Live from Music Row Tuesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Principal Phil Schwenk of American Classical Academy Montgomery, who discussed charter school curriculum and the process by which the school is preparing to open.
Leahy: We welcome to our newsmaker line right now Mr. Phil Schwenk, who is a founding principal of several charter schools and is now scheduled to be the principal, I believe, of American Classical Academy Montgomery. Good morning, Mr. Schwenk. How are you?
Schwenk: Good morning. I’m well. Thanks for having me.
Leahy: We’re delighted to have you on the program. Tell us a little bit about your background. It looks like you founded a couple of charter schools as the founding principal, I guess most recently up in Northwest Ohio. Tell us about your experience doing that.
Schwenk: Sure. Yeah. In 2019, I opened up Northwest Ohio Classical Academy, which is a BCS, Barney Charter School …
Leahy: And Barney Charter Schools, tell our listeners what Barney Charter Schools are.
Schwenk: Sure. They’re schools that have an affiliation with Hillsdale College. Basically, these are schools that are based in classical concepts and classical curriculum.
They’ve been around for just over 10 years, and the basic idea is to bring classical education to any kid who wants to have access to it. So it’s a public, free education, where children have access to a wonderful classical education.
Leahy: So it looks like you’ve become sort of a specialist in founding, organizing, and getting these charter schools up and running and off the ground.
Schwenk: (Chuckles) I don’t know if I’m declaring myself a specialist, but I’ve done it, and I’ve done it well before. The schools have done well. But yes, I’ve been in the charter world for close to 20 years.
Leahy: You are going to be a principal with American Classical Academy – I believe you’re going to be a principal in Montgomery County, which is one of the three counties where American Classical Education, the nonprofit that kind of is the overall parent organization for these charter applications, is that where you’re scheduled to be the principal?
Schwenk: Yes, in Montgomery and Clarksville.
Leahy: Great. And for the American Classical Academy Montgomery, the application was submitted to the Montgomery County School Board. They denied it.
And then on Friday, there was a hearing in Clarksville before the Tennessee Public School Charter Commission, which has the ability to approve appeals. How did that go up there?
Schwenk: From our perspective, it went very well. I think we were very transparent about the work we’d like to do with the families in Montgomery County. I think we were quite proud of what we had to say. We’ve been talking about our application for a while now.
Obviously, there was some pushback that – some of that being of a political nature – but I think it went pretty well. Obviously, with these types of things, you have to kind of wait around and see how it plays out.
Leahy: Well, yes. And it seems to me there seems to be a huge growth up in Montgomery County, just on the northwestern edge of Metro Nashville in the Clarksville area. It would seem to me – I don’t quite understand why the school board there doesn’t embrace you with open arms and say, we need all the help we can get, go ahead and go get them.
Schwenk: Yes, well, we certainly agree. The numbers are growing faster than the district in match. And obviously, our schools would not only be giving parents an option, a type of education they want to have for their kids, but we’d be helping the district in the community with classrooms and teachers for kids, and a growing number that the district can’t match. So, yes, agreed.
Leahy: If the appeal is approved by the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, you’ll be up and running, what, K-5, K-6 there in the fall, is that right?
Schwenk: Yes, K-5, and 7-12.
Leahy: And how many kids do you think will be enrolling there?
Schwenk: We’d like to start with about 340 to 380 students.
Leahy: And how many teachers will you have?
Schwenk: That would be around 20 teachers. It’s about 20 teachers.
Leahy: That’s a lot to put together in a relatively short period of time, and you’ve got to get a building and all that sort of stuff. How’s that all developing?
Schwenk: It is, but it’s going well. We’ve been doing work, looking for facilities for a while now. Joel Schellhammer, our executive director, has been doing that, and we have some very promising leads on that. As far as getting the numbers, what’s been very evident to me in all the communities, including Clarksville, is that there’s a significant demand for this.
Getting 340 students, I don’t think is as difficult as it may sound. Obviously, in an environment now where there’s been a bit of a teacher shortage across the country, there are a lot of people that have a concern about that.
But what’s unique about classical education, especially in the public realm, is there are a lot of teachers that are quite interested in it. We are attracting teachers to it because of its difference in what it believes in and does.
Actually, I guess it’s a different problem, but it’s a problem that I’m confident that we could solve. Finding 20 quality, excellent teachers, I think is a very doable thing.
Leahy: Yes, it’s quite a challenge for you to do that, I would think. Generally speaking, if somebody lives up in Montgomery County and they want to enroll or learn more about American Classical Academy, Montgomery, where do they go?
Schwenk: I think the simplest thing to do is just basically put in “American classical education” and input, just like, Clarksville. And boom, it will take you right to the website.
Leahy: I’m going to go to Google. I’m going to do this in real time. American classical education. And then Montgomery. So those listening, American classical education, and then Montgomery County.
And we’ve done the Google search here, and there you go. American Classical, Montgomery County, it comes right up. So tell us about the curriculum.
Schwenk: It is a traditional classical education. It is fantastic. It’s based on, really two focuses. Our desire is that our students come out and are intellectually sound, that they’re competent, literate, able to read, write, speak, mathematically compute, those types of things.
But just as important, we want students who graduate, that eventually make their way through our curriculum, that are good, they orient themselves to be good and decent human beings, people of character and virtue.
They can be participants in a larger citizenry. We do that in many ways. We think that at the root of education is wonder and joy and rigor and this idea that learning is a struggle, but it should be a wonderful and joyous struggle.
We do this by putting teachers in front of them that model what we expect not only in learning but in the way that we live. And we do this on what I call the shoulders of the giants, the people who came before us.
We recognize that there’s a heritage that we’ve inherited of some deep thinkers that take on some significant questions, like who am I? Why do I matter? What is this that I exist?
And it’s our desire to bring students, align with deep thinkers, and be able to have part of a conversation and a voice with those thinkers. So it’s kind of a macro level of what we do.
Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:
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