Public Purpose and the Mission of Independent Schools

Spring 2008

By Tom Little and Jim Scott

Editor's Note: While Albert Adams, head of Lick-Wilmerding High School (California) was working on his article — "The Intersection of Public Purpose and Institutional Advocacy" — for this issue of Independent School, he contacted other West Coast school heads to get a better sense of the way public purpose informs daily life in their schools. What follows is the essential outline of a few other public-purpose programs.

Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, California
Grades: K-12, 1,141 Students
Roger Weaver, Head

Something I realized a long time ago is that independent schools have a serious public relations problem. They are seldom, if ever, referred to in the press without the word “exclusive" or "elite" preceding the school name. Independent schools are broadly viewed as gated, moated bastions of wealthy white privilege. And there is a reason this is the public reputation of "private" schools. They've earned it.

The way this can shift is if enough schools understand the power and value of public benefit work undertaken by non-public schools.

At Crossroads, from our founding days, we required community service as a graduation requirement for students. What really gave more validity to that requirement, however, was when, some 20 years ago, we made a commitment to institutional community service as well.

The result of that commitment — which is supported by the board, reflected in the school’s mission statement, and widely publicized in the school and greater community — is that public purpose thinking and action are integral in the life of the school and in my work as head. As well as being the head of school at Crossroads, I am also the president of the Crossroads Community Outreach Foundation, which we created to carry out our public-purpose agenda.

Our efforts have made a difference. Our original initiative — to assist public schools restoration of arts education in a post-Proposition 13 world — has grown to the point where it is now a free-standing 501(c)3 organization. This entity, P.S. Arts, provides fully funded, hands-on, sequential skill-building programs in drama, dance, music, and visual arts to over 12,000 public school students in the Los Angeles area and California's Central Valley.

Now, in the post-No Child Left Behind world, where subjects that are not tested are not taught, we find there is little or no science instruction in the early elementary grades at many schools. We are in the third year of developing a weekly discovery-based science program (P.S. Science) that, we hope, will replicate the success of our arts initiative.

I have also had modest success in bringing other independent schools into public-purpose work. There is a small, terribly under-funded Catholic elementary school in our neighborhood, Saint Anne School, the only Title I non-public school in Santa Monica. I was able to get six other local schools to provide a person to serve on a "support council," which last year raised $200,000 in support of Saint Anne's. It's a meager sum by many fund-raising standards, but the effort has made a real difference in the life of that institution, and the six participating schools are now firmly committed to the work.

Many schools have tremendous resources, networks, and capacities to be a powerful force for education beyond their own walls. Whether they choose to do anything with it is simply a matter of values, vision, and will.

Park Day School, Oakland, California
Grades K-8, 290 Students
Tom Little, Head

The public mission of Park Day School is principally centered on our partnership with public schools. As a progressive school, our mission calls upon us to serve children beyond the boundaries of our own school, and engage more broadly with the public school community.

For me, as head of school, this partnership connects me to a broader spectrum of educational issues and enhances my understanding of the challenges confronting a diverse population of students and the best strategies for serving those students. In my work, I routinely meet with personnel from the school district or from the faculty and staff of our neighborhood public schools. This learning informs the leadership that I can bring to my own school, and brings a measure of perspective that is incalculable.

The public-private partnership has become part of the DNA of our school and, thus, my own DNA as an educator. It is always prominent when I promote our programs, or describe our school’s philosophy and teaching practice. Our reach becomes far greater. The collaboration with Oakland Public schools has put Park Day School on the map. For example, this past year, Park Day School was featured in two articles in The New York Times. In the same year, I was invited to make a presentation about our partnerships at the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) Heads and Trustees Conference in Los Angeles. Given that Park Day School is not a member of CAIS, the invitation speaks to the growing reputation that the school has garnered, and the leadership that we are contributing in the area of public mission. I am frequently being called on to present and consult on the topic of public mission. It all makes real the notion that we as educators are contributing to the greater society.

At our school, the partnerships have stimulated positive contagion among parents and students. Through the programs, we are developing among students a conscious awareness of their city and the public schools. This learning contributes to their worldview and encourages civic involvement. It creates friendships beyond their independent school cohort and engages them with a far more diverse community. My experience is that Park Day School parents love supporting the public schools, especially in Oakland, where the schools have faced fiscal crisis in recent years. This advances for parents a sense that their child’s school is reaching a greater segment of society, and brings a sense of pride and ownership. We have found that our parents are more willing to contribute time and resources to the school because of our partnership programs.

One of the most profound ways that our public mission has affected my work is that it gives me a sense that Park Day School can bring influence to bear in the broader discussion about education. Especially in an era when public schools are driven by prescribed curriculum, standardized tests, and normative standards, our partnership programs have proven to be successful alternative models of progressive teaching practices. Time and again, we have seen public school teachers shift their curriculum to reflect the mentorship and modeling they have received at Park Day School.

Park Day School Public Purpose Projects:

Literacy Development, Anti-Bullying, Family Support Projects, Mindfulness Training, Mentoring (partnering with the Public Schools).

  1. Book Drives: For over a decade, Park Day School has sponsored book drives to bring books and children’s literature to classrooms in the Oakland Public Schools. Our school alone has provided over 100,000 books for teachers in the Oakland district. Moreover, we have sponsored book drives at independent schools throughout the Bay Area, and those schools have been responsible for bringing thousands of books to children in the public schools.
  2. Reading Buddies: Park Day sponsors a training program to bring reading buddy programs to public schools. For many years, the older students from Park Day School have been reading buddies with the younger children at Emerson Elementary School, our neighborhood public school. Now, the older students from Emerson visit the younger children at Park Day School as their reading buddies. We have trained many other independent schools, and the teachers at several public schools, who now have active reading programs.
  3. Heroes Writing Projects: The older students at Park Day School visit and make good friends with the younger children at our neighborhood public school, Emerson. The students interview the younger children to find out about their hopes and dreams, and some specific information about their individual lives. The students then write an original "Hero" story, with the younger child as the central hero character. The books are presented as gifts to the young children, and the students read them together. We have trained many volunteers and teachers to be able to carry out this project.
  4. Anti-Bullying Campaign: Second grade students from Emerson and Park Day School work together, learning about bullying, then publishing an anti-bullying guide for children throughout the school district.
  5. Mother's Day Fund-Raising Card: The third graders from Park Day School and Emerson collaborate with Family Support Services of the East Bay by creating a Mother's Day Fundraising card that is sold in order to raise funds for needy families in the east bay.
  6. Food Bags for Needy Families: Working with local retailers, the kindergarten children from Park Day School weekly sort and bag food to present to the Emerson families most in need of assistance. This provides much-needed food for families at the end of the week, when funds are often short among these families.
  7. Science Buddies: The fourth and fifth grade students from Emerson are the science buddies for the kindergarteners at Park Day School. Each week, the students visit and help the kindergarteners record their science observations in science logs. This helps the children at Emerson see themselves and serving a vital teaching role for the students and it helps a great deal with their self-esteem.
  8. Mindfulness Training: Park Day School is sponsoring a program in the Oakland public schools to develop teachers to bring mindfulness training and stress reduction techniques to the students of Oakland public schools. This past year, over 750 students have been trained in this mindfulness practice.
  9. Classroom Volunteer Training: Park Day School trains volunteers to be placed in the public school classrooms in Oakland. The school district adopted the Park Day School training program as the basis for training all district classroom volunteers.
  10. Student Presentations and Performances: The students from Emerson and Park Day School present to one another student performances, oratorical pieces, or special presentations throughout the school year.
  11. Specialist Programs: Park Day School provides classes to Emerson students in art and music. The district does not provide the funding to the public schools to offer these programs.
  12. Mentorship/Teacher Training Programs: Park Day School has sponsored teacher mentorship programs throughout the Oakland Public School District. Over the years, dozens of public and private school teachers have mentored new teachers through this program, and many teachers from Park Day School conduct curriculum and teaching workshops to teachers from the district.

Last year, Park Day School sponsored a Public-Private Partnership symposium for representatives of the local school districts, independent schools, and several local educational organizations. The symposium was held at one of the Oakland small autonomous schools and Deborah Meier provided a keynote talk. From this symposium, there is heightened interest in public-private collaboration, with ongoing program development resulting from the effort.

The San Francisco School, San Francisco, California
Grades: PS-8, 272 Students
Terry Edeli, Head

The San Francisco School’s commitment to public purpose falls within our all-encompassing pledge to Institutional Responsibility. The school's overarching goal is "To be an exemplary community in environmentally and socially responsible policies and actions at the student, adult, and institutional levels." The School's Public Purpose and Institutional Responsibility Committee is charged to work with the head of school to carry out a broad and challenging mandate: 

  • Institutionalize: Develop, promote, and sustain policies and organizational structures that institutionalize and ensure ongoing attention to public purpose, civic engagement, and institutional responsibility.
  • Model: Assure adult activities that teach and model social and environmental action.
  • Teach: Develop student expectations and educational programs, including service learning and social action across the grades.
  • Initiate and Collaborate: Initiate and collaborate on public-purpose programs that serve The San Francisco School neighborhood, the city, and the broader educational community.

Institutionalize: As clarified in our most recent round of strategic planning, A Broad and Adventurous Look at the Future, the San Francisco School's commitment to institutional responsibility is rooted in an understanding that responsible institutional policies and actions have global impact just as clearly as they inform individual local behaviors. Examples of institutional action in this arena include establishing a Board Committee for Institutional Responsibility, explicit board commitments to green and sustainable buildings and socially responsible investing, and actions such as a school-wide commitment to "almost zero waste" (The San Francisco School received the NAIS 2007 Award for Environmental Sustainability), and the installation of a 24 KW solar system.

Model: Being cognizant of the fact that adult behaviors teach and model social and environmental action, another aspect of Institutional Responsibility is sponsoring parent and faculty activities that model for students the role that engaged and responsible citizens play in their communities. Our summer faculty preparations now begin with a faculty service-learning project, and a core responsibility of our traditional room parents is to co-host a school-wide (parent-teacher-student) community service project, so that we can be assured that our students see their parents and their teachers taking action in the community. On the fund-raising front, the school annual auction has a sliding-scale admission, and the annual walkathon fund-raiser is budgeted to devote a percentage of the profits to public purpose initiatives.

Teach: The San Francisco School mission includes the "celebration and cultivation of the humanitarian promise of each student," and we strive to engender in every student "the awareness, skills, and courage to take action in the interest of equity, justice, multiculturalism, sustainable living, and peace." Every teacher is expected to seek and develop service-learning projects that are integrated into the core curriculum. For instance, the second graders, who study food, recently harvested vegetables at a local farm, and then delivered the produce to a local food bank, where they subsequently helped in the serving — all of which became the source of experience for their study of both the technology and fairness of food distribution. Fifth graders partner with a public newcomer school, using their Spanish to communicate with recent immigrants, just as the recent immigrants have the opportunity to practice their English with our students.

Initiate and Collaborate: Traditional public-purpose activities fall within the realm of initiating and collaborating in the civic and educational world. Over the recent years, The San Francisco School has initiated and funded within the school's operating budget a free community arts program for neighborhood children, collaborated in the founding of a teacher-training program that awards a California State Credential, and is partnering with Friends of the Library to raise money and furnish a new district library.

At the heart of all these initiatives is the core belief that The San Francisco School has an institutional responsibility to both teach and model all that we hope our children will strive to create in society. Whether the activity is public purpose, social action, environmental sustainability, socially responsible investing, the head of school's challenge is to see that institutional responsibility is embedded in school organizational structure, policy, budget, curriculum, and daily behavior of both the student the adult community.

Punahou School, Honolulu, Hawaii
Grades: K-12, 3,758 Students
Jim Scott, President

As I begin my 14th year as president of Punahou School, what continues to inspire and energize me is the part of the school's mission that is explicit about creating an educational environment that fosters social responsibility. Although students are the focus of the school's mission, our aspiration is to engage Punahou’s faculty, parents, and alumni to consider their obligation to a larger public purpose and to support Punahou's leadership within the community.

Over the years, we have integrated community service into a required economics course for seniors. We have developed a Center for Public Service that creates and supports service opportunities, promotes service through school-wide initiatives, and convenes conversations about improving Hawaii’s future. We have forged partnerships with neighboring public schools to help raise the aspirations and preparation for middle and high school students to attend four-year colleges and universities. We are also striving to become more of an economic cross-section of the community by funding 100 percent of demonstrated financial need of every admitted student in all grades.

Although these public purpose initiatives have been successfully launched, what is needed from the head of school is continuous nurturing, attentiveness, and advocacy. This has been a central part of my leadership. Helping to shape the school's agenda and to marshal the required resources to implement these initiatives have been driven and supported by an enlightened board of trustees.

I also believe that we have been able to engage, sustain, and grow teachers and administrators because of Punahou’s demonstrated interest in reaching out into the community. We have created opportunities for teachers to lead in areas that ultimately resonate with their passion and conviction.

Albuquerque Academy, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Grades: 6-12, 1,087 Students
Andy Watson, Head

When I arrived at Albuquerque Academy seven years ago, I was accustomed to evaluating public purpose in a school by looking at outreach and service programs, their place within school life, and effectiveness in making a difference in the greater community. This remains a very important measure, but now I’m more inclined to ask, "How can a school make a fundamental difference in the life of a community, as opposed to an incremental difference, through its outreach programs?"

So — along with supporting student-driven outreach programs, providing financial assistance to other schools and nonprofits in the region, sharing in national professional activities in support of education in general, and teaching students about the role of nonprofits through our signature Community Builders program — the academy, first and foremost, will continue to focus on serving students from every neighborhood in the city and educating families about the fact that, while gaining admission to the academy can be a challenge, no one need hesitate to apply due to financial constraints. And should the day ever come when our financial resources exceed the need we have for them in educating our 1,100 students, we will be looking for ways to fundamentally, not incrementally, change more student lives for the better.

To put it more simply, our essential mission is to educate students from throughout the city and region (197 new students this year from 104 different schools), regardless of the financial means of their families. And when this mission-based student body then goes to work in its own, creative, public-purpose enterprises, a multiple of goodness is achieved, and then multiplied again as our alumni move into their adult lives.

So, if you are driving through Albuquerque and see a billboard or two (perhaps written in Spanish) and wonder why a school like Albuquerque Academy seems to need to advertise as part of its admission program, please note that we aren’t trying to attract more students to apply for statistical bragging rights, but, rather, we are sending the signal that we serve the entire city. We provide the opportunity for elementary school students, driving in the car with a parent, to ask, "What’s the Albuquerque Academy, Mom? Can I go there?" And this question might be the start of something that will impact a family and a community forever.

The Head-Royce School, Oakland, California
Grades: K-12, 776 Students
Paul Chapman, Head

The Head-Royce School believes that civic purpose is a vital part of our mission to foster in our students a commitment to constructive and responsible global citizenship. Our goal is to prepare citizen leaders who demonstrate social responsibility, an ethic of service, a deep appreciation of diversity, and a passion for democratic ideals. Our school has a significant role to play in helping to make our community a better place, by forging connections with our local, national, and global community. To achieve this mission, the school offers a K–12 service-learning program, emphasizes our students' political awareness, nurtures our cornerstone and innovative partnerships, and fosters global perspective in the educational program.

The school has developed a range of local and international partnerships to support our students’ civic engagement. For 20 years, our Heads Up Program has provided a year-round enrichment program for middle school students in partnership with the Oakland Unified School District. The school's K–12 service learning program helps our students to learn about the diversity in the wider world. In the lower school, service learning is built into the curriculum. In middle school, students engage in projects through their advising groups. In the upper school, all ninth graders participate in a yearlong service learning seminar on topics ranging from public education and poverty to learning differences and human rights.

Annually, upper school students contribute over 4,000 hours of service to the community through such long-running partnerships as Rebuilding Together, Habitat for Humanity, and the Berkeley Men's Shelter. Our students have engaged in global service learning projects around the world through our affiliations with organizations like Amigos de las Americas, the Pardada Pardadi School for Girls in India, and individually initiated projects from Guatemala to Malawi. And for professional development, we helped launch several collaborative partnerships, including the Bay Area Global Education Network (BAGEN), which has sponsored several summer conferences for teachers at Stanford and UC Berkeley focused on global studies, the People of Color in Independent Schools (POCIS), and the Bay Area Teacher Development Collaborative.

At Head-Royce, we are making connections that we hope will inspire our students to become global citizen leaders, ready to give back to the community and eager to make a difference.

Tom Little

Tom Little is a NAIS contributor.

Jim Scott

Jim Scott is a NAIS contributor.