Ep. 107: Cool Schools with Hope Academy

March 26, 2019

In this episode of Cool Schools, Director of National Research Mike McShane talks with Russ Gregg of Minneapolis’s Hope Academy. Almost 20 years ago, Russ started this faith-based, inner-city school after realizing he wanted his neighbors to have a better educational option.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats, and specifically, the Cool Schools Podcast. On today’s episode, we’re talking with Russ Greg, who is the head of school in Minneapolis’ Hope Academy. Hope Academy is an interesting school because it is a faith-based, classical education model inner-city school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We have a wide-ranging conversation about both how the school operates, its pedagogical strategy, plans for expansion in the future, lots to dig in in this podcast.

So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Russ Greg of Minneapolis’ Hope Academy.

So, maybe the best thing to do is start at the beginning. How did the Hope Academy get started?

Russ Gregg: About 27 years ago, my wife and I moved into an inner-city area of Minneapolis. And after living there for eight years and our children became school-age, we became aware of just a gross injustice here in the inner city. My neighbors were not just getting a mediocre education, but some of the worst education in the country.

As we thought about, “What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself,” we concluded it meant that all of the advantages and opportunities that we wanted for our own kids, we should want for our neighbors. And at that point, we had been driving our kids 10 miles across town to the wealthiest neighborhood, because we had the choice and the freedom to do that, something that my neighbors didn’t have. I became so convicted of that, that in the fall of 2000, I took the wild step to start a school for my inner-city neighbors. And because we wanted a faith-based option for our own children, we decided that that’s the kind of school that we should seek to start for our neighbors.

And so, in September of 2000, we started with three teachers, 35 kids in a church basement in the inner city of Minneapolis.

Mike McShane: And so now how many students do you serve now?

Russ Gregg: So today, so 19 years later, we’re serving 500 students. Seventy percent of them are from free and reduced lunch homes of poverty in grades K-12. We’ve had seven graduating classes already.

Mike McShane: So, now what makes Hope Academy unique?

Russ Gregg: Well, it’s a combination of three things, I think. So, it’s faith-based and it’s classical and it’s inner city. And so you can often find one or two of those things together, but it’s very, very rare to find all three of those operating together.

Mike McShane: So, can you talk to me a little bit about classical education? It seems to me something that is just gaining in popularity all across the country. How do you envision classical education, and what does that look like in your school?

Russ Gregg: Well, again, it goes back to the idea that we wanted to love our neighbor as ourselves. And so I had concluded that that’s the kind of education I wanted for my own children, mainly for three reasons. One was that it had a level of rigor that was missing from most of the educational options that I had seen. Another key part of it is that it was rooted in virtue formation or character formation, that that was just as important a part of the education as the academics, that we’re aiming at transforming the heart of students, and that we were using the greatest curriculum in the history of the world, the kind of curriculum that had withstood the test of time. And so kids were reading the great books and they were engaging in Socratic discussions about those materials. And so all of those are parts that we want to incorporate into educating inner-city children as well.

Mike McShane: Now I would imagine that maybe there was some pushback at the time, when you had this idea, or you meet some people with some skepticism today when you say … I mean it seems like in lots of places around the country, the dominant mode of inner-city schools, or a frequent pedagogical tool of inner-city schools, is kind of direct instruction. You hear of these kind of no excuses schools with very rigorous discipline. Again, I don’t see a lot of Socratic dialogue perhaps taking place in a lot of those schools. So, I was just wondering … So, why did you choose that particular model and, if there’s maybe skeptical people listening that says, “Oh no, that model could never work in the inner-city,” what would your response to that be?

Russ Gregg: Well, a couple of things. Mortimer Adler in his Paideia Proposal said a very intriguing thing. He said, “The education that’s best for the best is best for all.” It’s very provocative, isn’t it?

Mike McShane: Sure.

Russ Gregg: And we believe that we have to guard against the soft bigotry of low expectations for urban children. We fight against the idea that there are two standards, there’s a suburban standard of education and an urban standard. But what we found is just the opposite, that if we expect virtuous moral behavior from inner-city children that they rise to that. And that if we start to teach Latin beginning in the fourth grade and teach five years of Latin, that they actually rise to that and enjoy that. And if we teach the great books that, well, it’s a challenge. There’s no doubt about that. It’s not easily done. But most important things in life are not easy to do. They are a challenge. But that students are indeed capable of rising to that … So, we trace back to the idea of the image of God being recognized in all children.

And so, again, we don’t disrespect inner-city children by thinking that they’re incapable of rising to such standards.

Mike McShane: Russ, how do you measure success? How do you know that what you’re doing is working?

Russ Gregg: Well, I think on a number of levels. You know, one thing that I look at is the idea of retention in a variety of ways. I look at our students and families staying with us for the long term. We feel that our mission is really an eight- to 10-year mission. When your students are starting so far below grade level and you’re aiming to get them to college-ready by the end, you can’t do that in four years. It’s really an eight- to 10-year kind of mission, but you’re doing that with the most highly mobile group of families in the city. And so, retention is a huge piece to our success.

We look at retention of teachers, and we’ve been blessed with teachers that have really committed to us for the long term. And that makes a big difference. We look at retention of donors, because we take the typical financial model for an independent school where 90 percent of the costs are paid by parent tuition and then they fundraise 10 percent, we do what we call the “kingdom flip.” And so all of our parents have some skin in the game and contribute 10 percent of the costs, but then we fundraise 90 percent of the costs here. And we’re seeing an amazing retention of those sponsors or donors. Upwards of over 95 percent a year renew their support.

And so that’s one way of looking at it. Another thing I look at is joy, amazingly. I believe that school should be a joyful place. And so as I’m walking around, do I see students that are happy to be here, and teachers who are happy to teach here? And there’s a kind of joy in this place. I mean I look at things like college placement, and we’re finding that 95 percent of our graduates are being accepted at two- and four-year colleges.

Probably the thing I love the most are stories about heart transformation, because that’s, as I mentioned before, faith formation and character development are super important. And so, I get that from hearing amazing stories about the lives of our students that give evidence of that kind of faith formation.

Mike McShane: So, I’d be interested to know about your retention strategies. So, what are your retention strategies for students who, as you said, are highly mobile, and what are your retention strategies for teachers?

Russ Gregg: Ah, good question. I think among students, one thing in our upper school is about four or five years ago, we started a house system. If you think about Harry Potter, maybe that would give you some thoughts about that. But beginning in the sixth grade, every student in the upper school is assigned to one of eight houses for the remainder of their time here at Hope Academy. And those houses are led by the juniors and seniors. So, it gives them some authentic leadership roles, but it really connects students to the broader community in the high school. They have monthly feasts that they have to organize. They have a monthly tournament that they compete in, and again different things that connect them more firmly to the school community so that students again say, “I really enjoy and want to be at school at Hope Academy.”

Among teachers, you know I think probably the most important thing is, and this is going to be I think kind of strange for most schools, but we believe that building a faith community among the staff is crucial. So, we start every day with a time of devotions and prayer together. And that has the experience of really knitting us to one another, that you feel a very, very strong sense of family, both among the students and among the staff that tend to connect to us here for the long term.

Mike McShane: You mentioned earlier that all of the parents of your students have skin in the game. So, I’d be interested to know a little bit about your tuition model and how do you do that.

Russ Gregg: Yeah. Well tuition is actually only one part of it, in a larger sense. So, let me speak to both, is that we actually require all of our parents to sign a parent covenant of things that they’re committing themselves to do in support of their child at the school. So, we think instead of ignoring inner-city parents like most schools do, we actively work to engage and involve those parents.

And we go to some rather strange lengths to do that. For instance, in October of every year, we take three days where we don’t have classes, and on those days, all of our teachers reach out and do a home visit with every single family in their classrooms. So, for three days from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., they’re out there visiting every single family in their classrooms.

And so our families know that every year, their teacher’s going to come over to visit them. And the purpose of that visit isn’t to do a conference or to check in, it’s really to build a friendship with those parents. Because we believe that parents are our children’s first and most important teachers.

Another thing that we do is the parents are required twice a year to come to school on Saturday with their children. We call it “Parent Involvement Day.” And so from 9 a.m. to noon, every single parent is required to come on those two Parent Involvement Days. We take the first hour and a half or so to do a workshop for parents to equip them and build capacity and then to support their children. And then the second part, they get to go and do a classroom visit with their children and see what remarkable, God-centered education looks like so that they begin to love that and support that.

And then a third thing would be that we think that everybody’s got to have skin in the game. I often say to my parents, “Beware of anything that’s for free.” Right? I tell them, every day at about 2:00, I get a call on my cellphone saying, “Congratulations, Mr. Greg, you’ve just won an all-expenses trip to the Bahamas!” And I ask them, “Well, what do you think I do next?” Everybody says, “You hang up!”

That’s exactly right because everybody knows that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And so everybody’s got to have some skin in the game. So, what that means for our parents is that every year, we sit down a do a one-on-one tuition conference with every family, and we set their tuition for the coming year. And it ends up being roughly about 10 percent of their gross income. It’s something that’s doable for every family, but it opens the door for them to be able to have a remarkable faith-based education for their children that would otherwise be impossible.
But having some skin in the game is necessary for everyone to succeed.

Mike McShane: So, if you could hop in a time machine and head back to 1999 or perhaps early 2000, right as you’re beginning this endeavor, what advice would you give yourself? What lessons have you learned over this time period? Perhaps you learned the lessons the hard way, but if you could go back and give yourself some advice, what would you say?

Russ Gregg: Well, I think one of the biggest mistakes is the mistake of not starting. Right? To say the challenge is so big, particularly in … You know, about half the states of the country, they are not allowed to use public, taxpayer dollars to support faith-based schools. And so the idea, well then, therefore we can’t do anything. And what I’m wanting to advocate for is to say, “No no, there is a way forward. Instead of public dollars, you get private philanthropy.”

And so, for years, I avoided starting Hope Academy because I was fearful that there was no way … I knew that it would take millions and millions of dollars every year to give my neighbors in the inner city the same kind of education I wanted for myself. And I thought, well that’s just impossible. And instead, what I’ve learned over these last 19 years, it’s more than possible. This year, for instance, there’s $5 million of private philanthropy and support to make Hope Academy possible. And it just keeps happening year after year after year, with a lot of hard work. But I’d say that the biggest mistake I made was putting off the starting of the school out of fear that it couldn’t be done.

And I think maybe another mistake, or lesson that I have learned, is that the trust of the parents in the inner city can’t be assumed. It’s got to be earned. And so early on, I assumed that trust and was disappointed significantly until I learned that, really I haven’t given any reason, and there’s a whole lot of historical reasons to not trust a white male like myself in starting a school, and that I needed to earn that trust. And mainly through personal sacrifice on behalf of my families, that trust was slowly earned over time.

Mike McShane: So, now when you talk about cultivating private philanthropy, it sounds like you have, every year a heck of a lot of money to raise. So, I guess sort of two questions, is … How do you handle the stress and the worry of having to do that, and then how do you actually raise that money?

Russ Gregg: Well, I actually sleep very well at night. I’ve got a great team, for sure, that’s working with me to do this. But here’s the key is I believe that there is a huge amount of public goodwill out there of people that are regularly seeing in the newspaper and watching on television the crisis of inner-city education. And they want to do something about it. What they’re lacking is a vehicle that they believe is going to be successful in doing that. They’ve seen that just pouring money into a system isn’t going to move the needle. But when they find a school like Hope Academy that is genuinely moving the needle, where the students are achieving at three times the rate of their neighborhood schools, they’re just so thrilled that finally there’s something that’s going to make a difference in changing the generational cycle of poverty in the families in the inner city, and they’re actually delighted to get on board.

And so then the real difficulty is helping people to become aware of a solution like Hope Academy. And so, one of the things that we believe in is a “show-and-tell” model. And so, every month on the second Thursday of the month, we have what we call a “Tour of Hope.” It’s just a 59-minute tour that people can come over the lunch hour and come and see what we’re doing. They actually come and visit a classroom and see with their own eyes what this looks like. And they hear the story about Hope. They meet some of our high school students and hear from one of our parents. And by the end of that, they are just so convinced that there is a hopeful thing going on in the inner city that they want to get involved in some way.

And so I think last year we had something like 525 new visitors to come into the school. So, even as we continue to add more and more students, we are seeing success.

Another key piece of that, Mike, is what we call the partner model. And so we actually connect every donor up with the student that they’re helping. And a couple days a year, we have something called “Partner Day,” where those partners get to come for a couple hours and, as a part of that, visit with the student that they’re helping and have lunch with that student. And again, there’s a relationship that’s built there that’s made partners want to stay connected and help that student as long as they can.

I just met with one partner this week who was with two boys over a period of seven years. And now they’ve gone on to college, and he still is connecting with those students on a weekly basis, because he’s so invested in their long-term success.

Mike McShane: That’s wonderful. So, sort of in closing our time together, I’d be interested to look to the future. So, what does the next year hold, the next five years hold, the next 10 years hold? Are we going to see a Hope Academy North, South, East and West? Are we going to see growth within your own campus? What do you see in that kind of short, medium and long term?

Russ Gregg: Thanks, that’s a great question. There are really two large initiatives. It’s called “Growing Hope” and “Spreading Hope.” And so “Growing Hope” is enlarging our current campus to be able to serve 200 more students from the inner city. We’ve just raised about $8 million to build a second gymnasium and expand our cafeteria and add 10 more rooms to our current campus that will allow us to serve 200 more students at our current campus. That’s called “Growing Hope.”

At the same time, we’re in the process of raising $2 million to spread Hope Academy-type schools to other cities around the country. As Hope has become more and more of a national model, we felt that we had some responsibility to help other cities to develop their own Hope Academy-style school in their city. And so we started something called “The Spreading Hope Network.” You can look that up, you can Google that and get connected to that.

And so our goal is to start 10 more Hope Academy-style schools in major cities around the country over the next ten years. The first one started in Houston this fall, and we’ve got three more online to start this coming fall near Raleigh and Cleveland and Oklahoma City. So, Growing Hope and Spreading Hope are in the future.

Mike McShane: Well I can’t think of two better things than trying to grow hope and spread hope, so Russ Greg of Hope Academy, thank you so much for joining us on the Cool Schools Podcast.

Russ Gregg: My pleasure, thanks.

Mike McShane: Whew! I tell you, having to raise $5 million a year to keep a school going would probably set me a little more ill at ease than it did Russ, but I appreciate the confidence that he has in his abilities, and the confidence that’s going on in his school.

There was so much to chew on in that podcast, I find myself Googling Mortimer Adler to learn a little more about what that gentleman had to say. But I think there was a lot to think about both faith formation, forming young people, academic preparation, and the intersection of all of those. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did.

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