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Joel Schell­hammer | Michigan Col­leges Alliance

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.”