The publicity about the Obama’s choice of the Sidwell Friends School shed light on the apparent contradiction of those who support public schools but elect to send their children to private schools. I am sure this fact makes the Obama’s and others like them feel a bit defensive when attending parties. In Oberlin, Ohio where I live, people who send their children to the independent school are literally shunned by those who keep their children in the public system.
One of the great challenges facing Independent schools, and the foundations that support them is how to make the excellent quality of education available to those outside the walls of these relatively small institutions. The winter 2006 edition of Independent School, published by the National Association of Independent Schools gave voice to a growing number of members who struggle with perception that independent schools are institutions only for the elite. In an environment where the gap between wealthy families and poorer families grows, fewer middle class families are able to afford private school education. The quality of Independent School education, such as the institution I send my children (Lake Ridge Academy) can not be disputed. In fact trustees of foundations tpically send their children to independent schools places like: Noble and Greenough School, Heathwood Hall, Buckinham, Browne and Nicols and others of pedigree based on a history of quality education. Read the mission statments of any of them and compare that aspiration to those of public schools. This reality presents an unease because these same trustees approve grants that try to improve the quality of public school education. We all know that undertaking can have pockets of success but due to the enormity of the task of reform rewards are elusive.
Faith-based schools such as Epiphany School, Nativity Prep, Arrupe Prep as well as non-denominational charter KIPP schools. supported by the foundation I serve, offer the quality education that rivals the atmosphere, academic dicipline and values of higher priced independent schools. However these schools are expensive to maintain and require constant funding from private sources. The State simply will not fund these entities. In the case of KIPP and Charter Schools, the national discussion is typically met with a vitrol accompanied by public policies that keep State funding to a minimum. Tacitly, the policy carries a hope that charters will fail and, like apostates, will someday realize the waywardness of their action and return to the public school system as we know it. That system of course is failing millions of children in the U.S. daily, but there remains no strategy to address that reality.
How can one make the quality of Independent School education available to families of the middle class and even children of low-income families has remained elusive. D. Scott Looney, Head of Hawken School in Cleveland suggested, “The benefits of having the broadest possible exposure to students with other backgrounds, races, ideas, and experience must be part of that education, and must include children from families in the bottom 50 percent of the socioeconomic tier.”
How can an independent schools do that when the availability of scholarship monies is limited? Technology provides answers.
Independent Schools can make better use of web-based technology to break down the walls of their institutions and make their curriculum available to a larger number of students.
The Harvard Crimson reported an innovative adaptation of SecondLife™ at Harvard University in 2006 whereby students at the Harvard Law School will co-learn with students at the Harvard Extension School – linking a divergent student body in a cooperative learning process. Independent Schools can and should do the same thing with outreach to public schools. Foundations can support these activites.
SecondLife offers very tremendously exciting opportunities to explore how the quality of independent school education may be open to others who cannot afford a typical four-year education. What can that look like? Check out the site that explains how Secondlife works for educators.
Independent schools can and should explore the possiblity of creating their schools in Secondlife and inviting their professors and other educators to work with selected students in a virtual envorinment. This is particularly true of the children in the lower 50% of the economic tier Mr. Lowney mentions.
Phillips Exeter Academy is known for the Harkness Table. This seminar-styled approach to high school education was developed in 1931 and invites young people to share thought together in a collaborative learning experience. Why not re-create a Harnkess Table in Secondlife whereby children from schools across the country could benefit from this educational style and interact with students who typically will not have access to these inistitutions of privilidge.
The Burton D. Morgan Foundation in Hudson, Ohio funded one of the first business/entrepreneurship programs at the high school level to Lakeridge Academy. The teachers developed a very fine curriculum which serves the 20 or so students in that program. I can imagine a very interesting project where, for example students from the business/entrepreneurship at Lakeridge Academy participated in SecondLife with students from the E-City program and the related Entrpreneurship Academy or E-Prep in Cleveland. (E-Prep received a start-up grant from The Nord Family Foundation and continues to receive yearly operating support s0 I disclose my interest and passion for this great school). A project of this type would expand the number of people who share in the curriculum and widen the perspectives on what entrepreneurship means in the suburbs and what it means on “corners” in Cleveland.
Foundation should consider funding these types of projects as a means of opening quality education they can (and often do) provide their own children and to talented and able children attending failing public schools.
I have had the priviledge to get to know some of the people at The Center for Institutional Technology and Academic Computing (ITAC) . This institution is currently supporing several innovative uses of Secondlife in the educational settings including pioneering work in the high school curriculum.
Although SecondLife has been tremendously successful in higher education, the potential for its use in high school settings has been thwarted because SecondLife restricts its users to a minimum age of 18. Students under that age are pointed The Teen Grid. It is the hope of many educators that someday soon, SecondLife and its creators at Linden Lab will allow for less restrictive use by high school teachers.
Another very interesting organization to watch for application for Independent schools is the work of the remarkable Aaron Walsh at MediaGrid at Boston College. This organizations provides high quality virtual environments that rival those of expensive interactive games.
Foundations that restrict themselves only to supporting projects in public education are selling themselves short by not opening themselves to exploring these new ways to blend independent school and public school education. It is my experience that most independent school faculty would welcome this innovation to expand their educational mission to those outside their walls.
It is time the philanthropic sector open itself to this important discussion with colleagues from Independent and Public Schools. For those unsure about all this, may I suggest reading a report published by the MacArthur Foundation’s and the Digial Youth Resesarch at U.Cal. Berkeley. Great reading!