A new charter-school management organization associated with Hillsdale College hired its first CEO last month.
Joel Schellhammer ’01 started as CEO of American Classical Education Inc. in January. The organization formed last year to oversee the creation of charter schools in Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, invited Hillsdale College to bring its Barney Charter School Initiative program to Tennessee to offer its support to charter schools.
“It was the right time in my career where I felt like I was able to spend time pursuing something I was passionate about,” Schellhammer said. “I’m delighted to have the opportunity to help build something that’s truly excellent.”
A 2007 graduate of Harvard Law School, Schellhammer previously served as chief strategy and innovation officer at NSF International, a product-testing company in Ann Arbor. He was also a student in the first class taught at Hillsdale by President Larry Arnn.
ACE is independent of the college, Chief Staff Officer Mike Harner said. As it does with charter schools throughout the country, BCSI will provide its services to ACE charter schools at no cost.
“It’s a separate entity,” Assistant Provost for K‑12 Education Kathleen O’Toole said. “It was formed to carry out the mission of our work in K‑12 education but it’s not a Hillsdale College entity.”
ACE is seeking to start schools in three Tennessee counties: Madison, Montgomery, and Rutherford. ACE has submitted applications to the local school boards, but none have been considered yet, Harner said.
“Our purpose is to start and maintain excellent classical-education-focused charter schools wherever we feel there’s a strong market for it, starting in Tennessee,” Schellhammer said.
Charter management organizations such as ACE allow a single board to manage groups of schools, instead of each school having its own board. This can improve efficiency and philosophical alignment, O’Toole said.
“Working with dozens of independent boards adds complexity,” College President Larry Arnn said. “One board simplifies. Simplicity is especially good when there is already inherent complexity.”
The CMO was deemed necessary after Lee invited Hillsdale to support charter schools in Tennessee, according to Harner.
Each charter school must seek permission from its local school board, according to Laine Arnold, communications director for Lee.
“While we would love to see many Hillsdale options in Tennessee, that will be entirely contingent on the independent approval process,” she said.
ACE’s schools will apply through “the same established and unbiased charter application” as any other school or CMO, according to Arnold.
“We have invited Hillsdale to undergo the application process in an effort to introduce another high-quality K‑12 public education option for Tennessee students,” Arnold said. “Hillsdale specializes in classical education which would be an exciting new option for Tennessee parents.”
Schools that affiliate with ACE initially will serve kindergartners through fifth-graders, adding a grade each year until they become K‑12 institutions, Harner said.
ACE’s board consists of nine members, four of whom are Hillsdale College employees, according to Harner. He added that the organization is looking for a headquarters in Tennessee.
“We have provided the initial capital to the CMO and nominated a minority of the board membership, but will never take money to the college from the CMO,” Arnn said.
The Barney Charter School Initiative will help ACE’s schools the same way it helps other charter schools. BCSI is a part of the college’s K‑12 Education Office, which supports private and charter schools across the country.
“There are already four CMOs in different parts of the country we work with,” O’Toole said, like Optima Foundation in Florida, Ascent Classical Academies in Colorado, and others. “The structure with ACE is not going to be any different.”
BCSI receives no funding from state governments or the schools it helps. Rather, its funding comes from supporters of Hillsdale, O’Toole said.
Before ACE, Hillsdale would wait to be contacted by a local group asking for support in starting a charter school. But with the Tennessee project, the partnership with ACE brings a way to be more proactive.
“It was necessary for us to be able to take action rather than just respond to requests,” O’Toole said. “We can drive it and ensure that these schools will be good schools. Until this point, we haven’t been driving.”
When BCSI agrees to help a school, it provides guidance on hiring, curriculum, and methods to create a favorable school culture.
“Initially, Hillsdale may provide certain logistical functions for this CMO free of charge because we are already doing them on a significant scale,” Arnn said. “But it is likely that the CMO will outgrow these as it matures and grows in scale.”
The three Tennessee schools are ACE’s focus right now, but Schellhammer said there is interest in potential future locations.
“We’ve had a tremendous response from communities across Tennessee, which is really exciting,” he said.
Arnn said it is important for Hillsdale to help open schools across the country.
“Anyone who knows beautiful things has a duty to share them,” he said. “Any charity requires support from the outside world, and the best and most honest way for a college charity to get it is to demonstrate the value of its work through sharing what it teaches.”
Arnn pointed to online courses, conferences, radio ads, and charter school guidance as ways the college shares what it teaches, adding “If we think of something else, we are likely to do it.”
“Take all this together, and one has an organism that can think, live, nourish, and breathe, no part working against the other, and therefore able to grow and thrive. That is what we work to achieve,” he said.
Schellhammer said he wants ACE’s schools to be places where Hillsdale graduates apply for jobs.
“Hillsdale has a tremendous pipeline of graduates, some of whom are looking to get into teaching and education,” he said. “We hope we can create schools that are attractive locations for students to consider as a next step.”
There are also jobs for graduates who are interested in marketing, business, and other positions.
“There are job opportunities all over the K‑12 outreach effort,” Arnn said. “One such is the head of the CMO, now a certain Joel Schellhammer.”
Schellhammer said ACE’s work is “an extension of the mission of the college.”
“It’s a lot of hard work to open and start a school,” Schellhammer said, “especially one that you want to be all the things that Hillsdale wants — the good, the true, and the beautiful.”