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Robin Hooding the Privates--Giving to the Publics

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Pondering the public responsibility of private schools.

Did you know that Robin Hood and his merry band swore never to harm a child? Better known is that "they would take that which had been wrung from the poor by unjust taxes, or land rents, or in wrongful fines; but to the poor folk they would give a helping hand in need and trouble, and would return to them that which had been unjustly taken from them." Please note that the poor aren't poor in this story without reason. They had been unjustly trespassed against.

Centuries later, across the ocean and far from Sherwood Forest, the rich and the poor can be easily distinguished by public or private education. Pick up any newspaper any day. Whether you read The New York Times, the Hardwick Gazette, the Columbus Advocate, The Miami Herald, or Education Week, the mass media and professional literature describe the atrocious budget cuts in public education, the outrageous conditions of school buildings for urban children, the rising crime and violence in the classroom, the correlation between test scores and per-pupil cost to the taxpayers. These commonplace reports represent the vast majority of public-school American youths, the future foundation of our democracy. Still, the educational crisis that we read about didn't prepare us for the past two years of the devastating "balancing the budget" debate, which seriously considers robbing our public school children to give tax breaks to America's affluent. Of course, robbing the poor won't hurt our children. They are all in private school, thank God.

Do any of us in private school leadership need further documentation of our differences? Documentation that the American dream of equal opportunity comes out best if you've had an excellent education with the privileged private school students who will disproportionately represent leadership in government, business, and professional careers? The American dream of equal opportunity that will come out best if you've done a good job with your summer reading, and have learned to write a terrific college essay?

It is clear to many of us that Barbara Jordan's fears are fast becoming reality: "That we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual. Each seeking to satisfy private wants." The death of this inspirational leader reminded us of her educational vision. We read afresh in her New York Times obituary how she saw the dangers to democracy when a wide gap occurs in resources and opportunity, when private interests become more important than educating every American to become someone who can read, write, and think enough to support a strong democracy.

Is there value in creating an educational elite within a dysfunctional, illiterate democracy? How can we learn to see that the "we" and the "they" are us, too?

Do we in private education need to be reminded that public schools were established to serve the broad democratic interests of society as a whole and to contribute to the economic welfare of the nation? And that private schools were established to serve the particular values and are accountable only to the families they serve? Are our independent school families willing to forgo the interests of society and the economic welfare of our nation? Is there value in creating a strong educational elite within a dysfunctional, illiterate democracy? How can we learn to see that the "we" and the "they" are us, too?

What are we Americans who are in excellent private schools supposed to do? I'll tell you this: We as independent school educators must do something. There is no "they" when it comes to America's children. We can start by sharing what we have and what we know with the nation's public schools. We can begin with an intent to provide all families with a vision of what the education of their children can be. We can cross over to public schools to be with the children so that the vision becomes a reality of daily learning.

The truth is that most independent schools have always had a few programs in place that reach out with a variety of resources to their sister public schools. Because these scattered programs come from such a variety of concepts and special-interest groups, we don't think about them as a whole. The "rich privates and poor publics" phenomenon isn't something we talk about, meet about, write about. We don't realize what our sharing of resources looks like when we put together all of our own independent schools' outreach programs. Most of our programs were not established on the principle of a "public school responsibility" for a strong democracy. Programs began more often as community service, or senior projects, or scholarships for economically disadvantaged students, or in-service training programs.

Is "Robin Hooding the privates" a concept of arrogance or compassion, or is it in our own best interest for diversity? Does it matter? Do these programs make a difference? Do the agencies and professional groups coming from the public sector--as, for example, in such New York City programs as Prep for Prep, A Better Chance, and the Oliver Program--have a vision and expectation different from those of the city's independent schools?

Interestingly, Prep for Prep comes at the Robin Hooding concept from another angle. The program provides New York City independent schools the opportunity to take seriously the social responsibility for educationally disadvantaged students. Gary Simons, the founder of Prep for Prep, reminds us that diversity is not the goal for his agency. He would have us aspire to redefine academic excellence to include students whose cultural backgrounds and life experiences vary from that of the mainstream student in private schools. He feels that an independent school can instill in its privileged students a sense of public responsibility by developing a compassionate awareness of the life circumstances of others. Mr. Simon's goal also is to increase the pipeline of potential leaders in government, business, and the professions who come from low-income and minority backgrounds. Prep for Prep and programs like it from the public sector are not interested in diversity--they already have it. They are working toward overcoming the barriers of racism and poverty in order to renew faith in the America dream. They want their students to be the "they" in our schools who will become the "we" in tomorrow's community.

How do we teach public responsibility to our privileged independent school students?

I propose that Robin Hooding the privates to give to the publics is our social responsibility. A current list of outreach programs to the public schools has been collected by Interschool, a New York City consortium of independent schools, including my own school, the Nightingale-Bamford School, as well as the Browning School, the Brearley School, the Chapin School, Collegiate, Dalton, Spence, and Trinity. The programs in place include all levels of education, from Brearley's "Bridges to Learning" for grades 3-6 in an at-risk East Harlem public school, to Interschool's combined program, "Celebration of Teaching," sponsored by the Dodge Foundation. The "Celebration" program selects 100 public school students and 20 outstanding public school teachers to participate, with the goal of inspiring high school students to choose careers in education. The programs in place also include technology and environmental issues: The Dalton Technology Plan was installed in a public school across the country in San Diego, through a public service program at the Dalton School. Brearley, Chapin, Nightingale, and Spence run a Girls United to Save the Environment, or GUTSE, teach-in to give 3rd through 6th grade public schoolers a lesson on conservation and waste-water management. All of the "Interschools" have programs that include accepting scholarship students from the public schools, which are four- to six-year financial commitments to provide 100 percent of cost as well as tutoring programs. Typical tutoring programs are a once-a-week commitment on the part of the private school student to work with a particular public school student throughout an academic year.

Besides sharing our resources, talents, time, and vision, a major component in this equation of strengthening the American public schools is this question: How do we teach public responsibility to our privileged independent school students?

Pearl R. Kane of Teachers College, Columbia University, observes that many of the young independent school teachers with whom she works are uncomfortable with their teaching careers in such privileged environments. The point she makes to them is that it's all right to be uncomfortable. I want to go a step further to say that it's healthy for all of us in private schools to be uncomfortable. We should feel the discomfort of inequality. Once we acknowledge our privilege and our discomfort, and see so many children left out of the opportunity to dream, we can move others. It's exactly this kind of uncomfortable tension that will drive us forward toward sharing our excellence in education in the many ways that we already do and have yet to design.

Working on equal opportunity for the American dream is a noble task. Let it be said of us in independent education--along with that famous outlaw Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest--that "No one ever came to jolly Robin in time of need and went away again with an empty fist."


Joyce Slayton Mitchell is a writer and a high school college adviser. She is on the administrative team of the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City.

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