Private education moves to SoBro

Lessons learned in travel school anchor Templeton Academy

Friday, October 4, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 40
By Hollie Deese

Kalee Barbis isn’t doing things the same old way. As head of school at the new Templeton Academy, she even bucked the trend on location, choosing downtown Nashville.

Barbis, who looked at more than 30 properties, says the school needed a location that would help inform the student population and – to be truly diverse – be centrally located and near a bus stop, accessible to the East, West, North and South sides. Down to Germantown and its ultimate Second Avenue spot, she knew the area south of Broadway would be ideal.

“Our kids can walk to everything but parents don’t get stuck in downtown traffic,” she says.

Templeton Academy, a private school for grades 5-12, is a collaboration between Blyth Academy and Templeton Learning, a partnership that brought the educational model of Blyth Academy in Canada to the United States with schools in Nashville and Washington D.C.

“The school started over 40 years ago when Blyth was a travel abroad company,” Barbis explains. “And so every summer they would send teenagers from Toronto to France to get academic credit, and every summer kids would come back and they would be like, ‘This was the best experience ever. Why can’t school be like that?’

“And so after enough years Sam Blyth thought, ‘Why can’t school be like that?’”

The Nashville location goes by Templeton Academy, and the school opened this fall with 84 students. Annual tuition is about $15,000 per year.

“When you look at our school, it is meant to mimic traveling abroad,” she says. “So we have eight to 12 students in a class just like you would have eight to 12 people on a trip, and you immerse yourself in that experience, like learning all about the French countryside before you go.”

They also use block scheduling so students can immerse themselves in their academics with two-hour classes and in-depth, hands-on projects.

“We use the city as a classroom, and in the past five weeks our students have gone on over 40 field trips,” Barbis continues.

Barbis has a five-year plan for growth, with the goal to accept another 60 students next year. The plan is to ultimately 150 middle schoolers and 150 high schoolers. That number – known as Dunbar’s number – is based on research that you can maintain a relationship with 150 people and know their name and something about them.

Templeton Academy located near downtown Nashville at 631 2nd Ave South

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“But once you get beyond 150 you can’t say something about them,” Barbis explains. “And for us, relationships are really key. And it’s really about being able to deliver on the promises that we’ve made families and to do this model really, really well.”

Coming home

Barbis grew up in Franklin and began her teaching career with Metro Nashville Public Schools. During that time she got her master’s degree in public policy from Vanderbilt University, helping write a charter for a school in Washington D.C.

After Vanderbilt, she moved to D.C. to be the assistant principal with Washington Leadership Academy – a school founded after winning $10 million as part of the XQ Super School Project.

XQ launched in September 2015 as an open call to rethink and redesign the American high school, its marketing material states. More than 10,000 people from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico answered with unique ideas for innovative, student-centered high schools that prepare young people for tomorrow’s world.

Among XQ Schools were:

• D.C.’s Washington Leadership Academy, at which every student takes four years of computer science.

• Da Vinci RISE in Los Angeles, which employs a holistic approach to help students, including homeless and foster youth, take charge of their own learning.

• Iowa BIG, where the whole community is the classroom and students work in teams to solve local problems.

“It’s a very bizarre way to start a school,” Barbis admits. “There was even a documentary crew. But we took the $10 million, and one of the things that we did is pilot something called competency-based English. So, even though I was the assistant principal I taught one class of 10 kids and they finished the entire English curriculum in under three months.

“It was phenomenal.”

With that extra time the students tackled research projects in which they created apps and wrote the data privacy policy with it or listened to weekly guest speakers. “And I was like, ‘Wow, this is what school should look like for everybody, but it only looks this way for 10 kids.’”

When Barbis came home to Nashville for Thanksgiving, she says she visited with friends who were all struggling with what to do about school for their children. Private school was too expensive, and real estate in desirable districts was expensive and hard to find.

Library area at Templeton Academy

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Also, if their student didn’t start private school in pre-K, would she ever get in as a fifth-grader?

“And so the third time we had that conversation while we were home, we were actually eating at Hemingway’s, and when we walked out I turned to my husband and said, ‘This is how we come home. Nashville is ready for something different,’” she recalls.

Familiar with Templeton in D.C., she went to its website and saw they were looking for the next city in which to open a school. So Barbis wrote a love letter about Nashville to the school, and it became one of 50 applications, eventually becoming a finalist with Raleigh-Durham. She learned she had won the bid Memorial Day weekend 2018.

She immediately moved back to Nashville to begin the process of finding the location and the right designer to make the building what it needed to be.

The right design

Barbis kept getting referred to architect Manuel Zeitlin from different parents. He has become known in some part for his school design, having been the lead in the 100-year centennial renovation and expansion of University School in 2012, Rocketship Nashville Northeast Elementary in 2014, the Republic High School charter school in 2015 and Valor Collegiate Academy in 2015, a project in which a former Lowe’s location was converted into 11 classrooms, restrooms, common areas and administrative spaces.

“We cut courtyards through the existing Lowe’s. Just opened it up and got daylight. It’s a great example of a reuse,” Zeitlin explains.

Zeitlin was eventually introduced to Barbis by a parent and, despite already having proposals in hand for work on the building, they set a meeting.

“We basically just talked about education and our thoughts about education for about 45 minutes,” he says. “We didn’t really talk about architecture or design. But then, after we had the conversation, it was just really an alignment of philosophy and approach.”

Zeitlin had sent his own children to Abintra Montessori School and says he believes in Templeton’s mission of supporting each individual child’s interests and passions, and helping them grow as thoughtful contributing creative people. After touring the space and submitting his proposal, he got the job.

“Manuel just got it right,” Barbis says. “He saw the building, he saw the potential, he saw what we wanted to do and he believed in our mission. And that for us was so crucial.

“I had a baby while a lot of the school was happening – I did our final walkthrough with a 3-week-old – so sharing the work and helping with the vision and just being able to have a true partner mattered so much to me.”

Seventh and eighth grade students work together with their teacher during a class at Templeton Academy.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

The building was the original Vanderbilt Medical School, and one of the main architectural moves Zeitlin made was moving the central stairway back to the middle of the building so people could interact with each other.

An interior room was converted into a darkroom, and an old board room became the science room. But Zeitlin says the idea was to enter the building and experience it without feeling an architect was ever involved – that the space had always just been there.

“We’re trying to constantly model best practices,” Zeitlin adds.

Zeitlin was recently scheduled to speak to a group of students about changes in Nashville and architecture for a weekly lunch and learn that was moved at the last minute so students could participate in the recent protest for climate change. Zeitlin was all about it.

“The solutions to education aren’t that mysterious,” Zeitlin says. “Have small classes, eight to 10 kids sitting around a table in dialogue instead of being lectured at by a teacher. Then they get out and have experiential learning. They have block scheduling where they have enough time to actually get into a subject.”

The first downtown school since Hume-Fogg – where both Zeitlin’s grandmother and daughter went – he hopes this is the first of many more schools coming to service the downtown area.

“The idea of bringing resources to the community that can bring people together or solve problems – people want to be engaged with other people,” he says. “Templeton’s planning to use the Greenway system as part of their fitness program and I think we are starting to see a lot of projects that want to be by the Greenway.”

Barbis says Nashville is ready for something like Templeton right now because parents simply need another choice.

“No one works harder than our public school teachers, but their classes are huge and there’s so many expectations and they don’t have the time and space to be able to think up these big projects,” she says.

“Right now our government kids are currently writing their own bills and they’re going to go down to the Capitol to present them. And that is awesome. But our teachers navigate that because he has a two-hour time block. For so many teachers they just don’t have that time and space to really be able to think about it.”

And while there are excellent private schools, the city is growing and the available spots are not keeping pace.

“But for us the biggest thing is we want every student to find a place where they can shine. And if it’s us then we want them here with their family. But if it’s not us then that’s OK too. We want them to be in the place that’s the best fit for each kid,” Barbis says.

“We truly want to be a school that belongs and looks like and reflects the city of Nashville.”