On a sunny Washington, DC, spring day I arrived at Hill Center, a nonprofit that bills itself as “a vibrant home for culture, education, and city life on Capitol Hill.” It also is home to Blyth-Templeton Academy, a new for-profit, private 9-12 grade school whose mission is “to transform the lives of its students by providing highly individualized, experiential education in small classes with dedicated and skilled educators.”
For-profit private schools are popping up all over the United States and Canada. No entity seems to have a formal count of these schools, but experts estimate that they are now in the dozens. Some have opened with great fanfare, while others are struggling to find their way. Great debate swirls about the model. Some question whether the for-profit status puts profit over student welfare, while others describe these schools as the most innovative in America. To experience one firsthand, I scheduled a visit to Blyth-Templeton and an interview with its head, Lee Palmer, who has had a long career as an administrator at NAIS independent schools.
An Innovative Approach to Facilities, Faculty, and Structure
At first blush, the mission of Blyth-Templeton is similar to that of many NAIS member independent schools, but the business model is not. To offer a tuition substantially less than most local independent schools — $14,850 for the 2015-2016 year vs. $36,810, the median ninth-grade tuition for NAIS member schools in Washington, DC — the school has taken a unique approach to facilities, faculty, and structure.
Its structural facilities are small, just a handful of classrooms and offices, but school leaders view all of Washington, DC, and beyond as the classroom. Students take classes around Washington, DC, but also at Blyth Academy Global High School, Blyth Academy Online, and Blyth Academy International Summers program.
Blyth-Templeton Academy, now in its first year, was founded as a collaborative effort between the Blyth Education Group and Templeton Learning. The former was founded in 1977 and describes itself as “the leading private school by enrollment with 12 schools in Canada and international programs in 32 countries.” The Blyth Education Group also encompasses Blyth Academy Global School (a study abroad program) and Blyth Academy Online (which currently offers 40 courses for students in grades 9-12 and SAT prep). When Blyth Education Group came to the United States, it partnered with Templeton Learning to expand and enhance its capabilities.
Currently, Blyth-Templeton Academy is home to 20 students, and school leaders expect that number to double next year. They will cap enrollment at 100 students. As the student body grows, the school will acquire more facilities on a daily, even hourly basis, but only as needed. The leaders’ philosophy on facilities is that many cities have space that is unoccupied and they can use that to greatly reduce costs and embrace a core value of environmental sustainability.
School leaders also have an unconventional approach to recruiting faculty. Although they began their search for faculty quite traditionally by posting ads and tapping networks, Head Lee Palmer said they have found that people who really want to teach find the school on their own. Not all faculty are full-time and the school offers flexible schedules to accommodate a teacher’s other commitments.
Emphasis on Experiential Education and Technology
Blyth-Templeton Academy uses a block schedule, in which students take two courses in each of the four terms. (Each term is about two and a half months.) Each class meets for two hours and 20 minutes each day. The school touts this as the centerpiece of its philosophy:
The block period facilitates experiential education by providing the time to leave the traditional classroom and learn in real-life settings as well as the opportunity for project-based learning. Because students are only taking two courses in a term, homework is easier to manage. Grades 9 and 10 students average one hour per night and assignments are designed to support individual students. Grades 11 and 12 students average two hours per night as they are expected to learn more independently. At all times, homework assignments are developed to achieve specific learning targets for each student and will vary with the course of study. The third block each day is used to provide students with co-curricular programs. –Foundations in Grades 9 and 10, Interdisciplinary Studies in Grades 11 and 12.
Although experiential education is at the heart of its mission, the school also embraces technology to support learning and teaching. Every class has a Moodle page. The school doesn’t use textbooks, and there are no formal lectures. Classes are structured around learners’ needs. Some are advanced with just a few students at similar academic levels. Others combine students from all four grades, enabling students to experience the subject matter together. In the latter case, teachers diversify assignments according to the learner’s academic level. Students drive their own education, with many taking online classes not offered in the DC location. The morning that I visited, two students were sitting at a desk each deeply involved in pursuing their interest in German and Japanese respectively.
In addition to the business model, there are other distinct differences from traditional independent schools. No formal clubs, sports, or after school activities are available. If students want to form clubs, they must create and run them on their own. The school also does not allow tutors. Palmer says occasionally students want to bring in some familiar school rituals, like the prom, but she resists and stays true to the school’s model.
Given that the approach may not be what parents had experienced in previous educational settings, I was curious to find out if she gets pushback. Palmer says she has to spend a lot of time educating parents to ensure that they understand and support the mission. She also noted that she has received lots of interest from homeschool parents who see the school as a more natural fit for their children than a traditional school may be.
Evolution and Experimentation in Today’s Education Market
School leaders are constantly trying to evolve the program. Recently they began experimenting with dual enrollment, in which a student is enrolled in both Blyth-Templeton and a local community college. Thus far, she says the practice is working well. Leaders take assessment and evaluation seriously. Although it is too soon to assess student outcomes, leaders do involve the students in evaluating their academic experience. They send out an anonymous survey every quarter asking the students for course feedback.
Palmer is passionate about what she is trying to do. She cares deeply about her students and endeavors to create an affordable and sustainable business model. She is off to a good start, but time will tell if this model will take root and become part of the new education landscape.
Readers of this blog may have differing reactions to Blyth-Templeton’s approach and to the concept of a for-profit school in general. But a few independent schools are wondering if the business model isn't a worthy one.
In this rapidly evolving education market, there is growing interest in launching micro-schools. A recent article in Education Week described micro-schools as "schools that have no more than 150 students in grades K–12; multiple ages learn together in a single classroom; teachers act more as guides than lecturers; there's a heavy emphasis on digital and project-based learning; and small class sizes" are typical. Micro-schools also tend to be less expensive than traditional independent schools.
We are likely to see many new education experiments in the years to come. Our bet is that NAIS member schools can and will be at the center of these innovations, and that we will continue to learn from all of them to improve our children’s lives.