Pas de Deux:
On Public & Private School Partnership in EdLeader21
This post is an unabridged version of February’s ‘Featured Blog’ on EdLeader21‘s community site — exploring public-private collaboration, and private school participation, in EdLeader21‘s PLC for public and private school education leaders.
The more collaboration, the more synergy; the more synergy,
the more powerful and expansive the outcomes
Al Adams, 2000
Something in the air this month — seemingly more an offshoot of my calendar, than my conscience — has had me thinking, more than ever, about the value, purpose, and extraordinary consequence of intentional and authentic collaboration between public and private schools. In recent weeks, I have been collaborating with Ken Kay, Clif Mims (Martin Institute), and Paul Miller (NAIS) in the design of an upcoming workshop on “Public-Private Partnerships for Systemic Educational Change.” I’ve been working with Ken and Bill Taylor (St. George’s) on a 7 Steps panel for private school leaders, featuring public and private school exemplars. I had the opportunity to facilitate an EdCampLA session with private and public school leaders on “Engagement, Respect, and Reciprocity in Public-Private School Partnerships.” I learned that videos from a recent CFEE conference for public and private school educators and parents had been accessed more than 57,000 times in the last few months. I’ve been working with a Colorado public school principal on a long-term partnership between our 6th grade learners — private school students from the west side of Los Angeles, and public school students including children from the nearby Ute Mountain Ute reservation — together to examine educational access, opportunity, and attainment in our communities. I have expressed my concerns about the appointment of an NAIS leader whose views, in my opinion, undermine schools in both of our sectors. And I’ve been coordinating my private school’s accreditation self-study, while just this week I was assigned to a parent focus group at my son’s public high school.
So when Valerie invited me a few weeks ago to write this month’s blog for the EdLeader21 community site, my first thought was, “I’m really busy right now. Could I do this some other time?” Just kidding. My first thought was that this might be an opportunity — partially in the spirit of service with which it had been presented, but primarily as a personal learning opportunity, however selfish that might be — to reflect a little more intentionally on the value of professional collaboration as I have come to understand it as a private school leader in this extraordinary PLC we know as EdLeader21. I know that my experiences in EdLeader21 have 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. So I found out the drop-dead deadline for submitting this to Valerie, set up some reminders on my task list, and waited for inspiration to come.
Inspiration came just a few days later, when we herded 16 of our 4th and 5th grade learners into SUVs to visit Parthenia Street School, an LAUSD elementary school a few miles away. This year, our students had collected 161 coats and jackets to contribute to the school’s loan-out collection for students, siblings, and parents. To be transparent about the context — and to highlight why Parthenia Street Elementary is both 8 minutes, and several worlds, away from Curtis School — I should note both that Parthenia Street Elementary School has a 100% free/reduced lunch program, and that Curtis School has a tuition of $24,000.
Color me cynical, but I find it incredibly distasteful at some level that we should encourage private school children to gather funds or resources, drop them off at the local public school, and have them leave feeling just a little bit better about themselves and possibly about their lots in life. What couldn’t be clearer is that ‘partnership’ — like any learning experience — involves vulnerability, humility, and reciprocity. Partnership, like learning, depends on the development of relationships in which, and because of which, we grow.
Imagine how it felt for me, then, when Parthenia’s principal sat down with our 4th and 5th graders to orient them to the school and its community, and trusted their curiosity and intelligence by beginning transparently to unpack terms like “Title I” and “Provision II.” And imagine how it felt for him, then, when our 9, 10, and 11 year old kids began to dig more deeply still. One asked, for example, “if 57% of students don’t speak English when they come to Parthenia, how do you help them learn in the same classes as students who do?” What he and I might both have feared — that this orientation might devolve into a short ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ session — was swept away. Instead, a veteran principal in his early 50s had the opportunity to enjoy, and to honor our students by facilitating, a 30 minute town hall on education policy — in which such topics as English language learning, support services, and family engagement were open to questioning, exploration, and learning by a group of pre-teens.
But the most amazing thing happened during the tour that followed, when our students were led by into a hall where Parthenia Street’s 5th grade students were practicing the merengue and the hustle. Say what? you ask? You heard me. The school’s ballroom dance team won LAUSD’s ballroom dance competition last year, and was preparing, as we watched, to do so again. Our kids were mesmerized. You could see their assumptions about class, about the arts, and, perhaps most importantly, about the public school student’s experience — understandings that in their minds, like ours, have been hammered out of whack by the drubbings of misguided national policy and mythology — getting rewritten behind their eyes and smiles.
And then the Parthenia students stopped what they were doing, so they could teach our students how to dance.
A 5th grade boy showed our boys how do to the steps on one side of the room; a 5th grade girl modeled it for our girls on the other. Then the boys from both schools partnered with the girls. And the pairs of partners spread out on the floor. And then the music started. And they danced. And our students stretched themselves, nervously but willingly, to follow the lead of the Parthenia students’ example. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t crying.
I have, for a long time, been squeamish about the unintended impact of school partnerships designed primarily around a ‘charitable’ model of donation and community service: for all the good they may do, “the assumptions that often govern such partnerships between students, teachers, parents, and leaders in the public and private sectors…in many cases, strengthen misconceptions each of us have about ‘the other.’” As a result of these misconceptions, our collaboration has in many cases been limited — as the result of unexamined privilege in private schools, and unexamined resentment in our public schools.
And yet our stakeholders have for many years shared very similar misconceptions about authentic learning we have the opportunity, through EdLeader21, to correct. Those misconceptions have been seeded as a result of many factors — a national culture obsessed with competition, ‘accountability,’ and ‘achievement;’ national policy that, in many cases, is incompatible with deeper learning; parents and guardians’ nostalgic attachment to the models of schooling with which they became familiar and more comfortable as children; and more. All of us in EdLeader21 recognize the urgency of school-wide visions that integrate the 4Cs in all aspects of learning and teaching, and the opportunities the 7 steps provide to lead our communities forward to prepare our children and our students for the future. Should all of us in EdLeader21 empower ourselves, and each other, to be mindful, and respectful, and humble about our identities in this professional learning community — and recognize the opportunities we all have to help and to learn from each other — we could together perform an important service not only to the member schools and districts in our organization, but to a new and very public understanding of effective principles and practices for American schools. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that we, together, have the opportunity to change the course of American education as it is currently misunderstood.
Although I am a public school parent, and consider myself a public school ally, I can only presume to offer advice to colleagues on the basis of my professional experience as a private school leader. Thus, I’d offer two suggestions — with which I hope to be helpful, and not critical — to private school leaders who are members, or who are considering becoming members, of EdLeader21:
1. INNOVATE & SHARE
My first suggestion to private school colleagues is this: acknowledge the inequities that our private schools foster and protect, despite their most authentic efforts to be inclusive learning communities. As I have written elsewhere, “we [in private schools] all work in schools that serve a dreadfully narrow portion of the American population, and make a faustian bargain in exchange for an opportunity that presents itself. With that willingness to be complicit in the privilege our schools cultivate, comes not just an opportunity, but an obligation, to design and to support engaging learning opportunities that will transform learning as we have known it.” In other words, push the limits in your independent schools. You are unburdened by restrictive policy or bureaucracies, enjoy a version of ‘local control,’ do not have to preoccupy yourselves with implementation at scale, and therefore have not just the opportunity, but an obligation, to be ‘nimble.’ Think of it as a moral imperative; perhaps the only such prospect that might redeem your exclusivity. Try new things on the basis of research and local need. Discover what works. And, most importantly, share your experience and example with other members of EdLeader21 who might profit from it.
2. LISTEN & LEARN
At the same time, do not come to the table with the mistaken assumption that you only have something to offer. Bring your donations to the table if they’re sought, and offer your commitment of participation to the workgroups, but leave your bags of coats and jackets by the door if you want the the real learning, and the authentic partnership, to begin. I’ll never forget the first EdLeader21 Annual Event, at which I was certain I had very novel, and very special — and, I’ll own it, very impressive – questions about education to bring to the table about assessment, school-wide vision, and professional learning that we might subsequently explore at our private school of 500 students. At that conference, I found out that public school districts had not only answered those questions, but they had done so several years beforehand. And they had implemented concrete solutions for the benefit of tens of thousands of learners, in each case. Since then, I have consistently seen more intentional cultures of deeper learning, more startling examples of transformational assessment practice, and more inspiring examples of engaged students at EdLeader21 public schools, than I have seen in all but the most exceptional independent schools.
I had an inspiring conversation with the amazing Jeff Leitner at InsightLabs weeks ago, in which we were discussing the prospect of collaboration between public and private school stakeholders. I spoke about the separate conversations that would seem, misleadingly, to be taking place in this country about private and public schools — in the first case broadly advocating or suspecting innovative practice, and in the second primarily resisting or reacting to corporate reform. I mentioned my hope that we might help to facilitate a shared conversation among all constituents, and he identified the core question more simply still: “Everyone assumes — right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy — that private schools have something to offer public schools. What you need to unlock is people’s understanding that public schools have at least as much to offer private schools.” Come to the table ready to learn that you may have, as I have found, far more to learn than to offer.
My own openness to professional learning in EdLeader21 — for, let’s remember, that’s the reason we joined a professional learning community, right? — has come not by virtue, but from the overwhelming influence of extraordinary district leaders who have shared their experience and examples. For example, the very reason Curtis School has begun to implement a new, school-wide vision of learning in the past year is a direct and explicit result of the story Ken Kay told me about an EdLeader21 superintendent:
Jeff Weaver, the dynamic superintendent of the Upper Arlington City School District in Ohio, was planning to unveil the district’s vision for 21st century learners … at the first district leadership meeting of the year. So he had the vision statement printed on adhesive-backed vinyl, purchased a hundred inexpensive dinner plates, and affixed a copy of the vision to each of the plates.
At that first district meeting, Weaver asked for the plates to be passed out to the district’s leaders, then stood at the lectern and said something like this: “The last few years, whenever I talk to you about 21st century skills — about the importance of creativity, collaboration, critical thought, and all the other proficiencies that phrase implies — you remind me how much we’re already trying to accomplish. You tell me, ‘I would grapple with this, and make it work — but there is so little time, and there is already so much on our plate.’ You ask me, ‘How can we make room for this on our plate?’ . . . And so, I am letting you know you today that, moving forward, this is the plate. . .“
In earnest, albeit shameless, tribute to the power of this story, we actually refer to the outline of our school-wide goals for learning at Curtis as “The Plate.” It has become the anchor, through intentional reliance of the scaffolding of the 7 steps, for extraordinary changes in our intentional culture of professional learning, ongoing improvements to more effective assessment practices, an increasingly shared vision of crucial instructional strategies and principles of curriculum design, and a transformation of our outreach efforts to parents and guardians.
I’ll close, or at least try to, on this last note about outreach. Earlier this year we had the opportunity at Curtis with a few hundred parents to explore their most deeply held hopes for their children’s futures. Here are the words that parents used to describe the characteristics of children that would imply a ‘successful’ educational experience:
3rd & 4th Grade Parents & Guardians: self-confident; engaged in learning; independent thinker; curious; life-long learner; challenging themselves; risk-taker; compassionate; creative; open-minded; self-motivated
5th & 6th Grade Parents & Guardians: curious; open-minded; passionate; persistent; independent; creative; inquisitive; driven; happy; positive self-esteem; resilient; kind; engaged
Our teachers and our students used almost identical language: our 8-to-12 year olds added characteristics like “balanced,” “flexible,” “enthusiastic,” “honest,” “cooperative,” and “determined.” Interestingly enough, nobody involved in these conversations said, “competitive,” “high scoring,” or “cutthroat.” When we explored a similar conversation with hundreds of public and private school educators and parents/guardians who attended our recent CFEE conference, the results were similar: together we designed and affirmed a covenant of principles that might help to inspire student engagement, character and community, and deeper learning. Though such conversations might not be practical, or possible, at scale among thousands of stakeholders, I know — we all know — that they result in the same conclusions.
The same aspirations. The same commitments. All of them somehow at odds with a national narrative, and public policy, that we have the unique opportunity to reset.
For too long our public and private schools have been locked — partially by a media-saturated discourse that misrepresents the value and the promise of public education; partially by a legacy of assumptions we bear about class, equity, and opportunity; and partially by the shared burden of outdated assumptions about ‘achievement’ and ‘excellence’ — into a macabre pas de deux that has seemed — until now, until EdLeader21 — to limit our capacity to implement meaningful change in our homes, our schools, and our communities.
We didn’t choose the music that has been playing, but it is our choice both how to dance, and with whom. We get to choose our partners and the steps. As Al Adams wrote of public and private school partnership, “the more collaboration, the more synergy; the more synergy, the more powerful & expansive the outcomes.”
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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes