aren't given until after they have already signed the licensing agreement.
Furthermore, because of how the CC business model is set up, CC Inc. is legally distant from its affiliated tutoring programs, meaning that any legal missteps or problems will fall solely on the shoulders of the homeschool mom running the program or on the church - without whom CC Inc. simply would not generate the income that it does. Many of those homeschool moms-turned-business owner will tell you they never set out to own a business; they just wanted to homeschool their own kids. The experience of many, however, is that the CC-affiliated business owner's own homeschool and family are the ones who often suffer from the demands of the "community".
The bottom line is that, no matter how great a "community" a certain CC-affiliated tutoring program may be, the existence of that community depends on a homeschool parent and a church being put at risk while a multimillion-dollar company pursues its business and financial goals. If you are considering becoming a licensee of CC Inc., I strongly recommend that you hire a lawyer familiar with business law and contract law in your state to go over the licensing agreement in detail with you, as well as the Director Onboarding Guide and the Director Licensing Guide, before you sign on the dotted line. (If the CC upline won't let you have those last two resources in advance to go over with your lawyer so you can set up and run your business with integrity, that should be a HUGE red flag.) Also, join the Facebook groups Let Us Reason For Real or Talk CC to hear from other former CC parents.
If you are a parent looking for true community for your children, I strongly suggest you look at local Christian nonprofit homeschool co-ops, community service programs such as American Heritage Girls or Trail Life USA, and especially your local church more than Classical Conversations.