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Three Ways that Independent Schools Contribute to the Common Good

“Schools with the most freedom to act and the greatest power to affect change must not be fortresses and silos. They must be laboratories and lighthouses. And all of us, wherever we send our children, must begin to see ourselves as caretakers of all that the light can shine upon.”

-Jack Schneider, How Private Schools Can Use their Power to Advance Education for All

When parents are considering schooling options for their children they often wrestle with the ethics of sending their child to a private school. Historically, many independent schools have cultivated a reputation of exclusivity and separateness, and their private status has prioritized individual gain over the common good. Today I am going to discuss the ways in which independent schools contribute to the common good.

In the course of my work as head of Baker Demonstration School, I regularly meet with families who value diversity, who want their children to become thoughtful citizens who contribute to the common good, and who want schools to cultivate the values of perseverance and personal responsibility. As they consider their child’s education, they wonder if choosing an independent school puts them at odds with their values. 

Our school, Baker Demonstration School, is a private school on Chicago’s North Shore. We are a school that teaches through hands-on experience rather than lecture; where the arts – dance, visual art, music, theater – are integrated into the academic program, and where the social and emotional development of a child is as valued as their intellectual growth. Deeply embedded in our mission is our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusivity, manifested in all aspects of school life. 

Families seeking out an excellent, innovative education for their children don’t have to leave their values at the door when they consider schools like Baker. At Baker, we align with Claudia Daggett’s clear-eyed statement that, as independent schools, we must “prepare students to be part of society; [must be] innovation incubators; and [must be] partners in moving forward the common good” (Claudia Daggett, Executive Director of the Independent School Association of the Central States.) 

3 Ways that Independent Schools Contribute to the Common Good:

  1. The School Experience Cultivates Authentic Community Engagement. When schools integrate authentic community issues, they cultivate a sense of responsibility to the community within students. Baker second graders studied the ecological impact of a proposed city vote to remove a stand of woods in the community.  Baker fourth graders deliberated on where to donate the profits earned from their entrepreneurial unit. In both curricular examples, the goal of students’ work is not a worksheet posted on the refrigerator, rather the goal is for children to engage in authentic, real life issues. As children are learning to be thoughtful, engaged members of society, they are growing up where this quality of engagement is the norm.
  2. The School Incubates Innovative Practices. We are best when we are engaging in a public-private dialogue about schooling; we have much to learn from each other.  At Baker we open our doors to educators from schools across the country. Educators and pre-service teachers who visit Baker want to see experiential, project-based learning in action. They are interested in observing our play-based early childhood programs, Arts Core in middle school, and our problem-based middle school math practices. As a school we want to capitalize upon our autonomy, to move the needle on innovative practices. As Schneider writes in his Fast Company article on private schools, “imagine [a school that] sees itself as a laboratory, with a mission of testing out promising practices – leveraging its autonomy and resources so that many schools might benefit.”
  3. The School is Committed to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity. As private schools, many of which have historically enrolled predominantly white populations of students, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that diversity is central to our mission. It is our responsibility to provide safe spaces for all children to explore their identities, spaces where children’s cultural and racial backgrounds are affirmed. As a school, we prioritize learning from different perspectives. In this context students gain skills in empathy and they grow cognitively. We know through much research – from the best colleges and universities who employ need-blind admission practices, as well as from marketplace research –  that homogeneous teams are much less smart and successful as diverse teams. As Schneider writes, “deep learning is not the result of accumulating information; instead, it requires learning to see the world from the broadest possible perspective, and, as a result, seeing the world more fully and more clearly.”

With their non-tax status, private schools serve at the pleasure of the public. The most important contribution independent schools can make is to educate students who contribute to the community in impactful ways. The local and global issues we face as a society and the future our children will inherently demand nothing less. 

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