starting a God-centered school for at risk youth is crazy


We believe the nationwide education crisis in under resourced communities stems from a famine of imago Dei education. In 1999, God used a dear friend, and a timely sermon, to give Russ Gregg the courage to quit his job and do something crazy: start a school for his neighbors’ children. Over 20 years have learned from many people, and through trial and error.

If you are being called to start a new God-centered school in your home city, we are ready to partner with the Lord and you in this critical work. You only get one chance to start, and we want to help you start well.

Helping Leaders Start Urban Christ Centered Schools

Who We Are

Russ Gregg

Head Of School, Hope Academy


Russ Gregg (B.A., Global Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison) has served as Head of School since Hope Academy’s founding in 2000. He has been a resident of the Phillips neighborhood since 1994. In 1999, he was an administrator at Calvin Christian School in Edina, and quit his job to help lay the groundwork for a Christian school for his urban neighbors. Russ and his wife Phyllis, who teaches 3rd grade at Hope Academy, live four blocks away from the school. They have three grown children. Russ serves on the Board of Directors of the Society for Classical Learning. Russ Gregg is available to serve as a speaker or panelist.

Areas of Expertise and Topics: Visionary Leadership, Governance, School Culture, Classical Education The Achievement Gap, Urban Christian Education, The Case for Christian Schooling

Dan Olson

Executive Director, Spreading Hope


Dan Olson serves as Executive Director of Spreading Hope, where he oversees strategic vision, networking urban Christian educators, and serving aspiring school planting groups in discerning the call to start and lead new schools in their communities. He most recently worked at The Gospel Coalition, where he directed the donor ministries team. Previously, he oversaw development and operations at Hope Academy for nine years, and has advised dozens of non-profits, including school planting groups in cities around the country. Dan began his career in Christian Education at Minnehaha Academy, where he taught English Literature, Speech and Debate. He received his bachelor’s degree in communications from Wheaton College (IL), and a master’s degree in Christian Studies (church history concentration) from Regent College (Vancouver, Canada). He serves on the board of directors of Hope Academy, and lives with his wife and four children in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Areas of Expertise and Topics: Christian Stewardship and Development Model, Governance, School Operations and Policy, Leadership Assessment

Michael Bolland

Managing Director, Spreading Hope


Michael Bolland graduated in 2015 from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities with a Bachelor’s Degree in Math Education. During his time as a Minnesota Golden Gopher, Michael was also a member of the track and field team and significantly involved with a campus ministry to student-athletes called Athletes in Action. This experience in college significantly shaped his vocational future in ministry, coaching, and education. He has served student-athletes in the Twin Cities via discipleship on campus at the University of Minnesota and as a coach at the University of Northwestern in Saint Paul. After a season of working in college contexts, Michael became a Leadership Development resident at Hope Community Church (Minneapolis). During this time, God provided opportunities to both volunteer and substitute teach at Hope Academy, which led to becoming a sixth-grade math and science teacher for three years there. Michael lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Ali and their son. 

Dr. Anika T. Prather

Koinonia Classical Specialist

Anika T. Prather (MLA, St. John’s College; PhD, University of Maryland) teaches English at Howard University, serves as director of high-quality curriculum and instruction at Johns Hopkins University, and is founder of The Living Water School, a Christian school for independent learners that follows the educational philosophies of classical education and the Sudbury model. She is coauthor of The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature (Classical Academic Press, July 2022), and facilitates the Koinonia Classical Fellowship. Learn more at

Debbie Harris

Academic and Pedagogy Specialist



Background: Debbie Harris graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a Bachelors Degree in Liberal Studies (with a California K-8 certification) and has spent fifteen-plus years as a classroom educator, primarily in the elementary grades. She has taught at Foundations Academy in Boise, Idaho and at Hope Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she has also served as Dean of Teaching Staff and Curriculum. Debbie has focused on mentoring teachers in classroom management strategies and classical techniques since 2002. She has also been a speaker and consultant with the CiRCE Institute. She lives in Oakdale, Minnesota with her husband and two sons.

Areas of Expertise and Topics: Classroom Governance, Classical Pedagogy, Elementary Curriculum and Instruction, Coaching Teachers, Shepherding a Child’s Heart


Denny Vauters

Marketing and Advancement Specialist

Denny Vauters serves in a communications role for Spreading Hope Network in addition to contributing to planter and network school’s fundraising program development. Denny holds degrees in theology and cross-cultural studies from Northland International University along with the CFRE designation from the CFRE International and has served in both for-profit and not-for-profit roles. He brings an entrepreneurial spirit to the ministry of using high-quality education as a platform for gospel discipleship. Denny and his family live in Greenville, SC where he also serves as Executive Director of Advancement for Southside Christian School.

Areas of Expertise: Donor Relations, capital campaigns, annual fund development, marketing and communications, strategic planning, funding models for schools.


Board of Directors

Brad Pieper — Lexington Manufacturing

Brad Pieper serves as the Chief Executive Officer and Board Director for American Peat Technology, LLC (APT) and President of Headwater Technologies, LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of APT.  Before joining APT in 2022, Brad spent his professional career building and leading organizations and teams across a variety of industries.  He has served as a President and Chief Sales & Marketing Executive in the Biotech (pharma, food, human health, and environmental) and Building Materials industries, as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company for the Financial Services industry, and as a Field Artillery Officer in the United States Army where he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal during Operating Iraqi Freedom.

Brad is a United States Military Academy graduate at West Point where he played on the school’s Division I hockey team.  He holds an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.  Away from work, Brad has dedicated his time and gifts to K-12 education, serving as a Board Member at Hope Academy in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Board President for Stâre Academy in Brainerd, Minnesota, and Board Chair for the Spreading Hope Network, a non-profit organization that aids in the planting and strengthening of locally run urban Classical Christian schools throughout the United States using the Hope Academy model. 

Brad lives in Brainerd, Minnesota with his wife, Abbey, and three busy boys.  He is an active outdoorsman that enjoys chasing around his family via big-mountain skiing, waterskiing, ice hockey, golf, and single-track mountain biking.

Russ Gregg — Head of School, Hope Academy
Dan Olson — Executive Director, Spreading Hope Network
Jeff Bird, JD, President, NBW Insurance

Jeff Bird (J.D., CLU) was the co-founder of Hope Academy, where he served as Board President from 2000-2019. Mr. Bird grew up on a farm near Marcus, Iowa and has also helped start the Hope Farm School. Since 1991, he has worked with NBW Insurance (previously The Brehm Group), with expertise in individual life insurance, qualified and non-qualified retirement plans, and estate planning as well as serving as General Counsel for the company. Mr. Bird has previously served on the boards of the Pilgrim Center for Reconciliation, The Gospel Association of India, and Total Victory Christian Center. He enjoys mentoring youth and leading a men’s weekly Bible study group. Mr. Bird is married with six children and lives in Minneapolis.

Board of Advisors

Vernard Gant — Director, A.C.E. Student Success Center (ACSI)
Vernard Gant imageDr. Vernard Gant (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the director of the A.C.E. Student Success Center with the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) (, where he is responsible for overseeing over 200 Christian schools throughout the nation that target non-white, under-resourced children. Dr. Gant has been with ACSI for 13 years. Dr. Gant also started and ran a scholarship program to enable moderate and low income children to attend private school and helped start two Christian schools serving low-income children in Birmingham, AL. He currently serves on the executive board of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Alliance for Choice in Education.
Jeff Blamer — VP of Member Services, Christian Schools International
Jeff Blamer (MS, Purdue University; B.A., Calvin College) serves as the vice president of member services with Christian Schools International (CSI) where he provides encouragement, support, advice, and guidance to member schools and leaders. Prior to joining the leadership team of CSI in 2010, he served as a principal in the Kalamazoo (MI) Christian Schools for 26 years. Jeff and wife Karen celebrate the joy of three children, two of whom are Christian school teachers, and six grandchildren. Next to faith and family, their passion is biblical study in the land of Israel.
Karen Brown — Edge Brown Consulting Group
Karen Brown (MBA, Harvard Business School) is the president of Edge Brown Consulting Group. She consults with both Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations. She is passionate about Christian education and access for under-resourced communities. She and her husband, Bill, live in St. Paul, Minnesota and are the proud parents of three grown boys.
Eric Cook — Executive Director, Society for Classical Learning
Eric Cook (M.A., Northern Kentucky University; B.A, Transylvania University) is the Headmaster at Covenant Classical School in Fort Worth, TX and serves as Executive Director of the Society for Classical Learning. He has served as an assistant principal, taught history, civics, philosophy, and psychology for five years in public schools, and served as Upper School Head at Faith Christian School in Roanoke, VA before becoming Headmaster at Covenant in 2009. He has served on the SCL board since 2012. Eric is married to Liz and they have six children: Haydon, Olivia, Grant, Cole, William, and Lincoln.
Kent Vanderwood — Vice President, The Timothy Group
Kent Vanderwood (MA, Ed. Leadership, Western Michigan University; B.S., Grand Valley State University) is a Vice President and Senior Consultant with The Timothy Group. Since 1981, The Timothy Group has assisted more than 1,600 Christian organizations with their annual, capital, and endowment needs worldwide. Kent has over 35 years of non-profit experience including teaching, administrative, consulting, and directorships. Through his work as Development Director for The Potter’s House, Gospel Communications International, and Mel Trotter Ministries, Kent brings a wealth of experience in fundraising and development. His passion for seeing Christian stewardship principles applied in a systematic way helps the non-profit organization or ministry be successful in fulfilling its mission.
Erik Ellefsen - Director of Networks and Improvement, Center for School Leadership, Baylor University

Erik Ellefsen is Director of Networks and Improvement for the School of Education’s Center for School Leadership. He manages the BCSL’s Christian Leadership Transformation Project, a program designed to equip Christian educators across the country by gathering networks of school teams around problems of practice to catalyze school improvement and student flourishing.

Ellefsen has served in education for more than two decades as a teacher, coach, consultant, Dean of Academics at Boston Trinity Academy, Principal at Chicago Christian High School, and Grievance Chairman for the American Federation of Teachers. Most recently, he served at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, CA. He currently serves as Senior Fellow for both the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education and Cardus. He also hosts the Digical Education, a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders, and a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift project.

Ellefsen is a graduate of Wheaton College, with a BA in Social Science and Illinois teacher accreditation, an MEd in Administration and Leadership from Benedictine University with Illinois administrative credential, and attended Boston University to further his studies in Educational Policy and Organizational Leadership.

“I am so thankful for Hope Academy and
Spreading Hope. We started our school in 2014 and now serve 80 students in grades K-5. I can’t imagine where we would be
without their support and direction.”
Doug Fern

Head of School, Faith Academy

Kickstart your own school

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter, and we'll send you a free white paper — "8 First Steps for School Planters". We’ll also send you a free ebook from Russ Gregg: “The Mark of God and Our Education Crisis.”

Hope Academy is a flagship for our Christian schools. The development and growth of Christian schools like Hope Academy is so encouraging. CSI is excited by the school planting efforts of the Spreading Hope team.

Jeff Blamer

Vice President, Member Services, Christian Schools Intl. (Grand Rapids, MI)

I am so thankful for Hope Academy and the Spreading Hope team. We started our school for low income urban youth in 2014 and are now serving nearly 80 students in grades K-5. I simply can’t imagine where we would be without their support and direction.
Doug Fern

Head of School, Faith Academy (Iowa City, IA)