Three times, the proposed Hill Pointe charter school has tried to rent, lease, or buy empty school buildings — two in the Grosse Pointes, one in St. Clair Shores.
Three times, Hill Pointe has been turned down, for reasons that include competition with local public and private schools for a dwindling youth population.
But the president of the school’s founding board intends to intensify the effort to establish the conservative “virtues” curriculum of “classical” education that is spreading across the United States under the direction of Michigan’s Hillsdale College.
“We are at a pivotal time relative to finding a building,” said Murray Sales. “We have finalized a strategy. We will be executing on that strategy within the next 60 to 90 days. You should pay attention. It’s going to be interesting.”
Although not threatening a lawsuit, Sales added that a change of tactics is needed.
“We’ve tried to do this with sugar and honey,” he said. “We’re still going to be diplomatic. But we’re just going to bring it more to the fore.”
Sales and other board members presented a brisk, upbeat, pep talk for Hill Pointe last week at the St. Clair Shores public library. He wore khaki slacks, casual shoes, and a button-down shirt of small checks, red and white.
Standing alongside him was another board member, Kelly Boll, who said she used to teach English and Latin for 14 years at University Liggett, a private school in Grosse Pointe Woods.
She wore white slacks and a blue T-shirt that displayed the words “Hillsdale College” above the American flag. In conversation with about a dozen spectators, Boll said Hill Pointe would ban use of social media in class.
“Bell-to-bell, no cell,” she said. “No tablet learning.”
As for student attire, she said, “We would wear uniforms. We all wear white and blue.”
Hill Pointe board members, Boll said, have traveled to Hillsdale for training.
Charter schools use public funds but are run like private schools. Some use teaching methods pushed by Hillsdale, a small, private, Christian school in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula near Ohio and Indiana.
Hillsdale enjoys powerful clout in right-wing politics and in the current debates now raging over the teaching of the racial history of the United States.
Its critics consider Hillsdale a wolf in sheep’s clothing, contending it promotes Christianity and white nationalism under a “virtues” disguise of what it touts as “excellence, courage, gratitude, humility, respect, honesty, and wonder.”
Hill Pointe counters that — under Hillsdale’s direction — it will provide a “classical” education based on Greek and Roman culture and the Socratic method. Students will learn critical thinking along with phonics and cursive handwriting. They might study the Iliad and the Odyssey in grade school.
Sales said public and parochial schools falsely fear charter schools as competitors for a dwindling supply of students.
“We want to be complementary,” Sales said, “not competition.”
Originally hoping to open this fall, Hill Pointe’s new start target is 2024. Organizers say they have about 200 students signed up for kindergarten through fifth grade and that they will add one grade each year. But if they don’t soon find a home, they might not open until 2025.
A parochial school in St. Clair Shores, St. Lucy, turned down a Hill Pointe bid, Sales said, as did Trombly school in Grosse Pointe Park and Poupard school in Harper Woods, both part of the Grosse Pointe public district.
The Trombly building is still a primary target for Hill Pointe, Sales said. He added that critics of Hill Pointe are misinformed about the Hillsdale curriculum.
“A lot of people want to make this a political issue,” Sales said. “Hillsdale can be a lightning rod.”
That is in part because Hillsdale is closely tied to the Republican Party, to the controversial Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court, and to conservative news media.
When the New York Times published its “1619 Project” that forced readers to consider American history from a Black point of view, Hillsdale president Larry Arnn fought back by leading the “1776 Commission” for then-President Donald Trump.
That commission’s “1776 Report” downplayed the significance of human slavery and was attacked by historians. Much of Trump’s report makes up Hillsdale’s 1776 curriculum for K-12.
Both versions of American history — 1619 and 1776 — are now taught in some schools. Certainly Hill Pointe has made its choice.
“If you really believe in all the tenets of the 1619 Project, our school is not yours,” Sales acknowledged. “This isn’t the place you want to send your children.”
He also said Hillsdale gets a bad rap on race because “they pushed back on affirmative action 30 years ago.” In addition to acknowledging the injustice of slavery and racism, he said Hill Pointe (with Hillsdale guidance) also will teach what he called “American exceptionalism.”
“I know that upsets people,” Sales said. “But, in history, we want them to understand the good and the bad.”
He said all the talk of “virtues” in the Hillsdale curriculum for “American History and Civics Lessons” is not just a clever cover for religion and jingoism.
“Virtues were around before Christ walked the Earth,” Sales said, adding that the Greeks and Romans “knew how to build a society.”
Sales offered quick, detailed answers to most questions. He’s heard them before, he said. But he expressed interest in one he said was new to him:
How would Hill Pointe teach Darwin’s theory of evolution? A century ago, that was a big issue in education, religion, and law. Might it still be?
“I don’t know,” Sales said, promising to research the question.