Partnership Now

Spring 2011

By David Drinkwater and Jacqueline Smethurst

A late August football jamboree — a golden evening with relaxed but enthusiastic fans looking forward to a typical year in New Orleans (where 40 percent of the students attended private schools). But that Friday night also brought rumblings of a hurricane in the Gulf — tracking for the city. On Sunday, residents began lumbering slowly away in cars packed with overnight gear, family photographs, some livestock. No one expected what would happen next. The hurricane hit hard with a massive tidal surge, fracturing the levees and flooding the city, and turning a short excursion into exile as toxic devastation spread. Many public schools and some independent schools — including ours — were inundated. The private schools fought back, re-opened as quickly as they could, providing the only K–12 education in the city. Public schools were declared closed for the year

No longer good schools and poor schools in New Orleans — but good schools and no schools

We witnessed firsthand the segregation in American public education highlighted by Jonathon Kozol in The Shame of the Nation. Veteran educators both, we decided it was time to devote the next phase of our lives to narrowing that education gap, not by creating new model public schools, but by leveraging the resources of independent schools and creating authentic partnerships between the two kinds of schools. We founded Wingspan Partnerships to do just that. In New Orleans, we had seen the way private schools could throw out a lifeline when the floods came. 

Now, sad to say, the figurative waters are rising in many American cities. Linking independent and public schools is one way to ensure that the most underserved public schools do not float out of reach of mainstream education in America. In this re-segregated world, whole institutions need to connect. 

Private Schools, Public Purpose

Independent schools have significantly increased their public purpose commitments over the past decade. Their initiatives carry them beyond community service to broader school engagement with their communities. Articles in this magazine by Al Adams and others, the creation of school organizations that serve the broader community, and the growth of educational access programs have sharpened awareness to the point where service has emerged as an essential educational strategy. 

This is not, of course, entirely new. Friends schools, since their founding 300 years ago, have always considered public service integral to their missions. Service also appears in the founding goals and mottos of many independent schools. But awareness of its importance has intensified. The 2011 NAIS Annual Conference focuses on the “monumental opportunities” of public engagement. Private Schools with a Public Purpose (PSPP), a coalition of schools that first gathered on the West Coast four years ago, has drawn representatives from an increasing number of schools. Participants in the coalition are now urging the group to formalize and expand its efforts. Schools with access and enrichment programs — such as Breakthrough Collaborative, Horizons, Steppingstone, Odyssey, and Harlem Educational Activities Fund — have found common ground in the newly created National Partnership for Educational Access, and new programs for underserved students are proliferating across the nation.

Why are so many independent schools now engaging in partnerships with public schools? Several factors stand out: 

• A growing national concern about the quality and inequities of public education.


• Multiple responses to the challenges of creating quality public education programs.

• A paradigm shift in education toward greater community engagement — locally, nationally, and globally.

• New school leadership and emerging models of education that have led to partnerships as an important school strategy.

National Concern about Public Education

Americans universally recognize that U.S. public education is failing — having dropped to 25th in world rankings — and they demand rapid improvement. Some of the statistics bear repeating. First-graders in many cities enter school already one to two years behind their peers nationally. Only 12 percent of eighth graders in Washington, DC, read or calculate at grade level. Many major cities graduate less than 50 percent of their students. In Detroit, 70 percent of high schoolers fail to graduate. Half of the students entering California state institutions of higher education require significant remediation (and other systems report comparable statistics). Of the disproportionately small cohort of students of color entering higher education nationwide, six-year completion rates fall as low as 25 percent. The figures are staggering, the implications profound. 

In addition, economic pressures require public (and private) schools to maximize benefits from shrinking funding streams. New laws and mandates require schools to do more with less.

Across the political spectrum, most people advocate dramatic efforts to improve public education. Many endorse increasing resources, despite the economy. Celebrity events such as NBC’s September Education Nation Summit; books like Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat and Tony Wagner’s The Global Education Gap; documentaries like Waiting for Superman; and floods of op eds, blogs, and tweets all demonstrate public attention and concern. Emotion and reason coincide. The gap in education access, opportunity, and outcomes is universally considered a drag on both the economy and national morale. 

Americans seek multiple educational outcomes. Interest in rigor and results is strong. Demand for classical academic competence remains — increasingly tilting toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines. At the same time, there are increasing demands for skills that prepare youth to serve, to lead, and to collaborate effectively and creatively in our increasingly complex world. 

Independent schools have long prided themselves on being models of excellence. But what is a model if no one is watching? We have an opportunity to engage and to learn, and we have much to give. As we cross the country, listening to teachers, students, parents, superintendents, principals, and trustees, the wave of interest in education for the common good is palpable. 

Responses to Challenges 

Charter schools have changed the landscape, and not only of public education. Some advertise as “private schools for the price of a public education,” while their districts consider them their greatest financial threat, draining district dollars by siphoning off enrollments. Charters are public-private hybrids. They vary immensely in purpose, style, and outcomes, but they are only one option among many — along with home schooling, “safe” parochial schools and Christian schools, for-profit schools, and an array of new independent schools. 

And the variety of public solutions — among charter and district schools — has increased: KIPP Academies, Green Dot charters, New Tech high schools, Big Picture Learning schools, International Baccalaureate schools, small learning communities and career academies within large comprehensive schools, and many more. Some address the demand for academic rigor; some for real-world skills; and some, both.

As a result, the world of K–12 education has become much more complex and confusing. The U.S. Department of Education’s strategy to elicit best models through its “Race to the Top” and “Investing in Innovation” grants has, as yet, produced no clear winners. The search is still on. Parents remain uncertain about where to find a good education. 

Given this dynamic — and confusing — environment, what role have independent schools chosen to play? Some partner with public schools and agencies to seek Investing in Innovation funds. Some collaborate to overcome economic stress, particularly in areas such as the arts where dedicated facilities and instructors are expensive. Some share facilities with public schools, and some are literally building facilities to share. Others simply strive to engage with neighboring public schools in the best way they can. More need to do so. Most independent schools value their own flexibility and innovation, viewing themselves as models worth emulating. Freedom from the world of high-stakes testing permits independent schools to focus on prized areas of school life: creativity, problem-solving, a culture honed for learning. Partnerships provide opportunities for sharing such strengths.

Paradigm Shifts in Education

Underlying these more immediate changes come longer-term paradigm shifts in education. These shifts suggest movement away from “silo” thinking that fails to connect separate problems, types of school, and environments.

Parents once simply dropped their children off at the schoolhouse door. They prepared children for school; school prepared them for college or work; college for community. Those domains now visibly overlap (see chart above). 

Parents and schools now talk of partnering (and parents are far more present in schools). Schools see more clearly the way in which they overlap and connect with local communities — and are far more sensitive to their neighbors than they once were. Students now move more fluidly among home, school, and community. Program emphasis on climate issues and ecology fosters multi-disciplinary and real-world initiatives. Digital interconnectivity has created new relationships and multiple educational opportunities. Schools now emphasize real-world skills that have real-time impact on both students and the community. Old divisions are crumbling and new relationships are developing across communities. There is no going back, even if one wished. 

Before the 1980s, community service in schools was seen as an individual responsibility. Where such programs existed, if they existed at all, students were encouraged to get out in the community and do some good, but the work was always viewed as separate from one’s studies. The advent of service learning changed that concept by adding an educational dimension that incorporates individual reflection, group discussion, and sociological and political analysis of the needs that service addresses. In the 1980s, college presidents united in forming Campus Compact, a coalition of more than 1,100 college and university presidents committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education. Some independent schools embraced the change and recognized their institutional relationship to their communities, and the shift from service learning to community engagement evolved. 

Today, in a growing number of schools, that shift represents a recognition that the entire school community must be involved — a shift from emphasis on individual good to institutional responsibility. In our work, we see examples of this everywhere. 

As parents and students — often, as families, involved in service with church, temple, or secular organizations — have become more sophisticated in their service and learning expectations, so too have schools. Interest in service that strategically impacts the local community and environment has increased significantly. In our work with schools, we also see a preference among students for service that involves real, continuing human relationships, not brief episodic efforts. Such service supports this paradigm shift away from simply doing good and feeling good towards an integrated, ongoing intellectual and relational endeavor that serves the common good.

And research demonstrates the educational impact of the paradigm. According to a 2010 report from Campus Compact, students who engage, through programs “connecting classroom to community,” improve their academic performance as well as their leadership skills. 

Partnership as Strategy

As part of the evolution of service learning programs, public-private partnerships have steadily emerged as an effective response to many of society’s challenges. Schools are engaging with their local and global communities in exciting new ways. Our organization, Wingspan Partnerships, focuses on what schools do best — education — and leverages human assets through authentic partnerships between private schools and public schools. We observe a multitude of initiatives — most under the radar, few recognized on school websites — that truly merit attention. They involve members of the school community at all levels: a head commits to serving neighboring Hispanic children and that program spreads to serve their parents; girl soccer stars realize young Latinas are often excluded from the boys’ game, but can thrive through their own camp and league; veteran teachers discover that teaching an underserved class (with a public school colleague, soon-to-be friend) entirely “ups their game” and provides deeper career satisfaction; trustees draw on their independent school experience to found charter schools; reluctant students discover, through their unanticipated flair for teaching younger kids, their own capabilities — while their example moves their charges’ ambitions from reluctant third-graders to college-bound scholars. Without exception, all of those involved in school partnerships find a deeper meaning in education.

Strategic pursuit of public purpose and community engagement provides both opportunity and context for drawing together the competing objectives of education: rigorous study and reflection and demonstration of real-world abilities — essential questions and essential skills. We are, in true Deweyan fashion, moving from preparation for life to full engagement. The student’s — and the school’s — relationship to the outside world is no longer a matter of individual preference, exercised after hours, but a communal and national necessity.

Partnerships between public and independent schools offer a gateway of opportunity for all students. If you seek to build global or cultural fluency, globalism, as one of our colleagues put it, begins at the schoolhouse door. If you wish to generate imaginative appreciation of other people’s lives in a neighboring, but different, world, cross the street. If you believe that children learn more deeply when emotionally engaged in meaningful work, have them learn with others whose life experiences are dramatically different. 

Reaching the upper budgetary limits for financial aid, boards of trustees see partnerships with public schools as a new way to fulfill their diversity missions. Heads, in turn, recognize the implications for attracting and retaining a high-quality faculty. The 35,000 of the brightest university graduates who apply to Teach for America each year want to change American education — and will only consider teaching at a school that demonstrates strong public purpose. Many veteran colleagues are similarly motivated. Schools also discover donors who consider community partnership a moral and practical priority. 

In so many of the programs we observe or facilitate, we see potential for strategic integration. Partnerships and public-purpose programs focus a school’s goals and commitments across the educational spectrum: to diversity, globalism, leadership, entrepreneurship, outreach, environment, interdisciplinary curriculum, and service. This essential linkage allows a coherent, strategic response to a school’s educational growth. 

The New Paradigm

How can a school accomplish this kind of strategic shift? First, a new kind of school leadership is essential. With a new vision of an excellent education, schools have been able to generate new models of partnership that are proving to be good for both independent schools and the broader community.

A key reason for this shift now is the emergence of heads determined to shape a significant public purpose for their schools. Increasingly, they confer and collaborate with each other. We also observe a younger generation of leaders determined to go beyond standard community service initiatives to forge strategic relationships within and beyond their schools. Creative teachers have begun to persuade colleagues to “think big” — into more deeply understanding the curriculum-community connection across the educational program. They inspire students to think deeply and to have a measurable impact on the community. Articulate and committed student leaders now lead by example in surprisingly entrepreneurial ways. With all this new energy, trustees are emerging as champions of educational philanthropy and partnership, modeling both through their own efforts to improve public education. 


What are the best models of partnership? The most compelling models respond to critical needs and draw on assets particular to the partner schools. Certainly, common problems across the education gap suggest similar responses: students as teachers; common courses between the partner schools; access programs and mentoring; teacher partnerships with shared classrooms and facilities; parent initiatives; projects in common and shared community space (notably gardens, parks, watershed districts); and joint service projects. But human resources and strategic priorities vary widely. Needs, goals, and opportunities are bound by local conditions. So, we advocate empathetic, yet rigorous, review of what will serve specific partnerships best — conducted, from the very outset, by all the partners around the table. We also advocate a truly strategic approach that builds confidence and trust by the integrity its participants demonstrate. 

What our organization promotes is the linking of whole institutions, faculty, and students — not in a spirit of noblesse oblige, not to unload old books from the library or provide holiday gifts, but in an engagement that shifts their cultures for the benefit of all involved. In Orange Country, California, for example, Sage Hill, an independent high school in the wealthy community of Newport Beach, has linked with several elementary schools in nearby underserved areas. In one of them, sophomores provide an ongoing English literacy program for eight-year-olds whose native language is Spanish. When we met with the public school principal to review the outcome of the program, she showed us the literacy improvement. And then she astonished us. She said that the literacy improvement is great, but it is not the point. “The experience that my kids have with the Sage Hill students is the best experience they have all year. They wait to see them, they look up to them — and now they are all talking about going to college.” The Sage Hill students are prepared and thoughtful in their teaching, and they are tremendously influential with eight-year-olds, and genuinely mitigate the problems of large classes and lack of practice in conversational English. Over the years, such partnerships deepen and expand.

In the large and difficult cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, we see steady development of relationships between independent and public schools — increasingly in citywide consortia, which allows for even greater mutual support and resource development. 

New Kinds of Levees

We began with our own story in New Orleans, but the important stories are, of course, the stories of each school partnership that accepts the challenge of narrowing the education gap. And the stories, in the end, are often those of young people. We think of Sean, who came to an independent high school from its partner charter middle school, became a leader among his peers, was flung out of New Orleans by Katrina and found himself taken in — through graduation — by a major boarding school. From so many heads who took in Sean and hundreds like him, we hear, when we express our thanks for such generosity in a time of trouble, “No. You don’t understand. We gained so much. The blessing was ours.” Or we think of Gary, who traveled Sean’s path, but to the Houston Astrodome, where he negotiated passage for those who needed to come and go, but for weeks were unable to do so. He did this work because of his facility with the cultures of both holders and held. What empowerment for a high school senior, and what lessons for us who witnessed this. These are the stories of transformation — and there are many, many more like them — that call us to engage in shaping education anew. 
David Drinkwater

David Drinkwater is a former head of school and a co-founder of Wingspan Partnerships, a nonprofit based in Napa, California. For more information, visit

Jacqueline Smethurst

Jacqueline Smethurst is a former head of school and a co-founder of Wingspan Partnerships, a nonprofit based in Napa, California. For more information, visit