"Engagement, Respect & Reciprocity in Public-Private School Partnerships" (#EdCampLA #errppp)

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Chris Thinnes


Reflections and resources from an #EdCampLA session on January 12th, 2013
( This post has also been excerpted and adapted on GOOD )


“The more collaboration, the more synergy; the more synergy,
the more powerful & expansive the outcomes…”
Al Adams, 2000


There are eleventy-seven questions in education I find both vexing and exciting. Some of these emerge from efforts to construct authentic partnerships between public and private schools and their constituents. As a private school leader and a public school parent, I am concerned about the assumptions that often govern such partnerships between students, teachers, parents, and leaders in the public and private sectors — assumptions that, in many cases, strengthen misconceptions each of us have about ‘the other.’

In my experience and opinion, the problem starts with unchallenged conclusions that we in private schools, despite our best intentions, often draw — about our entitlements to resources, and about the effectiveness of our learning models. Add to that a dash of the intellectual and moral self-righteousness that ferments in a pot of unexamined privilege — then season that, in turn, with pandemic misconceptions in our private schools about public schools, their constituents, and their value — and we have an accidental recipe for a toxic soup indeed. Flavor the concoction with many public school constituents’ misconceptions about the qualifications of private school educators, the conscience of private school families, and the value of educational innovation and experimentation in smaller programs unburdened from restrictive policies, and together we can cook up a lovely “Campus Cleanup Day” at the local public school that leaves everyone, public and private, feeling just a little bit dirtier still.

It was in a somewhat less smarmy spirit that I abandoned my prior, week-long commitment to shut up and listen, for a change, at Saturday’s EdCampLA and, instead, to try to give language and design to a proposal to share a few good resources I’ve come across, to learn from other educators’ ideas and experiences, and to help seed a set of constructive principles that might guide healthier and more effective public/private school partnerships.

For all my pith and vinegar about local, ‘partner school’ collaborations (intentionally neglecting a variety of excellent exceptions, in an effort to outline “the pattern of the problem”), I should say that I think there are some tremendously exciting movements (certainly in my learning, and evidently on the shared accounts of colleagues) taking place in broader and more systemic collaborations, consortia, and confabs. My involvement in various CFEE events, leveraging the support of many private schools to construct collaborative learning opportunities for private and public school educators and parents, has given me a taste of the transformative potential of hypomanic outreach and strategic design to advancing common goals on a broader scale than ‘partner schools.” And my experience working with EdLeader21, a professional learning community for education leaders from public and private schools across the country, has transformed my personal understanding of public education, my professional strategies for private school leadership, and my family’s decisions about the path and purpose of my son’s education.

But those are among the subjects I’ll explore as I prepare for a related workshop on broader public/private collaborations, and systemic educational change, at the NAIS annual conference. At that conference, I’ll also learn about the launch of an exciting, reinvigorated national partnership initiative that has evolved out of PSPP‘s historical efforts. But at #EdCampLA, I wanted to be involved in a discussion about common concerns and common commitments, specifically as they pertain to “one-on-one” partnerships between the public and private schools down the street from each other. This began with a series of essential questions. Can we ensure that we respect what might be honorable — in Maszlow’s hierarchy, at least — about a traditional and ‘charitable’ model of private school beneficence, without reinforcing problematic misconceptions about public school needs? Can we develop partnerships that are more dynamic, sustaining, and transformative than simple resource drives? Who should best determine the design, purpose, and implementation strategies for these partnerships? Can we empower a broader range of constituents — both within each school, and between them — to have a voice in determining needs and outcomes? How can we challenge assumptions that private and public schools have about each other in order to explore and to honor our shared commitments to the education of our children and the vitality of our communities? As Al Adams writes of partnership, “the more collaboration, the more synergy; the more synergy, the more powerful & expansive the outcomes.” So what are some constructive guiding principles that might help to shape more engaging, respectful, and reciprocal school partnerships?


Context established (and a busy afternoon in front of me), I’d like to use the remainder of this post not exhaustively to account for all the session’s interchanges — there were great reflections and suggestions provided by all the educators who attended, and I fear I’d do them a disservice in an effort to summarize them — but to share elements of the session’s design in case it’s replicable in your circumstances, and some of the session’s resources in case they’re useful to your efforts.

I couldn’t have known how serendiptious the demographics of the attendees would be: equal numbers of private school educators, public school educators, and representatives of outside publications and organizations joined the conversation. I asked for someone from the public sector who might be willing to co-facilitate (first, so someone with more experience in the public sector might challenge my design assumptions; and second, so she could support dialogue about about matters I might know nothing about), and I am grateful that Catherine Rhee from the Los Angeles Community College District was willing on such short notice to improvise with me. During the session, she also offered some great insights about community outreach, leveraging non-profit support, and other initiatives stemming from her involvement with LACCD programs.

The general architecture of the session followed a plan, but we honored departures from that plan to engage great questions participants brought to the table. We began by introducing ourselves and our perspectives on concerns about such partnerships. Then, we offered a sample set of principles from Al Adams’ classic “The Public Purpose of Private Schools” to induce reflection and conversation. Next, we shared a useful framework from Wingspan Partnerships that can be used to help assess current partnerships, or to inspire new initiatives. Finally, we had a short “Micro-Smackdown” for participants in the conversation themselves to seed a list of guiding principles that might echo, refine, or supplement those that emerged during our conversation. We were thus able, in a short (45 minute) session, to get a great conversation started that many of us, in various combinations, will continue in the weeks and months to come.



In the category of ‘old but gold’ (published by NAIS in 2000) comes Al Adams’ “The Public Purpose of Private Schools,” which cites Lick-Wilmerding’s commitments to public purpose and inspired the work of a broader consortium of schools known as PSPP. In particular, I highlighted a number of central principles that have inspired more recent efforts to invigorate the design and dynamics of my school’s partnership efforts with public schools. These include:

“Focus on the educational arena.”
As Adams writes, “education is the field we know best” and, thus, we should explicitly focus on education in the inception and design of partnerships. Thus, our school will explore a faculty exchange with a local public school later this year, to serve mutually identified needs in our enrichment programs by leveraging the strengths and passions of each others’ faculties. So, too, when we learned that Ute Mountain Ute children with whom our students had connected on a recent trip through the Southwest were bussed from Towaoc to a public school in Cortez, Colorado, we reached out to the principal at the school and will be facilitating a shared inquiry into educational opportunity and access that will invite our sixth graders to explore education, equity, class and culture together — both virtually in the next few months through online platforms, and directly during a shared ‘capstone’ experience in May.

“Involve… students in every way possible.”
To pick the Curtis-Cortez partnership as an example, each of our schools will invite students themselves to have a voice in the design of ongoing collaboration and our shared, ‘live’ experience later this year. We could, as teachers and leaders, rack our brain to micromanage the direction of their learning, or we could establish some reasonable parameters and help faciliate discussion of learning goals — then ask the students to help design the most optimal structure and practical direction for that learning.

“Ensure judicious use of resources.”
This is, as I understand it, as much a strategic commitment as it is an expression of an ideal. The less we make such programs reliant on funding and other support, the more likely they are to be sustainable over time.

“Design programs as potentially replicable models.”
I take this as an invitation to “think meta” during the inception, design, experience, and reflection on partnership programs. This not only allows us to use the principles of appreciative inquiry to leverage the strengths of our programs to create ever more successful ones, but provides us with the opportunity to honor our ethical obligation to share our experiences with other learning communities and their constituents — enabling all of us, in turn, to affect substantially larger segments of our population.



More than any other single documet, Wingspan Partnerships’ rubric-like framework of “The Public-Private School Partnership Continuum” has helped me both to regret inadvertent contributions I’ve made to more arrogant initiatives, and to honor more constructive principles in the co-design of new initiatives. They invite us to consider three different paradigms of partnership (“Community Service,” “Service Learning,” and “Community Engagement”) recognizing the inherent values of each model, and/but outlining “different levels of understanding and capacity” cultivated by each paradigm. The model of “Community Engagement” clearly offers the richest opportunities to honor both communities, their constituents, and their needs:

(Whole institution commits)

Students and Faculty: School leadership places community engagement at center of educational program. Faculty works with students to design, assess, and redesign effective programs.

Accountability: Community organizations and school(s) are mutually involved in assessing outcomes and continuing improvement of program.

Typical programs: Academic enrichment program designed by public-private schools together, directed by faculty and students.

Typical student comments: “I feel useful. I never knew I could do this.” — “I wish I could have done this as a freshman. Here is a way we could restructure the freshman school year to make it possible.” — “Our project is going well and a new need has emerged. Here is how we might address it.” — “I really feel empowered by the appreciation of the community.”



In the concluding several minutes of the session, we opened the floor for participants to provide principles that could guide engaging, respectful, and reciprocal partnerships. Here’s a snapshot, with some annotations, from the end of the session, from the Google Doc available for view and revision:

MicroSmackDown: Principles for Pub-Pri Partnership #EdCampLA #errppp

Ongoing partnership (continuous relationship and process v ‘event’)
Balanced (reciprocal benefits for each community)
Don’t lose sight of the real core (students and staff as primary focus)
Authentic not artificial
Don’t be stringent on design; allow dynamism (honor voice of participants and emerging opportunities and insights)
Intentionally examine assumptions pub/pri learning communities have about each other (Make this an explicit part of the partnership dynamics within and between communities)
Ensure project influences community (aspire to have impacts inside and outside both school’s gates, local and/or global)
Constantly evolving (safeguard agility, nimbleness of design)
Start small, allow to grow (don’t overreach in scope or numbers in early efforts)
Share your successes (establish a replicable model and communicate to others)
Reflect on failures, risks, near-misses (Make this an explicit part of the relationship and process)
Explore connections of parents/guardians in community engagement/consequence (Recognize the impact and the value of such partnerships for students’ families and the greater community; support and facilitate such impacts where possible)




You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • This was an impressive Blog post. It really got me thinking about working with some local private schools. I’m sorry I missed the session.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks for that! Glad we’ve connected on Twitter!

  • jonathansmith

    After working with a private school, yes I do understand that the partnership between both types of schools is somehow typical and different. But it is beneficial for the students.
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