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Exploring Life & Business with Kalee Barbis of Templeton Academy

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kalee Barbis.

Hi Kalee, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
For years, I dreamed about opening a school in my hometown of Nashville. It would be a place that truly celebrated students and reflected the real world. I imagined coffee shop outings and creative projects. I could see community circles and project presentations, whole school assemblies, and more. Using project-based learning and our city as a classroom, I knew we could create a place where students were truly safe, seen, heard, and valued for bringing their entire selves to school.

I began my teaching career in Nashville at a traditional public school and then charter school, and I was always asking the question, “What could school be?” I knew what school had been, but did it really need to be that way? This led to moving into administration and a move to Washington, DC. Each time we came home to Nashville to visit, people asked about school options, affordability, and private school options. Having the conversation for the third time in a week, I turned to my husband and said, “Maybe this is how we come home for good — I start a school.” He encouraged me to look into Templeton Academy, an innovative school in DC located next to our favorite coffee shop.

Templeton’s website asked, “What should be the next city and why?” I wrote a love letter about Nashville and why I felt strongly that it would be the perfect place for the next campus. Out of more than 50 applications, we went on to be a top-four choice. The founders were surprised at Nashville as a possible choice because they thought the next location would be New York. A visit to our amazing town led them to make Nashville a top-two contender! After a second visit and board meeting, they selected Nashville as our next campus in the summer of 2018.

Slowly, I watched that dream come closer to reality as we selected the building space, hired staff members, and admitted families. Students embraced our space, our staff, and our culture, creating something extraordinary. We had, in our founding year, literally laid the foundation for years to come in Nashville. In the words of Edith Wharton, “There are two ways of spreading light: To be the candle or the mirror that receives it.” With open hearts, we chose to be the candle, creating a beautiful community.

As our students navigate year three, they engage in deep project-based learning, reflecting brightly the work ethic, self-advocacy, and deep curiosity we imagined back in DC. Our 5th graders imagined what school could look like by building models, our 8th graders dropped eggs from the roof for physics, and our high school biology students created ecosystems. Students engage with the community through internships, service-learning, and excursions.

Our students have deep conversations in Core Advisory exploring identities, discussing anti-racism, and imagining ways they will change the world. I am grateful to lead such a student-first and special community; it is truly a privilege to be part of the WolfPACK!

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
A tornado followed by COVID-19 made for a tough first year! With Templeton Academy’s downtown location, we serve students from all over the city, drawing in about a third of our students from the east side. The tornado devastated our community. We shifted from focusing on exams to focus on serving the community. Packing sandwich bags, donating clothing, and doing clean-up, we turned to what mattered most at the moment.

As we returned to a semblance of normal, COVID-19 hit. We canceled school on a Thursday and created a plan to pivot to online learning. Being small and student-first allowed us to move quickly. At the same time, with a racial reckoning happening within our country, we began having conversations about how to create an anti-racist, anti-bias school. We found our amazing students ready to engage and much work to be done as a team to ensure we could lead those conversations. The fall of 2020 felt tough as we went in and out of school — ultimately committing to be in person all day every day. We know that students learn best when they can be present: with their teachers, with their peers, and as a community.

As we embark on year three, our students have a vaccination rate of over 90%. This allows us to get back to our model; students once again change classes, engage in electives, and create passion projects in excursions. The most remarkable part has been truly utilizing the city as a classroom. This past quarter, our students went on more than thirty excursions, averaging one a week, from the Farmer’s Market to the Adventure Science Center and the Frist.

We ensure our curriculum focuses on project-based learning and includes elements of real-world issues. We invite students into affinity spaces. We gather as a community. Starting a school is challenging, and we are glad to view these challenges as opportunities.

Appreciate you sharing that. What should we know about Templeton Academy?

Located in the heart of downtown Nashville, Templeton Academy was founded to revolutionize the way students learn by mentoring the critical thinking and problem-solving skills they need to thrive in college, career, and life. We welcome 5th through 12th graders from all backgrounds and seek to nurture them into purpose-driven lifelong learners who use their gifts in a way that brings them joy and serves others.

Our school is most known for being a community in which students can bring their whole selves to school. Being a teenager is tough and our goal is to create a place in which students feel truly seen. Around 20% of our students are part of the LGBQT+ community, another 20% receive financial aid, and over a quarter of our students identify as people of color. This diverse community allows us to celebrate students from all backgrounds.

TA prioritizes learning from authentic experiences and interacting with the world around us. Thus, we use our longer learning blocks to learn by doing — leveraging the resources of the city from museums, to libraries, to gyms and green spaces. In addition, the focus is on giving back to the city, as projects for courses are deeply intertwined with the community and its needs. Going beyond typical community service, students work with community-based organizations helping devise solutions to their current challenges.

Our academic model is built around student agency, defined as giving students a voice and choice in how they learn. And our goal is structured agency — a learning community that is both student and teacher-designed and led. In high school, academic blocks of two hours over a 10-week term provide substantial time for rich, Socratic discussions, as well as independent and community projects. We use the academically rigorous model of Gold Standard Project-Based Learning that focuses on authenticity and real-world connections, contains rigorous reflection and revision, and whose efficacy in increasing higher-level thinking skills and key success skills is well-documented.

The Templeton Core Foundations curriculum is focused on learning how to learn. Students come to understand that their job is putting in the work to educate themselves. A teacher’s job is to be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on a stage,” and students work to master critical skills such as resourcefulness, conscientiousness, creativity, curiosity, resilience, persistence, stress management, and time management.

They set SMART goals, are supported and held accountable with peer advisors and more senior learning coaches, developing active listening, collaboration, compassion, and empathy — thereby becoming peer advisors and learning coaches themselves. Ultimately, all work is shared with the school community and larger community at quarterly Community Exhibitions, fueling constant reflection, assessment, action, and growth.

What was your favorite childhood memory?
As a child, growing up in Franklin, we drove down to Centennial Sports Complex each Thursday when I was in elementary school to take ice skating lessons. I had a break between a private class and group class and my mom and I would go out to eat each week at a restaurant on West End. I loved the special time with her as we talked and I did homework.

That moment felt very full circle when we rented out the Centennial’s Ice Skating Rink for our inaugural Valentine’s Day celebration. We shut down the school and went ice skating as a community.

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Templeton Academy Nashville

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