American Classical Academy Principal Phil Schwenk Hires Teachers ‘Who Care Deeply About Kids’

Live from Music Row Friday 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 in studio to discuss issues he encountered as a principal in the public school system.

Leahy: In studio, the principal of the American Classical Academy-Montgomery is here, as well as the original all-star panelist Crom Carmichael.

Now, Phil, if the Tennessee Public School Charter Commission approves the appeal, American Classical Academy-Montgomery will begin classes in the fall if that all works out. Which it should, if they’re paying attention to what will be taught and your background.

Now, you’ve taught in LA public schools for a long time. You were an administrator there. You did charter schools in LA. And then you’ve been for seven years. You were a principal in the Cleveland public school system.

Schwenk: That’s correct.

Leahy: And then you were recruited to open this Hillsdale-affiliated charter school, which you did for three years as a principal in Toledo.

Tell us a little bit about the problems as a principal that you encountered in the Cleveland public school system, dropout rates, and things of that nature. What were some of the issues?

Schwenk: Wow, that’s a big question.

Leahy: You got 60 seconds. (Laughter)

Schwenk: I’m going to start by saying it’s not the kids. Anybody who knows me knows I love kids. I love the kids in Cleveland.

Leahy: That comes across, by the way, this guy loves kids. You can tell. Working with them.

Schwenk: So usually it’s adults. So I would say that the problems that are going on there have to do with the struggle that’s going on with adults. So in Cleveland, a lot of the focus is on all the adults being taken care of. That’s how I put it.

I would say that about 30 percent to 40 percent of my conversation as an administrator was making sure that teachers were getting what was due to them according to the agreement with the district. Which isn’t why I went into education.

Leahy: You went to help the kids.

Schwenk: So I think if we would spend more time this is kind of a macro comment, just caring about kids and teaching kids and knowing what we’re teaching about, like being learned people and good people in front of kids, we’d have a lot more benefit to our kids.

Leahy: Now, the other thing that I want to know, in the public schools that aren’t charter schools, do they teach kids about American history today?

Schwenk: One, not thoroughly, and it’s usually a secondary or tertiary commentary on history. They don’t look at primary resources.

They’re not looking actually at the words of what people have said or done. I would actually say pretty quickly that, no, we do not do a thorough history in most of our schools.

Leahy: Crom has questions.

Carmichael: I’m really interested in your experience teaching in the government-run school systems where unions had a very large influence. And it sounds like you’re saying that you spent a very large amount of your time tending to the needs of teachers who felt that they weren’t being fairly treated or fairly paid or things like this.

I’m curious, in the Cleveland School District, for every teacher in the classroom, how many other employees were there in the whole system?

Schwenk: I don’t know the exact number, but if I remember correctly, about 30 percent to 40 percent of the funding went to the district.

Carmichael: It went to the teachers?

Schwenk: No, I’m talking about just the office.

Leahy: The downtown office basically, at the point is a lot of non-teachers were getting paid.

Schwenk: That’s evident without even knowing the numbers, you can just walk in the district.

Carmichael: Right. What I’m trying to get at is in the charter school in Toledo that you ran there, how many non-teachers did you have?

Schwenk: Our original year, we had one administrator. It was me.

Leahy: Okay, there you go.

Carmichael: And by the way, this gets to the question that if you want good teachers to be properly paid, then you limit the number of teachers or the number of administrators so that the money that’s going to the school system can actually go to the people who are doing the heavy lifting.

Leahy: And that’s one of the things when you do American Classical Academy-Montgomery, it’ll be you as an administrator.

Schwenk: Yes.

Leahy: And lots of teachers working with the kids.

Schwenk: Absolutely. We’d start with about 20 teachers in the first year.

Carmichael: And if a teacher is not performing to your standards in a charter school, you can remove that teacher.

Schwenk: Yes, they’re at will contract.

Carmichael: But in Cleveland and in California, you could not do that.

Schwenk: It gets pretty close to impossible. Yes.

Leahy: In Toledo, you’re three years of starting that public to school up, recruiting teachers was a challenge. And what about teacher retention? What was your experience there?

Schwenk: You’re talking about Toledo?

Leahy: Yes.

Schwenk: I started with, what, 20 teachers. One was not there the next year. And then the second year we had, I think, 27. And again, one.

Leahy: What’s the secret to your success and teacher retention?

Schwenk: Well, I’d actually start with who you choose. Meaning my number one question, and it sounds mushy, but it’s true. I need to find out if you care deeply about kids, and if you love kids. If you don’t, kids don’t deserve to have you in front of them. And I’m that upfront about it.

So if I can get a bunch of people who care deeply about kids and they know what they’re talking about and they want to model not only being a learned person, but a virtuous person, that person often is quite dedicated to the kids that they serve.

The other part, of course, is I see myself as a leader, as a servant, I serve them. The reason why schools are open or for kids, and then the primary servant to the child is the teacher in the classroom.

My job is to support those people. So I don’t see myself as some tyrant at the top. I’m actually kind of holding these people up and trying to make sure they have what they need to do the best they can.

Leahy: If the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission approves your appeal, that philosophy you just talked about, you will be able to implement that in your school up in Montgomery County. Crom, it would seem to me that if they care about the kids, they ought to say yes, emphatically.

Carmichael: I have a high level of confidence just listening because you’re the one who presented to the commission and perhaps other people, but you are included in it.

Just listening to Phil and seeing his compassion and the track record it isn’t just his compassion, it’s the track record that he has. I’m highly confident that the commission will rule in his favor. But it’s not surprising that our school board said no.

Leahy: And that’s the default where they don’t want the competition. Phil Schwenk, the principal of the American Classical Academy of Montgomery, we salute you for your outstanding career and for what you want to do to help kids in Montgomery County learn.

Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Phil Schwenk” by Northwest Ohio Classical Academy. Background Photo “Teacher and Students” by Arthur Krijgsman.

[Editor’s Note: American Classical Education is an advertiser in The Tennessee Star.]

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One Thought to “American Classical Academy Principal Phil Schwenk Hires Teachers ‘Who Care Deeply About Kids’”

  1. Molly

    I just hope the various education unions don’t throw too many roadblocks