Educating Children through Experience & Travel with Kalee Barbis
Conversation with Kalee Barbis, Principal & Founding Head of School, Blyth Templeton
Educating Children through Experience & Travel
April 17, 2019
1. What is your organization?
I am the founder and head of school for Blyth Templeton Academy (BTA) in Nashville. I pitched BTA on opening a new school in Nashville, and I was one of 50 proposals. After 7 months and 2 visits to Nashville with check-ins every other week, my proposal was picked to start a new school! We are now in full startup mode for BTA’s second location in Nashville, Tennessee which is set to open in fall 2019 with 80 students. We already have 65 students enrolled. Our goal is to bring something different to Nashville—we will be the first private school in the city’s history to be downtown.
For the past 40 years, Blyth Templeton Academy has been running quality, affordable private schools that cost about 1/2 to 2/3 of the rate of comparable private schools. The educational offering is project-based and it operates on three principles: small class sizes for a cohort experience, two-hour subject blocks for deep learning, and using the school’s home city as a campus. It is our goal to encourage kindness, curiosity and a growth mindset. Right now, we cater to 5-12 grades, which is middle and high school. BTA has campuses all over the world–fifteen campuses in Toronto, a campus in Florence, and are expanding in the U.S. with Washington, DC, as the first American campus.
I serve as the head of the new Nashville school, so I have a lot of autonomy, from picking out furniture to hiring teachers to handling the in between like writing parking permits. It’s very day-to-day, sometimes it’s glamorous like going to fancy events and sometimes it’s simple like stapling together 160 packets or bringing in my vacuum from home to clean up an area before an event. I do a lot of first meetings with students too where we need to sell families on what the school will be. It will be an amazing and magical experience when the pieces come together.
2. What made you decide to start your organization and/or switch careers?
I started my teaching journey in Nashville, and I earned my masters in Public Policy from Vanderbilt. From there, I became an assistant principal of a charter school in Washington DC. While I was there, we actually won a school project that awarded us ten million dollars, the XQ Super School Project. With that funding we piloted something called “competency-based English” where ten students moved through the entire sophomore English curriculum in less than three months.
After I first heard of BTA, I started researching the organization and realized that they were focused on everything I was doing in my classroom. There was a huge emphasis on student learning and student choice. The BTA website asked where the next school should be, so that inspired me to pitch Nashville. I ended up writing a love letter to Nashville, the town where I grew up. I could easily see it as a perfect town to engage students.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
When I was considering pitching Nashville to BTA, I met up with a friend who is the head of a private school in Nashville. At the time I knew a lot about public and charter, but nothing about private schools. She knew so much about Nashville and the demographics, and she really believed in what the school could be and how it could serve the gaps that she saw in the community. She’s become an informal mentor over the past year.
And then I got another jolt of confidence when I met a friend in Nashville who has a sixth grader. I was telling her about my idea and how Nashville had so much to offer curious students. I wanted to get her take. I asked her if I was crazy and she said no, that Nashville really needed this type of school. I remember in that moment feeling so seen and that it was perfect timing. Even if the school didn’t happen through BTA, it needed to come to Nashville, and I was going to figure out a way to make it happen.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
When you’re launching a business, you’re really painting a picture of the possibilities. It’s all hypothetical, so for me, when I met with prospective families, I would have to sell my vision. It can be hard to convince people to go all-in on what can be. It’s been wonderful that so many families have connected with the potential.
The second biggest barrier is getting our school to look like the city of Nashville, and it can be hard to recruit families who haven’t typically considered private school. Out of the 65 plus families joining us, I can trace almost all of them back to another one of our families—almost all of them are coming to us by word-of-mouth.
We also want our staff to reflect the city of Nashville. It’s important to us to have teachers who are people of color—we want kids to walk into the building and see people who look like them. We want our students to feel like they belong, and Nashville has a history of segregation that needs to be overcome.
Another obstacle is how public-facing this role is. As a public school administrator, no one cares if you’re out and about. But my role as BTA Head of School and Principal is such an external-facing position that involves a lot of networks. While it’s daunting, it’s also exciting to share our story and invite people to be a part of something so new and innovative.
We know tuition can be a challenge so we try to make it as affordable as we can. We offer ten percent discounts for families to sign on early, monthly payment plans, and offer $100,000 in financial aid every year. Generally speaking, about one-third of our families have the finances, one-third push to make the cost work, and for one-third, being awarded the finances would be a game changer. Financing is a pain point and it’s one of the things that keeps me up at night because in the end we have to decide who gets the financing and who doesn’t. But it’s also a gift. Parents are absolute heroes for making this happen for their kids.
5. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your organization? How so?
They were so incredibly helpful. Friends served as concierges on the pitch visits, and they helped us host our first open house. It has been wonderful to have their support, and they have been so helpful. The broader community was so helpful too. It’s been great running into friends who also have their own companies and hearing that they too are exhausted. When you have a startup, very few people understand how tough it can be.
6. Have you ever used a career or life coach?
I was part of the National Principal Fellowship and my school actually paid for that coaching in my second year. It was incredible. She was great at asking probing questions that set me up to truly reflect on my own values. She actually recently toured our building in Nashville, so it was very much a full circle moment.
7. What are some successes you have had with your organization that make you proud?
There have been so many. The first is the family support we have seen in Nashville with ten families showing up for our Memorial Day breakfast. Then during our first open house, we had over 100 people walk through the door. Once we had our early decision families decided, we delivered balloon bouquets to their mailboxes—they had no idea we were doing that, so it was a special moment. We also signed an agreement for a ten year lease on our building in February.
And most recently, we just hired the last founding team member, and our 65th family committed to our school. 80 families is our year 1 goal. Right now, we’re ahead of our growth trajectory so that’s a really validating moment.
8. Have there been any positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your organization was off the ground?
About three months after moving to Nashville to launch BTA, my husband and I found out we were expecting a first child, due in June. I was so nervous to tell our president, Temp Keller, because he had just made a huge investment in me.
The school and I actually just did a trial run of what it will be like with me out of school for an extended period during a spring break trip. The team did so much for me. It’s also known that when our boss says he’s going to be offline, he’s actually offline, so I have someone modeling our goal of work-life balance.
9. What are your hopes for your business in the next five years?
I hope to reach my goals with students in terms of count and diversity. Finding the right teachers is also important because next year’s teachers will be the leaders five years from now. Teachers work so hard, and it is important to honor them and provide them with a space to create and grow. I believe if you get the adult culture right, you get the kid culture right.
We will be the first private high school in Nashville proper since 1971 and we will be the first ever private school in the Nashville Core ever! I want to make sure the city of Nashville sees what we are doing. We want to share what we are doing with other teachers and inspire them. We want to connect and be good stewards to the city the way so many schools, organizations, and community partners have inspired us.
10. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
Yes, I would love to share the work that we do and talk to others about being a working mom. By having transparent conversations, we all get better. The only way we get better as leaders is by having these types of conversations and encouraging one another.
I am incredibly grateful for all the leaders, particularly women, who have done the same for me.
Conversation Date: March 26, 2019