On this episode of Anchored, Jeremy is joined by Joe Higgins, former CEO and founder of Leman Academy of Excellence. Higgins shares how he used his entrepreneurial experience to help start six classical charter schools. Jeremy and Joe dive into the disconnect between pro-school choice state legislators and the anti-school choice bureaucracy, and the two also discuss Higgins’ Ethos Logos Partners Classical Curriculum and how it provides a way to connect history and dinner table conversations.
Today’s episode of Anchored is brought to you with support from America’s Christian Credit Union. Find out how ACCU can be the banking partner to your school or family by visiting americaschristiancu.com/CLT.
Welcome back to the Anchor Podcast. Folks, I am excited today to welcome CEO Joe Higgins as one of the founders and CEO of Fossus Management. Joe was the driving force who put together the team and executed all aspects of operation expansion and the regulation of the Lehman Academy of Excellence-branded classical charter schools. In 2018, Joe left the position of CEO of the fastest growing charter network in the West.
After opening six campuses in Arizona and Colorado over a period of four years, the Lehman Academy Joe oversaw the building of a staff of 425 employees and 4,500 students enrolled pre-K, the eighth grade. Under his leadership, the network doubled enrollment every year, achieved strong academic results and had a teacher retention rate of 90%.
He personally designed and oversaw the financing development of over $80 million in real estate. Lehman Academy is a BBB plus credit rated and is a sought after investment in the mutual bond market. Joe, welcome to the Anchor Podcast.
Well hey Jeremy, thanks for having me.
So I, so much to talk about today. And we have here at the CLT office and everybody's been fighting over it. Some of your, the rich materials that you sent our way. So thank you for that. We'll get into that in just a bit here. Joe, as we often do, I'm so fascinated with people's story, how they discovered this whole big, amazing, beautiful world of classical education. What is your story? What was school like for you growing up?
Sure, sure. So, I went through Catholic schools, K through 12, and I still serve on a Catholic prep high school in Arizona. So, I'm very involved and on for 15 years. My kids went through that. So, I'm a product of private Catholic schools. Kind of backed my way into the education world. Had all kinds of startups and turnarounds and I'm an entrepreneur. Ran for office in 2008, lost.
but that opened up a door to conservative talk radio on a Christian Salem One network drive time every day. We'd be on the air interviewing local stories, authors, politicians, senators, dog catchers, just really understood that game. So taught me a lot. During one of the interviews, one of the days, we got a phone call from a nationally renowned author who lives in Tucson and his name is Dr. Kevin Lehman.
And over the course of a number of more interviews, Kevin wrote the book called Birth Order back in the 80s, which is where you are in your family and how you turned out and
No kidding, I've been very fascinated with this concept. That's, Birth Order is the name of the book.
Yep, it came from Alfred Adler, originally.
Joe, where do you fall in birth order?
I'm a firstborn. So just to put a real cap on it, us firstborns are gonna run the world, fly to the moon, we're on time, we're moving. Babies are your salespeople, your comedians. They're having fun. And the middles are usually like, how do I get out of this crazy house and start my own life? So that's in a nutshell.
I am a very stereotypical youngest child. I learned this fun fact not long ago that 18 of the first 20 people to go to outer space, where do you think they would fall?
I would say first morns, but am I right? Yeah. Yep, yep.
First born, first born or only. And I take no offense as a youngest child, I'm like, nobody wants to get outer space with me, I get it, no harm, no foul. Interesting, interesting. So when did you get into thinking about starting classical schools?
So over getting to know Dr. Lehman, his story is, he was kind of a mess up all his life. And he does a 180 and changed his world. And I remember being on the air with him and interviewing him. And I, it was about five minutes left before the end of the show. And I said, well, you have this story. How did it change? What was the catalyst? What made you go from kind of mess up to nationally renowned author? And he said his wife took him to church and he found Christ. So I said, wow, there's some depth to this guy.
And from that moment on, we had breakfast and became friends. And he mentored me as a dad and as a boss and just as a friend. And one day over breakfast, he said to me, we're talking about how bad American schools are and lamenting all the issues that we see. This was 2014. And he said, I wish I get my books into schools. And I said, Hey, we're in Arizona. Have you heard of a charter school? And that was the beginning of that first idea.
He had experience with classical ed, so he brought that. I brought the business aspect to it. And we applied and got approved. And little by little, like the bio you mentioned said, we doubled every year and just everything worked. And it was kind of my job as the business guy to say, okay, why is this working? What is it about this formula? Because I've been in a lot of different businesses and they just never gel like this one had. And I spent a lot of time dissecting that, interviewing teachers.
looking at my talking to my parents and came up with a plan, which, which is the model that we're rolling around the country.
Okay, and how do you Joe, when you're talking to folks who maybe have just never heard of classical education, I always I like to ask our guests sometimes for somebody who just doesn't well, what is this? What is classical education? How do you give them a 30 second explanation?
I always say it starts back in the Rome and Greece with Aristotle and the Lyceum. It kind of got really refined and resurged back in the 1200s in French universities. And in America, you'll notice it a lot in the private Christian world back in the 1800s, 1900s. But it's basically a return to the benefits and the joys of Western civilization. The great ideas, the pursuit of the good, true, and beautiful. So that's the overarching elevator pitch. The specific is...
It's based on three, four, three styles of learning or types of learning, trivium, which is your grammar, logic, and rhetoric. And then four is the timeframe that we study is repeated from ancients to medieval to founding of America and finally modern. And we repeat that three times. So it's three, four, three. So that our kids, by the time they're in that K-12 system, they'll have seen each of these times three different events.
So one of the reasons I wanted to have you on the Anchor pod is that I'm really fascinated. You're this really unique, interesting combination of a great business mind with a lot of experience and a huge heart for classical education and wanting to see this movement scale. It's been interesting to me as someone who's new to the business world, I kind of discovered classical education and seminary about 10 years ago and really starting CLT, who is my first taste of kind of the whole business world. But there aren't...
too many folks who spend a ton of time thinking about both of these things. I think about somebody like Chris Perrin, a classical academic press, or Martin Cothern over at Memorial Press, and they're both immersed in thinking about, because part of how you scale this movement is by moving markets as well. It's how this movement becomes the new mainstream, hopefully in 20 years or so. It's a real gift and it's a huge need, I would argue, in the classical renewal
great business minds come into this movement. When you think back about this kind of explosive success that you had starting six classical charter schools over a very short period of time, do you look back over previous business experience? Were those things translatable to what you built there?
Totally. So I think God has a plan and a mission for all of us, right? So I've been opening small businesses for the last 14, 15 years. I had a chain of cell phone stores in a couple of states. I opened nine haircut stores. I've had real estate development, a small retail center. So each of these things were new and are stretched and they were hard, but I learned from every one of them. So finally, when I got into this classical model,
Well, first I had to understand it nuanced details of it. But most importantly, from day one, I'm trying to figure out how do we replicate systematize and what is the secret sauce that is giving us our success. So everything from what kind of wax do we do on the floor to how do we key every door to the curriculum of course, which is the roadmap of what we're learning, staffing, teacher training, teacher hiring, what's working, what's not working. So I kind of came in with fresh eyes from the business world saying, how do we systematize?
this 2500 year old model to apply in various places. So kind of unique in, you know, I'm not from the education world. I went back and got my masters and I've written a few books on this topic and some of the nuance of it, but I came in with a mind of how do we systematize and make this simple?
Is the tipping point, is that Malcolm Gladwell? Is that right? When you just look at the classical ed movement and where it is now, maybe even compared to where it was 10 years ago, do you feel like we're on the threshold or maybe we're already there? I mean, I just think in the short window that we've been doing CLT, we launched in 2015. I feel like back then, like most people, we were always explaining even like what is classical? Oh, there's classical schools. I've never heard of this. Now it's like everyone has a reference point. Everybody knows.
you know, their niece or nephew or somebody's like in a classical school or they're doing classical conversations. What do you think? I mean, are have we hit the tipping point? Are we close?
I feel like we are, but we're in it so deeply, right? But every time I, in the beginning, I would say classical ed and it kind of went over people's mind, I'd have to say, okay, you've heard of Montessori, you've heard of project-based learning, or you've heard of STEM, it's a model, and then I'd explain it and they'd get it. I don't have to do that anymore, so I would say yes there. A lot of that came around, I think, from the charter school movement, some of the great hearts out of Phoenix. We had our, we were in Colorado and Arizona. I think that's a part of the discussion.
But then I'm kind of running into this political buzz saw trying to open these charters around the country. So that movement has slowed a bit. But I think that, like I'm talking about North Carolina this week and I'm working with a high school that's opening a private Christian high school. And then we're working on a charter in the K-8 model. So the people are picking the model because they know the model works. And as goofy and as scary and as weird as our national politics continue to be.
there seems to be a rush back to or a look for or a harking back to what used to work. And what we used to work and what I think I was, I don't think I was in a formal classical model in my Catholic schools, but I was in a model rooted in values and virtues. I was in a model that read the great works of literature and work from a grammar stage with your basic facts built upon that up into rhetoric and oratory. So I think what classical ed signals to families and tells families is,
It's going back to what used to work before it got all kind of crazy. So I think we're at a tipping point. I hope to be part of pushing that tipping point as do you. That's why we originally connected cuz it's what the country needs.
Yeah, well, let's talk politics. We kind of avoid politics on the Anchor podcast here, but we'll at least talk about politics in terms of school choice for a few minutes here. This is interesting to my wife to teach her America. She was a, it's kind of our joke that I got to start the standardized test because she was the smart one. We got married, you know, class president went to the University of Virginia and all of this, but she did teach for
Now, is she first born?
She acts more like a first born, but she's also the youngest. Yes, she's the youngest. But when she did Teach for America back in 2004, they were pretty pro-school choice. They were very pro-charter, magnet. It seems like 20 years ago, this was not such a partisan issue. It seems like red states are pretty much, not totally.
Is she really? Wow.
You've still got a lot of establishment, you know, Republicans that are pushing back on school choice, but most of the support energy seems to be from Republicans and that it's becoming more divided along partisan lines. Can you give us a little bit of like a history of, I mean, is that accurate? 20 years ago, was it more bipartisan?
Yeah, yeah, totally. Yeah, so Arizona and Florida are one of the first two states. I think Florida was the first to charter and this back in 98, 99. If you remember, President Obama got elected and brought in Arne Duncan, who had massive success in Chicago in her schools with school choice. So there was this real push and resurgence and move towards options and one size does not fit all.
We kind of caught the tail end of that as we grew our network in Arizona and Colorado. But, you know, the shift happened in 2017, 2018 cycle. You had President Trump and Betsy DeVos in office. I don't know if it was a national decision or if the powers that be that are kind of in the public education world looked at this movement that was coming and injecting competition into the marketplace. Parents were moving and picking. And
What I see happen is through the regulatory process, through the approval process, through the expansion process, there's been a concerted effort, even in red states, where things have just stopped. I mean, slowed down to a stop. To give you some examples, I've been through the Texas application four times and failed each time for various reasons. I've tried in Florida three times. I've tried in Arizona once and that didn't work through. Nevada, Indiana, I mean, it is like a light bulb got turned.
And what happens is in the application bureaucracy process, too big, too small, not a good I mean, they just find some reason in this opaque kind of process to say yes or no. So when I talk to legislators in Texas or in Arizona, like, yeah, we're school choice and everything's great. And then you look at the industry, you look at the movement, the lenders aren't lending, contractors aren't building, architects aren't happening. It has slowed down. So now if you're in the business, if you're in a network like a Great Hearts or
basis or us, you can expand usually, but just the new entrance and the new ideas and the new families coming in to say, let's do something in our local neighborhood, that's been shut down. Now, when there's an action, there's a reaction, right? When it gets too easy, you know, maybe some bad operators come in when it gets too hard, what the school voucher conversation that's happening around the country, I think is a direct reaction to the demand of families now to.
find a better solution for their kids. And I think you have nine or 10 states that have passed some form of voucher law, Arizona being the first, Florida, North Carolina, where I'm at now. And what that is just kind of a, hey, we're gonna fund the family and let them pick. Maybe it's Catholic, maybe it's Christian, maybe it's private, maybe it's homeschool, maybe it's a charter, the money follows the child. That's a big movement that I think the classical groups that we are involved in have a tremendous opportunity
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it's a we've talked about this with a couple guests, but it's an odd mix of kind of bedfellows where you've got some of the more, you know, uber progressive folks that say not a penny of taxpayer funding should ever go to any Christian school. And you've got other folks, you know, more on the far right that say, ESA is are going to be more government regulation government saying what is and what isn't a
a school, what gets to qualify as a school or not. I mean, in some ways like this, the complexity is so immense and so deep. The more I learn about it, the more, in two ways like the less optimistic I get that we're gonna make serious progress.
Keep in the back of your mind, Jeremy, you're a parent. You've got five, six kids. I'm a parent. I sacrificed to put them through private schools. We drove old cars and we put our kids in Catholic schools. That sacrifice, parents are the ultimate consumer, right? And parents are also the voters. So if you poll school choice and if you poll charter or just choice in general, it's up in the 60s with Republicans and 70s or 70s with Republicans, high 60s with Democrats. So it's a bipartisan issue. And what's happening is,
You know, there's powerful interests that are kind of losing out and they're saying, look, we don't want this to happen. And they're using every mechanism rent seeking, they call it, to make sure it doesn't expand and continue. Well, the market always finds a way. Parents are going to continue to put on pressure to elected officials. You know, it's going to show up at ballot boxes over and over and over. And I think it's going to unleash and unloosen. And that's why I stay in the game, even when I push that rock.
Okay, okay. That's good. I mean, I can't think of another issue that pulls. I mean, even in inner city, you know, minority communities, school choice pulls in the low 70s. And the fact that they continue, that we continue to like anti school choice politicians is wild. And, you know, one, somebody explained it to me, well, that the problem is that it has never risen to the level of urgency as some other issues. But that with
COVID and in terms of the glimpse everyone had into America's school system, it's finally rising to like that level where maybe things will actually change. Joe, want to shift gears here. Again, we've all been looking at this at the CLT office here in Annapolis today. I love your materials, ethos and logos. Tell us about your work on the curriculum front. So your charter schools, they're using this, I assume.
This is our model. This is where we built and our teachers perfected it. But basically where this came about was, this is laminated. It came about in that we were talking to our families, like why and what is unique about our school system? How has your life changed by joining us, right? And what came back over and over and over was kids love the history. And we have these amazing dinner table conversations wrapped around the history. And as you know, classical ed is kind of art in history. It's a thematic unit.
So when you're in the ancient world, you're reading period pieces or novels or classical lit based on the time that you're studying. So you're looking at facts and dates and you're looking at emotion and connection. So what we embarked upon was creating a model where this would sit on the dinner table. And it's an outline of, okay, this one I've got is the early settlement of America. So we're talking the pilgrim's times. And just organize the same way on every card. Mom and dad could look through here and say, okay, tell me about...
explorers of Jamestown on the pilgrims, or who was Pocahontas, or John Smith. It just is an outline. So then this also can sit in the classrooms so our teachers know, all right, you can go anywhere you want. This isn't a script that we're being very specific to you on. Just make sure that you're staying in this time frame and hitting these big things. So from this, the history, we now have 800 of these, and they're all color coded and date coded.
So as a parent or a teacher, you just line up your August, September, October, and you know where you're gonna go. And it allows us, as we open up multiple schools around the country, to all be on the same sheet of music. So not as tight as a, say a Big Mac has made the same in every market you're in, but just everybody knows where they're at and where we're going. That's how it started.
Yeah, and then the home can the homeschooling families order this as well as this also available for homeschooling.
Yeah, so we built this originally for our classrooms. So when we opened up in North Carolina, we hit the ground running. It's unbelievable when a teacher moves from a traditional model into classical, there's just a lot of nuance. Shifting from direct instruction to Socratic, writing, bringing values and virtues back into their instruction. That's probably the single biggest hurdle that we have with teachers, where we have to sit them down and say, look, we're not teaching to the test. We do well on the test because kids love to learn.
We're here because you picked this industry to impact children and make a difference in the future. So let's get back to that. So spend the time in the values and virtues. In fact, we call them out on every card at the bottom. We'll talk about, hey, for this month, we're featuring two values and virtues. This one is silence and order. So how do you integrate silence and order into your English and history and PE and art? So think of all this, and they're all color coded and whatnot, as a big puzzle. So...
We're trying to take the mystery out of how this classical thing comes together. When I first got into it, what was explained to me is in a 20 year classical school, these teachers are in the lunchroom constantly pinging off each other, like I'm reading this and here's where we're studying. What we try to do because we're going so fast and trying to get everybody up to speed so quickly, we try to take that 20 years and build it down into a solvable fall program. Because we're building it for our schools, it also fits the home school.
So just as charters kind of having the slow, home skills growing like crazy. So now on Amazon, all this stuff is available that you can buy one subject or one year, one grade.
So yeah, I did want to ask you this because I, and just flipping through it with folks here, this is not from a distinctly Christian perspective. Is that accurate?
No, correct, correct. So our roots were Christian, and because we're in the public sector, we took everything relating to any kind of doctrine out. But you could easily lay in Mormon, Catholic, Jewish, because it's values-based.
Okay, okay. Okay.
So let me ask you this, in Texas where you have success of ESAs, maybe equipping families to be able to, again, be in total control, maybe send their kids to a great heart, so maybe send them to a self-consciously faithful, classical Catholic school, whatever it may be, how will that impact the non-religious charter, classical charter schools? And I'm asking because I'm just thinking about some conversations with some folks who are
Maybe they've got their own kids in one of these big classical charters, but maybe they'd prefer to have them in a Christian school, but that's just not an option because they can't afford the tuition. ESAs potentially change all of that. And as a guy who knows how to think about rapidly shifting markets, well, what do you anticipate with ESAs becoming more popular?
Well, so the charter movement's one direction. ESAs are another direction. Home school is a whole other direction. Each of those three do not have to follow a particular model. What I think's gonna happen, I'm seeing it in Arizona because we're one of the first voucher states, is homeschool groups will come together. Families will come together that may not be able to pull off a full all-day homeschool model, but they may come together and rent a church and set up a little.
little micro school and teach a model that is somewhat maybe hire a teacher. Maybe bring a teacher in for science and math. In fact, Wall Street Journal had a story today. I don't know if you caught wind of it or tweeted it yet, but it basically says, there is a rise in these little micro schools that are popping up around the country. Do you see it? Yeah, it's a great article.
Yeah. No, I didn't, but I'm kind of laughing because I know so many homeschooling stories where it's a homeschooling family, but then they pair together with three or four other families and then a few more and then one person. And then after a while they're like, we totally look like a school again. And that's the experience for so many.
which is the beauty of the model, right? So you have purists in the homeschool world, you have classical ed has shades of, you know, all kinds of shades of gray. There's the hard hardcore kind of very tight. We bring in the Charlotte Mason influence, so it's more experiential and, you know, hands-on sciences and read alouds, living books. So there's all different flavors and shades. And I think what families are doing is kind of, mainly it's talking to other families that are in it, doing their research online, deciding, hey, what fits me? What's unique to my?
And that's what we're seeing blossom all over the place.
Love it. Where do folks go to find out more, to order these materials? At CLT, we got them for free, which is pretty amazing, but I'd imagine you order them somewhere. What's a good next step for folks listening?
Right, so two things. The reason we connected is because parents ask me all the time, home school or wherever, what's the end goal here? How do we know our kids are on the right path? So what I wanna do is integrate more and more with the CLT exam so that we're moving and building our world to an end goal that you all are kind of building around. So what I sent you was important because it lists all those authors that you talk about, Augustine and all the great thinkers. I want you to show that we're introducing these to our kids, first grade, second grade, third grade.
Number one, number two to find us, ethoslogos.org is our main site and explains everything I've covered and shows you all the programs. Amazon.com also has it if you either research my name or ethoslogos. And what we built here is think about Microsoft as an operating system. So this operating system fits our schools, private schools, public schools, a Christian school could lay their doctrine on top of it. Or you could just buy Word and Excel.
which is our English and our history. So you don't have to take the whole boat. You can kind of mix and match and see what fits you.
Awesome. Typically, Joe, at CLT, we talk about the concept of college entrance exams as doing two things of being both an indicator or like a reflection of mainstream bad. And you see this throughout different periods of history. You see this in the old Harvard entrance exam in the 1860s and 70s where they're translating Latin and Greek on the exam. But then the college entrance exam also tends to be a driver. So it's a reflection, but then it's also a driver.
And just hearing you speak in the conversation that we've had offline, I think there's this third function that it's doing and somebody's being an affirmer as well of saying, you're doing this right and just looking through everything that y'all have sent over and hearing about your schools and your reputation and what you've built. You're doing amazing work and you're the kind of person that this movement needs. Joe, we always end the Anchor Podcast talking about books, digging in a little bit here.
The question as we usually frame it to our guests is, what is a book that has been most formative to you? So we're thinking about here a book that you have returned to, maybe you reread every year or two. Mine is always Chesterton's Orthodoxy. It's my seasonal return to sanity that I try to go through. What is it for you?
I'm a big non-fiction, so I love biographies. Just love biographies. The one that I've gifted the most and I read on a regular basis and I mentor young men usually with is how to win friends and influence people. Because I think our schools teach us so much about facts and dates and numbers. It's that personal relationship between being interested in someone's name and some of those corny things from the 30s and 40s that Dale Carnegie wrote about. But that is by far the one I give and talk about the most.
That's kind of a modern classic, right? This is, is this eighties or nineties?
I think it was the 40s or 50s. It's that old. Yeah, look people in the eye, smile, use their name. I mean, there's so many little nuances there that I think are these stupid things with our kids. They're not watching and learning. So that simple book, in fact.
Is it really? Okay, okay.
I'm not gonna lie, I've never actually read it, but as we read, as our core team here, we read, you know, Traction, Good to Great, you know, Rocket Fuel, kind of some of the big business books, and it's referenced all the time. So in all of these books. So yeah.
simple read and look at the headline of the chapter if you like it, read it, and if you don't go to the next one because it's all just skills that you should do with your kids, which you probably do, right? Like look him in the eye and shake his hand. Those little things that you help your children with as a parent, that's in this book as a business person. So phenomenally important in my life.
Awesome, awesome. Love it again. We are here with the one and only doctor, is it doctor? CEO, CEO Joe Higgins, the founder of six rapidly growing charter schools, an incredible curriculum here. Joe, thanks for being a supporter and a friend of what we're doing here at CLT. Thanks for the good work you're doing in the movement. Please come back and join us in the future.
Thank you, sir.