For the first time in three years, Hillsdale group didn’t apply to open a charter school in Tennessee

Two people sit at a wooden desk holding pens and writing on paper. A wood wall and part of a flag in the background.
Dolores Gresham, a former Republican state senator from Somerville, chairs the board of American Classical Education, a charter school group scheduled to open two schools in Tennessee this fall. (Photo courtesy of State of Tennessee) (Image courtesy of State of Tennessee)

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After gaining approval last year to open two charter schools in Tennessee in 2024, the group associated with Michigan’s conservative Hillsdale College did not apply to open another one in 2025.

Nine applicants met the state’s Feb. 1 deadline to submit proposals to open a charter school for the 2025-26 school year.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools received six applications, the most of any district, while Memphis-Shelby County Schools received two, and Rutherford County Schools got one.

But for the first time in three years, Hillsdale-related American Classical Education was not among the applicants.

Dolores Gresham, a former state senator who chairs the group’s board, said Monday that American Classical is focused on opening its first two schools in Madison and Rutherford counties. Both were approved last year in contentious votes.

The pause slows the once-aggressive growth plan of American Classical, which last year identified five growing suburban communities as a potential home to one of its schools. The network is seeking to change the face of Tennessee’s 100-plus charter school sector by introducing a different kind of teaching model and targeting different student demographics.

The group drew national attention in 2022 after Gov. Bill Lee endorsed Hillsdale College’s approach to K-12 education and invited its leaders to apply to open at least 50 charter schools across Tennessee that align with his conservative beliefs regarding civics and history.

But the Hillsdale-related network, American Classical Education, withdrew its first three applications later that year amid public outrage over Hillsdale President Larry Arnn’s comment that teachers are “trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

In 2023, American Classical applied again, this time to open schools in Madison, Maury, Montgomery, Robertson, and Rutherford counties.

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Rutherford County’s school board was the only one to approve the network’s application, and that campus is on track to open this fall.

American Classical appealed the denials from Madison and Maury counties to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, which overturned the Madison County decision and authorized the Madison Classical Academy after the network failed to come to terms with Jackson-Madison County Schools.

Madison Classical officials have since “exercised their option to delay opening for one year to the fall of 2025,” said Hayden Pendergrass, a commission spokesman, on Monday.

A network spokesman said the delay was appropriate, since the appeals process for the West Tennessee school consumed most of 2023.

According to the state education department, the nine applications received by this month’s deadline to open a charter school in 2025, as well as the districts they’re seeking to partner with, are:

  • Novus SMART Academy (K-8) — Rutherford County Schools
  • Encompass Community School — Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Journey Northeast Academy — Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Nashville School of Excellence — Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • LEAD Cameron Elementary — Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • LEAD Southeast Elementary School — Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Nurses Middle College Nashville (9-12) — Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Memphis Grizzlies Prep STEAM School For Girls — Memphis-Shelby County Schools
  • Blueprint College and Career Prep — Memphis-Shelby County Schools

In addition, the charter operator for an existing state-run school applied to return to Memphis-Shelby County Schools next year as it exits the Achievement School District. Wooddale Middle Schools has been managed by Green Dot Public Schools as part of Tennessee’s ASD, but the group’s 10-year charter is set to expire.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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