Public-private collaboration:

Improving education for all

11/19/2010
independent school education
PATRICK F. BASSETT and MYRA McGOVERN

In addition to providing their own students a college-prep education, most independent private schools aspire to make a positive imprint on their communities. They cite the “public purpose of private education,” and seek to model the behavior that they hope to see in students: engagement in community life during school, in college and thereafter. The ways each school achieves this outcome varies, but in many cases it involves collaboration with local public schools. image

Professional Development

One of the most mutually beneficial forms of collaboration centers on teaching and learning. The University Child Development School (UCDS) (www.ucds.org), an independent school in Seattle, has tested a collaborative approach to teaching and faculty development that has produced extraordinary results, not only for UCDS students, but also for students across the city. UCDS serves 300 students from preschool through fifth grade, and its 30 full-time teachers work together on a daily basis. Rather than institute a fixed curriculum, they set benchmarks for core knowledge. They co-teach every class and conduct weekly two-hour planning meetings in which they discuss the successes and failures of specific lesson plans.

Recognizing the strength of UCDS’s innovative approach to curriculum development and evaluation, the University of Washington’s Applied Math Department approached the school a number of years ago about collaborating on a National Science Foundation grant to implement more effective math teaching in Seattle’s low-performing schools. Six teachers volunteered to work with their peers at the Seattle School District’s Thurgood Marshall Elementary School to implement a more collaborative teaching style for math instruction. Trust developed between both sets of teachers over the first year as it became clear that UCDS’s instructors wanted to trade experiences and share ideas about best practices. Their focus on encouraging feedback and pursuing benchmarks rather than a preset curriculum quickly caught on. By the end of the first year, instructors from UCDS and Thurgood Marshall were co-teaching lessons, developing new strategies for breaking down faculty isolation, and concentrating on student performance.

As a result of this partnership, fourth graders’ performance on state exams improved dramatically. Before the program began, none of the Thurgood Marshall students had passed the state math proficiency exam; three years after the program’s inception, nearly 60 percent of the school’s fourth graders passed — a figure that places Thurgood Marshall significantly above the state average.

Student Enrichment

Another partnership model is the Middle Grades Partnership, a collaboration among eight independent schools, a university, and 11 public schools, to provide comprehensive learning opportunities for academically promising Baltimore City middle school students.

The Middle Grades Partnership pairs one Baltimore City Public School with one independent private school. Two co-directors (one from each school) run each partnership. All Middle Grades Partnership pairings have the same goals — to prepare students for rigorous public high schools — but each pairing achieves the goal differently. For instance, it is up to the co-directors and teachers to develop the curricula and sites might offer swimming or field trips to local museums in addition to classroom study, or college visits and soccer.

Middle Grades Partnership students attend summer school and meet periodically throughout the school year. The program focuses on growing students’ reading and writing skills and preparing them for advanced high school math courses. The individualized attention of teachers helps students excel academically and nurtures their self-confidence.

The Middle Grades Partnership commissioned the John’s Hopkins School of Public Health to evaluate its program. The study found that Middle Grades Partnership students missed, on average, six days of school during the school year, while state data shows that the typical middle schooler misses 18 days. Eighty-two percent of Middle Grades Partnership students performed at the proficient or advanced levels on state reading exams, compared to 42 percent of all Baltimore City eighth graders in 2008. Whereas nationally many students’ math scores drop between the fifth and eighth grades, Middle Grades Partnership students’ scores remained steady or improved. And 54 percent of Middle Grades Partnership students qualified for Baltimore City’s highly competitive, selective public high schools, whereas only 12 percent of students city-wide did the same.

But it’s not just students who benefit from the collaboration. Public and private school teachers work together, sharing ideas to reach students more effectively. They work together daily during the summer and meet to hone their approaches and adapt lessons after class. During the school year, they meet monthly to maintain and grow their relationships and to plan for the summer. “Time together is an important component of collaboration,” notes Middle Grades Partnership executive director Beth Casey.

“So often, what we call a partnership is just a handout or a takeaway,” says Casey. “When partners on both sides can acknowledge what they’re giving and getting from a partnership, that is what’s important. That’s when magical things start happening for children and for adults and institutions.”

The Middle Grades Partnership was funded entirely through foundation and individual donors until 2009, when principals were asked to contribute $200 for each student served. Middle Grades Partnership is a “component-program” of the Baltimore Community Foundation, a philanthropic foundation that brings together many donors to invest in the greater Baltimore region’s improvement.

The professional community of educators also helps attract new teachers to the field. Many of the college-age interns who assist master teachers in the summer program develop a passion for teaching, and many become public school teachers after they graduate from college. As one Middle Grades Partnership funder notes, “It is wonderful to see both the students and teachers move beyond their prescribed boxes and embrace new opportunities with enthusiasm and passion.”

Global Studies

A program of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), Challenge 20/20, also helps foster collaboration among different types of schools. Challenge 20/20 is an Internet-based program that pairs classes at any grade level (K-12) from public and private schools in the U.S. with similar-age classes in schools in other countries. Together, the teams (of two, three, or four schools) tackle real global problems over the course of a semester to find solutions that can be implemented at the local level and in their own communities.

The projects relate to water deficits, global infectious diseases, the fight against poverty, biotechnology rules, education for all, and biodiversity and ecosystem losses, among other topics. Schools are paired up by NAIS, based on their interests and age range. First, they share their perspectives on the issue and define the impact of the issue globally and in their own communities. They work together to generate project ideas and to develop a plan. Finally, they share implementation strategies.

In one example, Harding Academy, an independent private school in Nashville, Tennessee, worked with Jones Cove School, a public school in Cosby, Tennessee, and Datus Complex School in Ghana, western Africa. The group discussed ways to educate about conserving the environment. They communicated through a Ning (a platform for creating social networks) and developed local solutions to the challenge. The students at Jones Cove built compost bits, a greenhouse, and a garden, while the students at Harding Academy established a week dedicated to educating the community on environmental issues. In Ghana, students used their writing and artwork to communicate the importance of conservation.

Woodward Academy (Atlanta, GA) students partnered with students from Argos Jr/Sr High School, a public school in Indiana; a private boys’ school in Johannesburg, South Africa; and a girls’ school in Toronto. The high-school-age team tackled the issue of Global Infectious Diseases. Communicating through a Ning and via e-mail, the students worked together to define the problem, noting how it differed in each of their communities. The global spread of H1N1 (Swine Flu) during the course of the collaboration provided a real-life example at a number of the schools. Based on their studies, the students were able to recommend communication techniques and hygiene education to help curb the spread of flu in their own schools.

The interaction with students from other countries and cultures is among the highlights of the program for many students. Developing cross-cultural communication skills is among the top assets listed by teachers too. A handful of schools request to be partnered with schools in specific regions (such as Latin America or China) to help practice world languages. Many groups continue communicating with their partners after the completion of the program, forging bonds both personal and institutional.

Some schools have found that the program builds enthusiasm among parents and can drive volunteerism among community members too. Local doctors may want to help students study global infectious diseases, for instance, and lawyers may be able to share their expertise on intellectual property concerns. Many schools also partner with local community organizations, such as food banks or conservation groups as part of their local implementation strategies.

Breaking Down Barriers

The Community Learning Partnership of Greater Miami Shores (Florida), a consortium public and private schools, a university, and local businesses, works to increase educational opportunities within the community. The program seeks to break down barriers and to create shared experiences that help strengthen a sense of community engagement among students, teachers, parents, businesses, and other community members.

Some of the key projects that the Community Learning Partnership has taken on include professional development opportunities for teachers, facilitating projects for students around key themes, and identifying high-impact community service opportunities.

The Community Learning Partnership institutions have shared many community resources, offering educational opportunities for all community members. In addition to events that bring nationally-known speakers to the area that anyone can attend, the schools host Community Conversations and Student Leader Meetings around themes such as “Creating an inclusive community through understanding our differences and celebrating our diversity” and “Becoming an Engaged Citizen.”

In one meeting, for instance, students from Barry University facilitate a discussion about diversity with students from Miami Country Day School, The Cushman School, and Doctors Charter School. In a video of a discussion about discrimination, one student quips, “I think the best way to get over anything is, like we’re doing here, to talk about it.”

What is clear from each of these illustrations is that both public and private schools can and should have a commitment to preparing students for academic success and civic commitment, and that such outcomes are facilitated by public/private partnerships. Together, public and private schools can magnify their impact by a power greater than any school can do on its own.

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A former teacher and head of school, Patrick F. Bassett is president of the National Association of Independent Schools. Myra McGovern is NAIS’s Director of Public Information.

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