Parnassus Prep Opens in Maple Grove

Parnassus Prep charter school opens its doors to an alternative learning environment.
Randy Vetsch, Parnassus Prep's principal, speaks alongside the school's founder Laura Bottenfield during a summer meeting at Grace Fellowship Church.

A working mother with two young children felt trapped in Maple Grove. Laura Bottenfield couldn’t find the right school for her now 11-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. She sought a school with a more challenging curriculum than those offered at traditional public schools, yet she wasn’t willing to shell out thousands of dollars in tuition to an elite private school. “There weren’t any options in the northwest metro,” Bottenfield says of her 2008 search for an alternative. “I was feeling stuck. If I was feeling stuck, there must have been other people out there that were feeling stuck.”

The executive at a financial services firm took it upon herself to establish a charter school in Maple Grove, one which offers any student the chance to learn within what is known as a classical trivium plan.

After three years of work, Bottenfield’s vision becomes reality this month with the opening of Parnassus Preparatory School in Zachary Square. About 250 students will be in the first group to take advantage of the new education option. Students from kindergarten to eighth grade will travel to Maple Grove from Minneapolis, St. Michael and cities in between. “I’m extremely excited,” Bottenfield says. “It shows that I’m not the only one looking for an alternative.”

Maple Grove parent Greg Friess, who has enrolled his two sons, Jacob and Ryan, says he still supports public schools, but that Parnassus will provide another option – and one with a more rigorous curriculum. “It was definitely interesting to me to get them really challenged in school,” says Friess, who also sits on the school’s board of directors.

In 2008, Bottenfield’s son, Lucas, was giving his teachers a hard time. The then 7-year-old was inattentive and acting out. The behavior wasn’t what he displayed at home, she says. She traveled to Fort Collins, Colo., to see if a top-flight school there could provide the framework for the alternative she sought for Lucas and her daughter, Larissa. “There is something different happening at those schools,” she recalls of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Colorado. “There is the cliché that these students love to learn, but it’s true. … I came home thinking this is what I want for my kids.”

The differentiation of the Colorado school and others is the classical trivium curriculum, a three-step approach focusing on grammar from kindergarten to fourth grade, rhetoric from fifth through eighth grade and logic in high school. (Parnassus plans to add ninth grade next school year and is set to add a grade each year until it becomes K-12.)

The grammar stage goes beyond language to the foundation of each subject, Bottenfield says. It will include phonics, history, literature, the facts of math and science and foreign language. There is an emphasis on memorization. “The whole idea is you start by laying the foundation of education to allow the students to have more complex and analytical thinking later on,” Bottenfield says.

To become a licensed charter school, Parnassus needed support from a third-party authorizer to then seek approval from the Minnesota Department of Education. Parnassus applied to Friends of Education and became the 17th school the non-profit represents.

Beth Topoluk, director of charter schools at Friends of Education, says the only other charter school in Minnesota solely offering the trivium plan is Nova Classical School in St. Paul, another school Friends of Education authorizes. Bottenfield says she looked into having her children attend Nova, but the waiting list exceeds a few hundred.

Topoluk knows why: Trivium is an exceedingly unique curriculum that can be part of the solution to help improve the nation’s lagging education system. “It forms a knowledgeable student prepared for the 21st century,” Topoluk says. “It’s a pyramid effect in that having this background knowledge in so many areas enables the students to evaluate and see the connections and the relations and be that innovative, creative entrepreneur that we in Minnesota and the nation desire and need.”