Independent Schools Seek Ways To Strengthen Community Ties

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New York

As transience and mistrust erode much of America's historic sense of community, and as parents act more like consumers in choosing what's best for their children, efforts by schools to build meaningful relationships with families become both more difficult and more important.

Trying to meet that challenge was a major subject for many of the 4,700 educators who met here last month for the National Association of Independent Schools' annual conference. Built around the theme "A Matter of Trust: Family/School Partnerships," the Feb. 25-28 gathering focused on ensuring that schools are welcoming to all members of their communities, including parents, girls and boys, and minority groups.

"A culture in which adults are afraid of children and in which children are afraid of adults doesn't work very well," said speaker Mary Pipher, a psychologist and the author of the best-selling book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.

Ms. Pipher challenged the audience to find more ways to bring different people together at their schools. She lauded one school that hosts free dinners weekly for families, students, and staff members. "It's hard to overestimate how much children need adults besides their parents to take care of them," she said.

Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., said educators should also do more to integrate the lessons of the civil rights movement into their coursework.

"That means more than just playing recordings of his 'I Have a Dream,' speech," she said in her keynote address. "It means teaching the history, strategies, and tactics he used to win the historic gains of the civil rights movement."

Those teachings could serve not just to fill out units in social studies classes, but as a way to combat the violence that students increasingly inflict on each other and that the media continue to glamorize, Ms. King said.

"Nonviolence is not just a method for social change," she said. "It is also a powerful tool for personal growth and transformation."

Telling educators here that the goal of equality for members of minority groups has not yet been achieved in America, the Rev. Floyd Flake said that too often students in urban public schools have teachers who believe many of their students are not capable of learning.

That experience contrasts, the recently retired U.S. representative from the borough of Queens said, with the education he had while growing up, even though he attended a still-segregated Texas public school that suffered from poor educational materials and facilities.

"But my teachers did not dwell on that," he told educators at a workshop. "They dwelled on the fact that we were capable of being able to compete."

The minister of the Allen AME Church in Queens, which also operates a private school, said his support for publicly financed vouchers draws in part from the need to change the attitude of many public school educators.

"The objective is not to destroy the public schools," he said, "but to make public education respond."

The NAIS reports that of the approximately 440,000 students in its 980 schools, about 16 percent are members of minority groups; about 5 percent are African-American and about 3 percent are Hispanic American.

Also during the conference, the association's leadership voiced concern about a newsmagazine's plans to evaluate their schools.

In a speech highlighting NAIS successes of the past year, President Peter Relic said that, despite his objections, US News & World Report plans to publish a cover story on "America's Outstanding High Schools."

Initially, the association worried that US News would include a ranking of secondary schools similar to the newsmagazine's annual listing of colleges and universities, which, although popular with many parents, has drawn criticism from many college leaders.

Instead of ranking the schools, the magazine plans to use extensive reporting and data collection to identify private, parochial, and public high schools whose students demonstrate steady progress toward high levels of academic achievement, according to staff at the publication. The project, which organizers say would be designed to help parents identify excelling schools, would include alphabetized lists of outstanding schools in different metropolitan regions.

"I still believe children will be scarred when their school is left out," Mr. Relic told his organization's members. Each school will have to decide for itself whether to respond to any surveys the magazine sends them as part of the project, he added. "That's part of being independent."

The NAIS also released a new book on issues surrounding the education of girls. How Girls Thrive: An Essential Guide for Educators (and Parents) summarizes research on how girls learn and emphasizes the importance of building the self-esteem of young women as a way to foster academic success.

"Girls who have lousy self-esteem act on it," author JoAnn Deak told an overflow crowd. Ms. Deak is an administrator at the Laurel School, an all-girls school in Cleveland.

The 95-page book is available for $18 ($22 for nonmembers) from the NAIS Publication Sales Office at (202) 973-9749.


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