When Kelly Telech bounds into a classroom at The Lexington School, excited students sometimes greet her with big smiles and even applause.
And she’s not giving away candy or free passes to Disneyland. No, Telech, a veteran educator in her second year at TLS, is teaching a class called “Imagine This.”
If that sounds like fun, you’re right.
Working in groups and with a deadline, students use drama to tackle all kinds of projects and problems in an exciting, hands-on format that teaches children how to be creative “whether they think they are creative or not,” Telech said.
“This is new to the students, but they are learning that they have the ability to be creative,” said Telech, who has a background as a problem-solving team coach.
Telech outlines the project at hand and then lets the students go with little intervention.
“Sometimes they start to argue and they learn to bounce back from that. The students have been awesome, just fabulous,” she said.
Anne de Castro, who has had five children attend TLS, can vouch for that.
“That class has been the biggest hit with my middle school and lower school children,” she said.
The class will be offered in lower and middle school this year and is an example of a ground-breaking shift in how TLS approaches education.
Along with traditional cognitive skills (reading, writing, math etc.), TLS has embraced the importance of 21st century non-cognitive skills, focusing on six traits: teamwork, creativity, ethics, resilience, curiosity and time management.
Research has shown that these skills are as crucial to academic and life success as sheer brainpower.
Nobel laureate James Heckman, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, has championed these skills, and Paul Tough, in his book “How Children Succeed,” outlined the importance of character in developing successful students and adults.
Character, Tough writes, is experiencing failure and overcoming it.
Schools purport to teach those skills – “Character Counts” signs adorn the walls of many classrooms – but how do you measure a school’s success in teaching teamwork? Or resilience? Or ethics?
To address that issue, TLS, along with some of the most prestigious independent elementary schools in the country, formed a pioneering collaborative that partnered with the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton-based company that administers the GRE among other tests.
With the help of Richard D. Roberts, Managing Principal Research Scientist at ETS, and a handful of his colleagues, these schools adopted the Mission Skills Assessment.
The MSA measures those six character traits and gives each school a scientific way to evaluate how well they are teaching those skills.
“The Lexington School is ahead of the curve among schools,” Roberts said.
“Researchers have been saying for 10 years that in education we’ve been ignoring non-cognitive skills.
“It’s gratifying as a researcher to work with schools willing to do innovation.”
Driving that innovation has been Chuck Baldecchi, Head of School at TLS since 2003. When hired a decade ago, he promised stability and consistency.
He also has strived to make TLS, a school of 565 students, 70 faculty members and only eight administrators, one of the nation’s top independent elementary schools.
“I want us to be aspirational at The Lexington School and be a top 10 school in the nation,” he said.
That’s why he initiated a partnership with 28 benchmark schools from around the country to share best practices.
Armed with data that defined the nation’s best schools, Baldecchi set out to match them in endowment, faculty salaries, giving from parents, financial aid and teaching contact hours among other yardsticks.
In all categories, TLS ranks near the top among the country’s best independent schools.
Baldecchi has used the data to increase teacher salaries and has motivated 90% of parents to donate to the school’s annual fund.
TLS is second highest among like schools in contact teaching hours, and in less than a decade, the school’s endowment has grown from $6 million to $28 million.
That allows TLS to award financial aid to 24% of its students, totaling $1.7 million annually.
Baldecchi is most proud of the quality of teaching at the school.
Average TLS students score above their public and independent school peers on the Educational Records Bureau (ERB) standardized test TLS graduates attend top boarding schools in the country plus prestigious magnet programs, both public and private, in Lexington.
“Great teaching is hands-on and kids doing real stuff, and that’s what we have here,” Baldecchi says.
“Very few schools take as much time as we do to stretch every kid to reach his or her potential.”
Hands-on work begins with writing. Middle schoolers write three-to-five page papers every month, and all students by the fifth grade write, design and bind their own novel.
Those practices will continue at TLS while the school raises its focus on 21st century skills like the ones taught by Telech in the “Imagine This” class.
That’s why the Mission Skills Assessment is so important.
Along with standardized test scores, TLS can learn how well each middle school class is mastering non-cognitive skills such as ethics and resilience.
“I’m all for this,” said de Castro, the mother of five TLS students. Her two oldest now attend The Academy at Henry Clay and Sayre School, respectively.
“Colleges are looking for these skills, for creativity and teamwork and ethics.
“My kids have been very well served by The Lexington School. Besides, these are skills that will last a lifetime.”
Signs of this emphasis are everywhere at the school.
All middle school students sign an honor pledge, and no lockers have locks.
“Imagine This” and other classes address creativity and curiosity. The school has a Resource Room to help with time management and other study skills, and TLS in its mission statement vows to teach courage to every child.
The school’s philosophy states that risk-taking leads to growth, and courage is a necessary component for taking risks.
“Encouraging risk-taking includes accepting failure,” Baldecchi said. “You can’t learn unless you make mistakes. That’s where teaching starts.”
The first MSA results have shown that TLS is measuring up to its mission, Baldecchi said.
To emphasize the MSA’s validity, Baldecchi points out that it derived from the U.S. Army’s desire to test for the same character traits in soldiers.
“This is a good accurate test of these character strengths and gives us good data,” he said
With an already stellar academic record combined with an increased focus on 21st century character skills, no wonder Baldecchi cites the school as a national leader.
“We have a special place here,” he said. “This isn’t rote learning that’s going on. We are cutting edge, innovative, but not trendy.
“This is incredibly exciting because adopting the MSA allows our faculty to look at the whole child and change how we assess kids.”