@body:Through the years, Speier's baseball career took him to five different ball clubs. The end came in San Francisco, when a nagging herniated-disk injury, combined with the mental grind of so many major league seasons, forced him to consider retirement. "I had gotten to the point where my back had limited me," he says. "As a player, you know. You were once able to get to certain balls you can't get to anymore. You're fouling pitches back that you used to hit. I could see the ability go. "That's frustrating, when the mind tells you to do something and the body's just not reacting."

Speier says that proper rehab for his back could have allowed him to play for another year or two. "But I was mentally ready to get out of the game," he says. At the time, he was not sure what he was ready to get into. Speier worked for the Giants as a roving infield instructor for a time after leaving the game as a player. Chris and Aleta Speier had settled with their children (they would eventually have six) in Scottsdale in 1984. They began meeting with a group of other parents who had begun to discuss the education of their children. About 20 families were in that group. Some had been sending their children to existing parochial schools, others were home-schooling. All felt a need to be more involved with their offspring and to educate them "in a deeply Catholic environment," Speier says.

Meetings were held over a period of several years, as the group studied other private schools around the country and brought in guest speakers. By the spring of 1991, a decision had been made to open Ville de Marie's doors the following fall. Speier, whose baseball earnings would allow him to spend time on such a project, was drafted to lead the effort to form the school, and to eventually become its top administrator.

"I bucked it and didn't really want to do it, but I realized at that time that God wanted me to do it.

"I was basically ramrodded into it," he says, smiling. "At the time, there was so much work to be done."
@body:Desks and other supplies were bought at auction; blackboards were still on the classroom walls in the converted elementary school the parents chose for the school's location. Although the budget allowed for only two full-time teachers the first year, five were needed. Several parents were recruited to teach in trade for tuition credits.

The full-time teachers were recruited from "small orthodox Catholic colleges," Speier says. "We wanted to make sure the teachers were practicing Catholics, in complete agreement with the church of Rome." For the first year, three grades were taught together in each classroom. This year, the school's second, two grades are housed in each classroom, and more full-time teachers have been hired. Grades kindergarten through tenth grade are taught, and plans call for grades 11 and 12 to be added in the next two years. Though enrollment now stands at 75, Speier says 90 pupils will be the school's eventual limit. Ville de Marie's curriculum, as guided by a committee of parents, is partially based on the Great Books approach, promoted since the early 1950s by the Chicago-based philosopher, sage, writer and encyclopedia editor Mortimer Adler. The system draws on the collected wisdom displayed in the 100 or so greatest books in Western culture. The list starts with Homer, and runs through Milton, Shakespeare, Locke and dozens more. Students study math via the writings of Euclid; science through reading Newton, Copernicus and others. A few colleges around the country have adopted the Great Books approach, and Ville de Marie has successfully recruited as teachers graduates of those schools. "We wanted to make sure that the kids got the best of what's available," says Speier. "By best I don't mean what's prevalent." @rule:

@body:Of all the Great Books, one in particular gets the most attention. The first and most important class of the day at this school is theology, and the classes that follow are taught "in conjunction with the formation of the spirit, teaching the truths of our church," Speier says. Religion, he says, "permeates the curriculum."

"Probably the biggest selling factor was the spirituality of the school," says one parent. "The whole atmosphere is very God-centered."
Every Friday, students and staff attend Mass at the nearby Our Lady of Perpetual Help. And the school demonstrated and prayed as a unit in front of a Planned Parenthood office on the recent 20th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling by the Supreme Court. "The kids are very aware of the pro-life side, and very anxious to pray for those people," says Speier.

As versed as the students are in Scripture, they're less exposed to state-of-the-art classroom technology. Though computer terminals have become highly fashionable accouterments in most public and parochial schools, Ville de Marie's classrooms don't have a single PC. "I don't think we'll ever be in the position where we'll have all the doodads that public schools have," says Speier.

"I've never seen a kid who couldn't learn a computer in very short order," says dad Rich Eneim. "If they're learning how to think on their own and not learning the computer at this point, we're not worried about that."
Parents all but dismiss other potential problems: The academy is neither accredited, meaning the teachers aren't certified by the state and various public-school classroom standards are unmet, nor is it affiliated with the local diocese. The school's accreditation status could create problems for students who transfer out and for college-bound graduates. "We're looking into that, but it's not important," says Speier of accreditation. "Parents do ask about it, but we feel that students will do well enough on their SATs and well enough in their interviews to get into college." He adds that similar academies around the country have had little trouble placing their graduates into colleges.

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