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Independent-Public School Partnerships: Evolving Paradigm, Huge Potential

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Big news at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools yesterday was the debut of the National Network of Schools in Partnership, a newly formed coalition of about fifty independent schools with established working partnerships--of many shapes, sizes, histories, and purposes--with public schools.

Such partnerships aren't new, or even particularly novel, but at some point it occurred to a group of involved schools that a kind of movement was afoot, and that some sort of alliance might serve multiple purposes.

Yesterday afternoon's roll-out--more of an acknowledgment than an unveiling, although the organization's new website has just gone live--was preceded by a drum-roll announcement by the outgoing NAIS president, Patrick Bassett, at the morning's annual meeting, and it was keynoted, as it were, by Maureen Dowling, director of Office of Non-Public Education at the U. S. Department of Education. According to Dowling, whose office--with participation from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan--has been tracking and supporting the formation of the partnership, "The potential of this launch is beyond anything that I've been privy to at the U. S. Department of Education." It should be noted that a Federal official is a rare sighting at one of these events.

The event included testimonials of a sort from three NNSP member independent schools and one public school head. The gist of their stories was that partnerships are do-able and, as head Todd Bland of Milton Academy (Massachusetts) said, "This is good news. This is good news for everyone, for all children." Examples ranged from teachers simply talking to each other about teaching to students working together to clean up the schools' shared neighborhood to students mentoring and even developing curriculum for each other. The message was that everyone can benefit--that successful partnerships work both ways.

A partnership can start, as head Tom Little of Park Day School in Oakland (California) observed, with independent school leaders becoming "familiar with the issues your [public school] district is facing. It's a matter of building neighborhood relationships--having kids get together and participate together." Little also cited the benefits of moving beyond what he called "private school privilege," which, like White Privilege, "is never having to think about The Other." (You can read Little's article on Park Day's several partnership programs with Oakland public schools here.

I had a chance to meet after the session with NNSP board member Rod Chamberlain of Kamehameha Schools (Hawaii), Claire Leheny, NNSP executive director, and board member Jacqueline Smethurst, whose Wingspan Partnerships (founded with her husband, David Drinkwater) has midwifed a number of partnerships.

Successful partnerships, according to Smethurst, follow "certain principles. The schools approach each other out of a sense of mutual interest. It is a two-way learning process, and you have to be a credible partner. It requires persistence and patience; organic growth is a hallmark." The starting point, Leheny says, is to just do it: "We can sit within our independent school contexts and worry about what public schools may or may not like, when in fact we should just engage in a conversation to find out." In the end it's about "how we can learn together," notes Chamberlain. "There are more open doors than ever." He points out that "There's a lot more of this going on than we thought, but they're all sort of in isolation"--at least up to now.

NNSP leaders acknowledge that the charge of noblesse oblige is easy to lob. "Everyone is concerned with that perception, perhaps to a fault. But if you start with reciprocity, authentic commitment to partnership, and mutually relevant work, then that goes away," says Leheny. The reality is that many independent schools have resources unavailable to public schools, and the real paradigm shift is for independent schools to start viewing themselves--and encouraging themselves to be regarded--as community resources that public schools might draw upon in specific ways, as they do with public libraries, cultural institutions, or museums. The trick will be to develop the partnership idea to the point that the resource role is baked into independent schools' understanding of their own missions and of their public purpose. "This no longer a hidden part of that mission," adds Chamberlain.

The National Network of Schools in Partnership premiered to a packed house, and dozens of listeners requested information on membership afterward. If Maureen Dowling is right, the potential is enormous.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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