What Independent Schools Can Learn From New Education Models

Independent schools are trying to keep pace with rapid changes in the demographic, economic, and social composition of their student and parent populations. At the same time, new forms of competition have emerged, providing alternative school options for parents and their children. Despite this, most independent schools continue to provide the same type of education with little variation.

Many schools have made changes in the form of adding programs or services that are perceived as being valuable to parents as well as upgrading facilities, but these changes have contributed to the increasing cost of educating a child in independent schools. Tuition and cost of living increases have made most independent schools unaffordable for middle- and some high-income families. How can we continue providing a top-notch education while keeping our schools affordable?

To understand the forces at play and to help independent schools better compete, NAIS examined schools with different financial and educational models. Over the course of three months, we conducted a review of publicly available information, interviewed administrators at six U.S. schools, and created profiles that highlight some of the distinguishing attributes of each school. Three school profiles follow; all six profiles are available here.

Blyth-Templeton Academy

Blyth-Templeton Academy, a college-preparatory high school in Washington, DC, combines very small class sizes with city-wide learning opportunities. Blyth-Templeton opened on Capitol Hill in 2015 and is scheduled to open a campus in New York City for the 2017–2018 school year.

Blyth-Templeton’s curriculum focuses on immersive, student-centered experiential learning, where teachers teach what the students want to learn. The experiential learning is not just an occasional field trip, but a daily and weekly part of the school’s curriculum. Blyth-Templeton’s academic year is divided into four terms, each term lasting about two months. During a term, students study only two subjects, allowing them to explore various subjects in greater depth than in a normal school schedule. Students follow a daily schedule consisting of three two-hour periods. During these three periods, students study an array of traditional academic subjects, such as math, science, or history that are combined with travel time around DC to make it experiential. The final two hours of a student’s day consists of an open period, where the student is free to write papers, work on projects, or study for tests. Teachers are available during this period to assist students with their work. In addition to traditional coursework, the students complete several courses that are more adaptive to their personal interests. These courses explore the students’ interests in a more personalized way, while simultaneously helping them to develop their critical and creative-thinking capacity.

Blyth-Templeton is part of the Blyth Education family, a private Toronto-based company founded in 1977, that offers secondary education and educational credit programs. Belonging to the Blyth Education network means that students at Blyth-Templeton can take Advanced Placement (AP) courses through Blyth-Templeton Academy Online, study overseas with the Blyth-Templeton Academy Global High School, or even do an academic quarter at a Blyth-Templeton Academy High School in Canada.

Fully funded by tuition, Blyth-Templeton has no fundraising events. In 2016–2017, the tuition was $14,850, compared to $37,030, the median day school tuition in DC. The school also offers financial support via financial aid or merit scholarships; about 20 percent of students receive financial support. One of the main reasons Blyth-Templeton is able to provide this type of education at such a lower cost is that instead of spending money on new facilities, labs, or athletic fields, the school uses existing community resources. Operating out of the Hill Center, a community center close to the U.S. Capitol, Blyth-Templeton rents classroom space in the center, paying only for the space while it is used. Instead of buses or vans, students navigate the city via public transportation and walking. School libraries and textbooks have been replaced by laptops and trips to a local public library. There are no athletic teams, but students who want to participate do so in clubs or leagues outside of school.

Rather than lecturing, Blyth-Templeton teachers facilitate academic discussion in the classroom. The
average class size is eight students. The school currently operates with seven faculty members and five school leadership positions. The school’s compensation is comparable to other schools; however, Blyth-Templeton offers part-time faculty positions for those interested in other pursuits. This flexibility helps attract talent and allows faculty to pursue outside endeavors such as graduate school or other work.

BASIS Independent Schools

BASIS Independent Schools, a network of pre-K–12 private schools, combines a STEM-focused education with an emphasis on foreign language skills to provide students with a practical education for the 21st century. BASIS places heavy emphasis on science and mathematics in the classroom. Students begin studying chemistry, biology, and physics in sixth grade, and begin high school math during middle school. Upon graduation, all BASIS students will have taken all three sciences at the honors level, one AP science course, and one AP math course. Foreign languages are also a critical component of the curriculum. All students begin studying Mandarin as early as pre-kindergarten and are given the option to continue Mandarin or learn a new language in middle school. Many high school students elect to take AP courses in their respective languages, often studying Mandarin, Latin, French, or Spanish at the college level.

During senior year, all BASIS students take capstone courses, studying advanced subjects ranging from quantum mechanics to game theory and political philosophy. Students spend their last trimester completing a senior project, which allows them to apply their knowledge to an area of their choosing. Senior projects are guided by a staff mentor, and can take the form of internships, university-level research, field work domestically or abroad, and other options depending on a student’s individual interests.

The BASIS promise includes that not only will students graduate with a deep understanding of academic disciplines and a mastery of traditional skills, but also that they will learn to innovate and think across disciplinary silos and become 21st century knowledge workers. While most schools have similar goals, BASIS prides itself as having a proven track record of great student outcomes as measured by both national and international ranking—like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Test for Schools—and college acceptance rates. The OECD Test for Schools is based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and provides information on students’ performance in math, reading, and science compared to other students at schools in the United States and the world.

Class sizes at BASIS Independent Schools vary between 20 and 25 students. The elementary classes have a unique teaching approach: Each first- to fourth-grade class is staffed by two joint teachers. The first teacher is a subject expert, who has a degree in whatever subject they are teaching. The second teacher is a learning expert, whose job is to help facilitate the holistic development of students, focusing on their emotional and social development. The joint teacher model ensures that students will learn from teachers who are experts in their
field, while developing more general emotional/interpersonal habits simultaneously. Teachers also have two hours of “student time” set aside to support students individually and in small groups.

Funded by a tuition rate that varies from $22,900–$29,500 depending on the grade and location, there is no fundraising or state/federal money. This is possible in part because BASIS Independent Schools are managed by BASIS Education, a company that started with operating charter schools. When BASIS Education expanded into opening private schools, the company drew on 15 years of experience with fiscal control and responsibility. Teachers are paid competitively, but BASIS schools aim to restrict facilities spending to only what is necessary to deliver a competitive educational program.

BASIS Education currently operates 28 schools across the United States and the world, including charter schools and independent schools in Silicon Valley, California (5–12); Brooklyn, New York (pre–K10); McLean, Virginia (preschool-11); Fremont, California (K–8); and the BASIS International School in Shenzhen, China (preschool–12). BASIS plans to expand its current U.S. locations and open private schools in other cities around the country; another New York campus (K–8) is set to open in Manhattan in 2017. Internationally, BASIS plans to open a second school in China by September 2017 and is opening its first European location in Prague in 2020.

Acton Academy

Student agency—the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation—is at the heart of the Acton Academy model. Acton is a learner-driven community that strongly believes children can plan their school day and manage their time. It’s modeled on a one-room schoolhouse, enrolling 36 students in the elementary studio, 36 in the middle school studio, and between 36 and 48 students in the high school studio. The school year consists of trimesters spread out over 11 months, during which students engage in real-world projects, apprenticeships, state-of-the-art educational gaming or “quests,” and Socratic discussions in a multiage classroom.

The educational approach is based on a concept Acton refers to as the “Hero’s Journey,” which seeks to help students discover how they can live a life of meaning and purpose and develop hands-on skills that will allow them to do something that will change the world. No homework is assigned at Acton; however, students are able to access multiple learning programs like ST Math, Khan Academy, and Dreambox at home. Instead, “young heroes” celebrate the mastery of tools, skills, and character by earning badges, assembling portfolios, and taking part in public exhibitions. Parents use these badges to track academic progress in core skills, like reading, writing, math, and spelling, and character development. Electronic and hard copy portfolios capture rough drafts, photos, video, and other creative work. Public exhibitions at the end of most quests allow young heroes to present work to experts, customers, or the public for a real-world test.

Acton Academy opened its first location in 2009 in Austin, Texas, and has since opened another 25 U.S. and international campuses. Schools (as well as parent groups and entrepreneurs) can apply to become part of the Acton network. Most of the schools in the Acton network are nonprofits, and tuitions depend on each school location and offerings. In 2016­–2017, tuition ranged between $500 and $1,000 per month. Acton Academy in Austin reports an annual cost-per-student at $4,300. This low cost may be a direct consequence of the teaching model: Students are supervised by adult “guides” who are more of a support resource than a traditional teacher. The school is run with fewer adults than what you typically find in other schools, which in turn, saves money in overhead.

Acton plans to continue opening additional campuses in 2017 across the United States and in various countries around the world, with the goal of opening 50 to 100 schools a year. There seems to be growing interest in the Acton model: The school has received 2,500 applications from parents who want to start their own school, representing about 100 applications a week. This doesn’t mean that Acton runs these schools; it provides them with kits and resources to use as guidelines for creating an Acton-inspired learning experience.

Modeling These Models

The approach that these schools are taking—combining a teaching model that is more student-centered with a business model that focuses on what is core to providing an excellent education—might not be a good match for the mission of some independent schools, but the inherent practices offer a lot to consider and explore.

  • Balancing low-cost and quality education. A brick-and-mortar type of school, while offering the latest and greatest in facilities, programs, and services, comes with a high price tag. Many for-profit schools prioritize their investments in teaching core academic programs, while outsourcing extracurricular activities. What are the programs and services that your school could outsource? Are there opportunities at your school to take a more minimal approach to facilities and lower operating costs?
  • Understanding your niche market. Many schools offer a wide selection of programs and services trying to please as many parents as possible. However, by being the school for everyone, you’re risking not being the right school for anyone. It’s important to clearly differentiate your school’s offerings from your competition and communicate these differences to prospective families. What type of parents are the best match for your school’s mission? (See sidebar below, “Parent Profiles”) What are the types of messages that resonate best with them?
  • Delivering on the promises of personalized learning. Many independent schools say they offer personalized learning, but to what extent are you offering students the opportunity to decide what to learn, how to learn it, and when to learn it? Consider what programs or services your school offers to guide students in pursuing a career. Are there additional opportunities to help students explore their interests or to connect them with professionals in relevant fields?

Sidebar: Parent Profiles

What type of parents does your school attract—or want to attract? NAIS’s Parent Motivations Study can help you learn more about the parents in your school community.

The 2011 study sought to understand high-income parents’ attitudes and motivations about independent schools and examined how parents learn about various school options, what they value in an education, and what persuades them to select independent schools. The study identified five parent personas: Challenge Seekers, Success-Driven Parents, Right Fit Parents, Character-Building Parents, and Public School Proponents.

Members can download the full study, which includes an in-depth look at each persona as well as messages that resonate with each segment and tips to help you reach out to parents more effectively, here.
Amada Torres
Amada Torres

Amada Torres is vice president for studies, insights, and research at NAIS.

Joseph Corbett

Joseph Corbett is a research assistant at NAIS.