Why Can’t Public and Private Schools Get Along?
Some exciting efforts are underway to promote collaboration, improving education for all students.
At the 2015 Annual NAIS Conference in Boston, Todd Bland, Milton Academy (Massachusetts) head of school, explained what he describes as a misconception about the independent school sector:
When the word private school is named, still for a large percentage of our country, there is not any understanding whatsoever of the commitment that many of us have to make stronger the educational opportunities not just for the students that we serve, but the students who surround us in communities near us.
Seven years ago, he arrived at his prestigious Massachusetts institution eager to promote partnerships between different types of schools. That assertion seemed a direct response to a 2013 Slate article, “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person.” The author, Allison Benedikt, now the site’s news director, wrote, “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad — but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.” Had Benedikt bothered with some more news digging before writing her piece, she might have emphasized a different point — that a growing number of independent schools are helping public schools, whose students are benefiting from the aid. And this is not merely private schools paying lip service to noblesse oblige.
With many private high schools in New England charging over $40,000 a year in tuition, at first glance it seems natural to ask, “Why bother with public school students?” Independent school teachers have also heard criticism that their sector cares only about the bottom line and that their loyalties lie with those able to pay tuition or make donations. That is a gross generalization, and it needs to perish. Bland makes this case. He says he is passionate about helping public school students learn simply because it is the “right thing to do.”
For 38 years, Milton Academy has run The Saturday Course, an academic enrichment program where students from over 125 schools and 48 cities and towns participate in an array of learning activities. “All you need [to enroll in The Saturday Course] is to have a recommendation from the teacher and a passion and a desire to learn, and you can arrive at Milton at a very low cost on Saturdays for six weeks and be inspired,” Bland said.
Kristan Burke, one of the program’s directors, shared more about the program’s application process, which also involves working with participating school districts to identify high-achieving students who are “excited and motivated to be in a fast-paced learning environment.” Report cards, standardized test scores, and good behavior also factor into admission decisions. Five sessions (of six Saturdays each) are offered to students in grades 4 through 8, with about 1,000 students enrolled throughout the year. The program charges $331 total for each student per session, but financial aid is available. Burke noted, “We don’t deny anybody if they should be in the program.” Affirming the positive impact of the program, Mary Gormley, the superintendent of Milton’s public schools, said The Saturday Course does a “terrific job with providing an unbelievable opportunity to children,” especially students interested in unique subjects.
To see all of this in action, one just needs to take Bland up on his suggestion to attend a session of The Saturday Course, where last year, for the 10th straight week, even the snowy inclement weather didn’t prevent around 240 students from attending. In a course titled “Speed Racing” and taught by Jeffrey Cateon — public school principal of Willett Elementary School in Attleboro, Massachusetts — students experimented with physics by building toy-sized racing boats made of rubber bands and styrofoam. Cateon, who has been at The Saturday Course for 19 years, helps students learn through trial and error. “When they ask questions, I don’t give them all of the answers. I want them to be able to discover on their own,” he said. Avoiding answering questions to which students can find answers by themselves leads to students becoming persistent, inquisitive, and open to learning from failure, affirming key qualities valued by teachers in both the independent and the public school sectors.
Susan Barclay, a public school special education teacher at the Thacher Elementary School, also in Attleboro, Massachusetts, provides further affirmation for such private-public partnerships. In her “Bloodier and Guttier” course, kids find out more about the ways living things work. Recently, students were conducting a frog dissection to understand its digestive system. One might squirm at the sight of guts and organs, but the students marveled at the learning. They uttered “Oohs” and “Ahhs,” while looking on mere inches away from the incision. “Here, students want to know everything,” said Barclay, who has been at The Saturday Course since the program’s beginning. As she moved around workstations, students continued to examine their frog’s innards while learning about the digestive system.
Seldom is enough done to foster understanding and collaboration among teachers and administrators from different types of schools. That includes sharing ideas about lesson planning, assessment, and how to integrate new pedagogy and technology effectively into the classroom. All of this is of critical importance, as noted by John Chubb, the late president of the National Association of Independent Schools, the nonprofit organization that represents over 1,400 private schools in the United States:
Today, every school, whether public, public-charter or private, faces major challenges — preparing students for a rapidly changing future, blending technology with great teaching, serving a much more diverse population, living with fewer economic resources, and more. No school or sector has a monopoly on good ideas. It just makes sense for different types of schools to come together and learn from one another.
There is no better way to help break down those barriers than by encouraging and helping teachers gain experience (and comfort) in all types of educational settings, including having independent school teachers lead public school classrooms and vice versa. Coincidentally, when I spoke to them, Gormley and Bland had just returned from a yearly meeting with other school leaders from both the independent and public sectors in Milton, addressing how cooperation can benefit all students from all schools — and even a local college. “We brainstorm and we share,” Gormley says. “I don’t think you’d find many communities that have that kind of initiative.”
Milton Academy is not the only private school helping public school students succeed. In 2005, Punahou School (Hawaii), the largest single-campus private school in the United States, launched the Clarence T.C. Ching PUEO Program, or Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities. The program “identifies middle and high school students in neighboring public schools with high academic potential but with low economic opportunity.”
James Kapae‘alii Scott, the president of Punahou, noted that Punahou’s summer enrichment program, like The Saturday Program at Milton Academy, is not designed to recruit students away from public schools. Punahou recently received an additional $6 million grant from The Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation to support PUEO — in addition to $3 million donated in 2009. As Scott has noted, “We are blessed with strong demand for entrance, ample resources, and robust fund-raising.”
PUEO relies on the Hawaii State Department of Education for candidate nominations, notes Carl Ackerman, who, in addition to teaching history at Punahou, also directs the program. More than 300 students are enrolled in the seven-year summer enrichment track — from graduating fifth-graders to high school juniors — all at no charge. Several activities also occur throughout the academic year, and PUEO even provides free college counseling for seniors who have formally graduated from the program. “Ninety-nine percent of our kids will actually graduate from high school, which is a huge percentage,” Ackerman said.
Ninety-five percent of our kids are accepted into college, and then about eighty to eighty-five percent will be enrolled. Some kids will drop out of college, and the reasons for that are many, but the biggest is finances — some kids will be admitted to college, but they won’t get full packages.
PUEO students have matriculated at Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Williams, the University of Hawaii, and the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. In the spring, members of the program’s first cohort will graduate from college.
For the $14,500 tuition, which supports a student’s entire eight-year experience, including senior college counseling, Punahou relies on a superior combination of funding, passion, and expertise. But even for institutions that lack one or more of those characteristics, an important truth should be gleaned from what Scott and Ackerman are helping to achieve. It is possible for independent schools to make a difference beyond their institutional walls by helping public school students succeed.
Naomi Matsuzaki, who retired last year as principal of Kahalu‘u Elementary School in Kaneohe, Hawaii, agrees. She worked in an impoverished community, where many students reside in neighboring housing or family homesteads and rarely consider the idea of attending college. “Many of these children aspire to just get married and have kids, that’s it,” Matsuzaki told me. PUEO is helping reverse that trend. “Parents are proud when their children are accepted into the program,” Matsuzaki said. “Being accepted into the program not only impacts the child, but their parents, who change their values and goals to help all of their children [attend college],” Matsuzaki said, explaining that this is a challenging adjustment — especially for parents who rely on their children working over the summer for support. “The family really has to make a sacrifice, but they are really committed to making education a priority and finding a way to make this work.” When PUEO launched, Kahalu‘u Elementary could send two new students per year. With more funding, that number is now up to 10.
As if Ackerman didn’t have enough on his plate, he also serves as a director of Private Schools with Public Purpose, which strives to “serve all our students by forming partnerships within school communities (private, public, charter, home-schools), non-profits, foundations, businesses, and any other entity that can support students.” The organization hosts an annual conference to support its mission. Milton Academy and Punahou School are also members of the National Network of Schools in Partnership, which supports collaboration between public, private, and charter schools.
Executive Director Blake Kohn said that after launching two years ago with 50 members, the organization has now grown to over 135 schools. “Strong partnerships are beneficial to all stakeholders,” Kohn said. “Not only do the students and teachers learn from one another, but the schools build solid relationships, and the community as a whole becomes more engaged in the success of all students.”
Kohn’s words appeal to reason, and Benedikt and her article’s supporters should listen. Perhaps then the misconception about independent schools that Bland outlines will begin to fade, and more people can focus on what really matters — helping students succeed, no matter what type of school they attend.
Originally published at www.nais.org.