Editor’s note: This guest column comes from James Herzog, the associate director for education at the Florida Catholic Conference.
More than 80 private school organization leaders met at the Education Department’s headquarters for the Seventh Annual Private School Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., this week to discuss ways to cross the public-private divide and thus better serve the interests of all schoolchildren.
“We need to create some means for public and private schools to support each other and leverage those resources that are in private schools,” said Jacqueline Smethurst, co-founder of a 501(c)(3) called Wingspan Partnerships and one of four panelists for the discussion. Smethurst said this was a lesson she and her husband learned in witnessing first-hand the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Smethurst had lived in New Orleans for more than a decade and was amazed by the level of support she and her husband received when they evacuated to Dallas. Her husband, David Drinkwater, was head of an independent K-12 school that was able to reopen within three months of the hurricane due to community assistance for space, technical support, telephone donations, etc. She was discouraged, however, to learn that public schools in the New Orleans area were declared closed for the year.
“We saw that was the end of the line,” Smethurst said. Since the couple wanted to do something about the disparities created by the public-private divide, they co-founded the nonprofit in Napa, Calif..
Another panelist gave moving examples about how his private school reached out to other public and private schools in his community during times of need. Roger Weaver, former headmaster of the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, Calif., spoke about efforts ranging from restoring arts programming in a public school to securing the very existence of a storied Catholic school.
Weaver recalled the impact of “Proposition 13,” which was a property-tax-reduction measure in 1978 that maintained core curriculum but reduced “everything else” in the public classroom. He visited a nearby public school some time after the passage of Proposition 13 and reached out to the school by offering services of a choral instructor for a few periods per day. This type of outreach continued and evolved to a point in 1984 in which the nonprofit “Crossroads Community Outreach Foundation” was established. Since then the Foundation has helped to restore arts and science programs for thousands of public school students.
Weaver also spoke about his experience in visiting St. Anne School in Santa Monica in the mid-2000s. He learned from Michael Browning, principal at St. Anne School, that the school faced a $60,000 funding deficit and was struggling to keep its doors open. Weaver offered encouragement to the school to overcome this challenge since it served such a vital mission. In particular, St. Anne’s was founded in 1908 and serves many Title I low-income students. The St. Anne School Support Council was formed in 2006 and has to date raised more than $700,000. The Council members includes stakeholders from the school itself along with representatives from private schools in West Los Angeles and local businesses.
The moderator for the discussion was Debora Southwell, management and program analyst from the Office of Non-Public Education. The two other panelists included Al Adams, former headmaster of Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, and Jim Scott, president of Punahou School in Honolulu. (Incidentally, Punahou School is the alma mater for President Barack Obama; he attended the school from grades 5-12.)
The panel also featured a dialogue with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who continued to offer support for public and private partnerships but also continued to disparage the support that might come from school voucher-type programs.