5 Trending Topics No Elementary School Leader Should Miss: Private Schools in a Public Context

Five trends no elementary school head should miss: this is the assignment my colleague Mary Menacho gave me for my remarks to Elementary School Heads Association (ESHA) members and prospective members at a gathering earlier this month at Trinity School in Menlo Park, CA. I tweaked the focus from “trends” to “trending topics” to give myself the latitude to address issues on which there’s buzz, even if we’re not yet seeing considerable traction. I’ve given you the big five from where I sit. Here’s that sixth topic promised — the one that I believe we need to kindle.

#6, for kindling: Private schools in a public context

You’ll find “public purpose” and “public partnership” in current and recent issues of Independent School magazine, in the indy schools Twitter realm, and — a harbinger of progress, perhaps — in a recent publication from the U.S. Department of Education. Search “public partnership” on the National Association of Independent Schools website, and you’ll generate more than 50 relevant links.

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Harth’s “glocal” illustration, NAES Biennial Conference, 11/20/10 (Photo: Claudia Daggett)

I’d like to push us to re-frame this conversation in a subtle but important way. Much like our shift in thinking from community service to service learning, I believe we need to take the next step and begin to think about our work in connection to our communities (no matter how largely defined) as reciprocal and in context. Let’s throw out any semblance of the noblesse oblige attitude that we get involved in order to serve those less fortunate. Instead, we get involved because shared endeavors benefit us all, “raise us all up,” if you will.

Chris Harth’s model of “glocal” citizenship inspires me here. I first read of Harth’s model for wedding global and local service learning in “Going Glocal: Adaptive Education for Local and Global Citizenship,” in the Fall 2010 issue of Independent School magazine. Since then, I’ve had the privilege to hear him speak three times. He has me in his grips as soon as he brings out his Russian nesting dolls and places the school inside the town, the state, the U.S., and the world. He makes the case that we need to think of and teach about students’ multiple levels of belongingness, about citizenship in a new and broader way.

My hope is that our institutional self-images evolve, as well, to include school as citizen — of its local community, its region, and the world.

Why is this a good idea?

  1. We should do the right thing.  Let’s begin with the moral imperative. We live in this world and have a responsibility to be a part of it.
  2. We should offer a breadth of experiences and perspectives. Approached thoughtfully, widening our arc is good for students, parents, and faculty — making our experiences more diverse and richer as a result.
  3. We should pay it forward. Community awareness of your school can improve your position in the admissions market, attract new benefactors, engender a general feeling of support from neighbors and town that — in addition to its “feel good” qualities — can be helpful down the line.
  4. We should bproactive. Reinforcing the charitable aspect of your organization helps to secure your non-profit status.

What might this look like?

  • Reciprocal partnerships with public schools and other public-oriented non-profits.  Especially impressive in this department are the student-to-student programs in which both populations are in a position to both give and receive. The recently-established National Network of Schools in Partnership offers several good examples. The NAIS video library offers four interviews with representatives of schools doing good work in this area, a collection compiled by Matthew Bradley of East Woods School in conjunction with Whitney Work, NAIS Director of Legislative Affairs, Jefferson Burnett, NAIS VP, Government and Community Relations, and ESHA.
  • Relationships with local and state legislators and government officials, particularly in order to further the common good. An impressive example: William Penn Charter School saw it as their civic responsibility to participate in a Philadelphia School Reform Commission hearing in March 2013, protesting the potential closing of their local public elementary school. Meet your local public school superintendent for coffee. Invite your state representative to tour your school.
  • A campus periodically open to the surrounding community. During my tenure as Head of School at Friends Academy, we offered the community a free summer concert on the grounds and garnered foundation support to fund high-quality professional children’s entertainment as a draw. Old Trail School hosts a farmers’ market.

Let’s consider our sense of place in new ways. Let’s think of ourselves as part of the fabric: in context.

Recommended reading:

Bassett, P. Avoiding the tragedy of the commons. Independent School (NAIS), Spring 2011.

Drinkwater, D., & Smethurst, J. Partnership now: A paradigm shift in education. Independent School (NAIS), Spring 2011.

Gow, P. Defining the public purpose of independent schools. Independent Schools: Common Perspectives, EdWeek, 4/12/13.

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