02/16/2021 by Michael Brosnan |

Reimagining the Public Purpose of Private Schools: A Timely Innovation

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When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools into a sudden transition to distance learning in the spring of 2020, Allison Blankenship, director of the KA’I programs at ‘Iolani School in Hawai‘i, knew she had her work cut out for her.

The collective KA’I programs, ‘Iolani’s signature public-purpose initiative, has been offering tuition-free academic enrichment to low-income children from the nearby Pālolo Valley for the past ten years. KA’I stands for Kukulu Alaka‘i ‘Iolani (Creation of Leaders at ‘Iolani). What started as a fairly straight-forward middle school summer program has grown organically into an impressive, multi-level support systems for low-income students from pre-kindergarten to post-secondary school.

In all, the program today has four key goals; provide an early-childhood summer program to prepare Pālolo Valley children for kindergarten; raise the high school graduation and postsecondary matriculation and completion rates of Pālolo Valley youth through a long-term, academic-enrichment summer program; offer year-round tutoring to keep these students on pace during the school year; and oversee a cohesive network of educators and community partners dedicated to supporting these students throughout childhood straight through to their post-high school lives.

Through this focus on a single community in need, one close to the ‘Iolani campus, the KA‘I programs have been able to build strong partnerships within the community, respond to real needs as they arise, retain nearly every student enrolled in the six-year summer program, and generate educational outcomes that far exceed state and national averages.

But the pandemic created a sudden and unexpected kind of pressure. “The pandemic has basically shifted everything we do,” Blankenship says. Impressively, the KA‘I Program has risen to this added challenge.

For the KA‘I 2020 summer program, the staff distributed cellular-enabled iPads to each of the 72 middle and high school students to allow them to easily access to Zoom classes. Given the rise in food in security during the pandemic, KA‘I also distributed weekly groceries to provide the students’ families with needed pantry items. Throughout the summer, they provided each family with frozen meals and dry pantry items, along with fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, bread, yogurt, and sandwich meat. Since the pandemic started, KA‘I has been able to provide 19 drive-through food distributions to all 112 of the KA‘I families.

Throughout the year, the KA‘I staff has had to make significant adjustments, providing materials and technology to students as needed while training staff for distance learning. They have reached out to partner with the Hawai‘i Department of Education to coordinate services. They have also established COVID-19 Emergency Relief Assistance for families. “To address the financial hardship caused by the pandemic,” Blankenship says, “we were able to set up a COVID-19 relief fund to help our families with rent and utility payments to avoid evictions and keep utilities on. Our main goal with this emergency relief funding is to provide economic relief for our families so that they are able to maintain as stable a homelife as possible for our students.” As of mid-February 2021, the program provided $27,300 in relief payments.

“Blankenship adds, “We are going to continue our emergency relief assistance for families at least through 2021 and probably through 2022 as we know that the economic effects of COVID will be long lasting.”

While the KA‘I program is looking forward to running its 2021 Summer session in person (with appropriate safety measures), Blankenship notes that she expects they’ll need to shift their focus toward remediation/recovery, instead of enrichment, to respond to the massive learning loss that so many lower-income students have experienced during the pandemic.

Responding to Community Needs

Across the nation, independent schools with public-purpose outreach programs have had to make similar adjustments and rise to equally difficult challenges. What’s impressive is not only how they’ve been able to do so, but also how they stepped up efforts without hesitation. All things considered, however, the directors of these programs will also tell you that the needs of low-income children across the nation are enormous — and they wish more independent schools would join in this work or extend the reach of their programs.

As José Melgoza, a history teacher at Polytechnic School in California and executive director at the school’s Partnership for Success! program, says, “Covid-19 has significantly amplified the need for schools to commit to public-purpose initiatives.”

Back in the early 2000s, when I worked as editor of Independent School, Al Adams, then head of school at Lick-Wilmerding School in San Francisco wrote a compelling article on “The Public Purpose of Private Schools.” He wasn’t expressing original ideas. Rather, he was updating a conversation that independent schools have been engaged in for decades. However, Adams and other independent school leaders felt that the broader independent school community, collectively, had lost sight of much of its public-purpose focus and needed to take more — and more urgent — action on behalf of their local communities. Given the increasing economic divide in our nation, and the challenges this poses for so many families and children, Adams saw this outreach as “a moral imperative for our schools to do more with their knowledge, networks, and resources than to just educate the students fortunate enough to be directly in their charge.”

In 2005, a group of directors of independent school programs engaged in private/public partnerships gathered to discuss ways to take the conversation to the next level. The result was the creation of Private Schools with Public Purpose (PSPP), an education collaborative designed to strengthening existing public-purpose programs within independent schools and encourage and support new ones. Today the organization is still at work forming and improving “partnerships among a diverse spectrum of schools (private, public, charter, etc.), nonprofits, foundations, and businesses with the goal of building stronger communities.” The difference between 2005 and today, however, is that the group has changed its name to the Partnership of Schools with Public Purpose (still PSPP) and has shifted its mission language so it’s less about schools giving back to the community and more about “creating just and equitable communities.”

As the PSPP mission now says, “PSPP is dedicated to providing a range of opportunities that promote innovation, connection, and social justice. The diverse PSPP network is responsive to the broad range of needs reflected by the communities which are represented within the organization and supports local conferences that draw on national examples of successful partnering practices.”

PSPP Vision Statement

PSPP is committed to:

  • Building an inclusive network of students, educators + community partner organizations.
  • Providing education + support that fosters initiatives that promote a public purpose.
  • Ensuring that public purpose efforts work toward achieving justice + equity.

Currently, there are some 40-plus independent schools involved with the organization Each year, this group of like-minded educators gathers at one of the member schools to share experiences, challenges, and best practices. Last September, due to Covid-19, the group was forced to postpone its annual conference at the Polytechnic School in California. But it hopes to convene later in 2021. In place of an in-person conference, PSPP has run two distance workshops this academic year — one focused on the link between the pandemic and social justice issues and another on setting up summer enrichment programs.

When I spoke recently with educators involved in some of the large PSPP programs, they all underscored the need in their communities, especially this year in which the pandemic has exposed troubling inequities in the U.S. society and education in particular.

“Overall, things are going well with our varied public-purpose initiatives,” says Carl Ackerman, a founder and one-time director of PSPP as well as the former long-time director of the PUEO Program at Punahou School, Hawai‘i. “We have such a great group of schools, and so many of the programs have been growing in significant ways. But we’d still love to see more independent schools engage in this work. In particular, it’s so important for independent schools to reach out to the public schools in their communities in significant ways.”

Other program directors note the ways their own school-based programs, begun with great passion and uncertainty, have steadily evolved for the better over the years, thanks in part to PSPP connections that enable them to share ideas and resources. However, they also express the clear desire for more schools to establish robust public-service programs — and encourage schools that have some form of community-based service programs to take them to the next level. As Allison Blankenship, says, “All the initiatives for service- learning are wonderful. But, as I see it, they are not enough. Schools, especially those with resources, should be doing much more to reach out and collaborate with their local public schools. The broader community needs are great — and most independent schools are in a position to make significant contributions.”

The Two-Way Value of Public Outreach

Although independent schools interpret “public purpose” in multiple ways, Blankenship’s and Ackerman’s perspective is emerging as the PSPP group consensus: that programs involving in-depth, year-round support for low-income, public school students are among the best ways for independent schools to leverage their expertise and resources for the public good.

For schools worried about taking the initiative, Ackerman not only notes the philanthropical support these programs have received during this difficult year, he also points out the steady, organic growth of the programs that began at the end of the 20th century and earlier this century. “They are all thriving today,” he says.

Steve Filosa, who until this year ran the Prep@Pingree Program based at the Pingree School in Massachusetts, also makes the point that creating and running such programs has valuable benefits for the hosting school, too. “What matters most is serving kids who need the help and support,” he says. “But running such programs is beneficial in terms of public perception and support for the host schools, in terms of the professional interaction between our teachers and public school teachers, and in terms of our students’ interaction with public school students as well as their understanding of community and national issues.”

While schools considering creating such an outreach program often fear that it will be an untenable financial drain on the school — and even pull fund-raising money away from the annual campaign or the endowment — the educators I spoke with believe it’s just the opposite. Foundations, and even many individuals, that would never consider giving to independent schools are quick to support these initiatives. There are parents who choose to send their children to these independent schools in part because of the schools’ outreach efforts. In many cases, individual donors who give to these independent schools for general programming say they do so primarily because of the public-purpose initiatives. In other words, they want to support schools that are doing this important work.

José Melgoza, at Polytechnic School’s Partnership for Success!, points out that when he was looking for a teaching position, it was unlikely he would have paid any attention to Polytechnic School if it weren’t for the partnership program. “In truth, the program was a selling point for me,” he says. “I want to work at a school that sees itself as part of the greater community. And I think these public-purpose programs are a selling point for lots of young teachers driven to the profession by the desire to do important work in their communities.”

Melgoza also points out how these programs can take on a surprising life of their own. In the case of his school, a simple idea — creating a small program to prevent summer-learning slide among low-income public school students — has grown tremendously over the past 16 years to include three other independent schools and to focus more intently on helping these same students, year by year, get into and succeed in college. His program now partners with Pasadena City College and students receive University of California academic credit for their participation. The program has even found a donor to provide each student with a $1,000 college scholarship.

Melgoza also points out that the ways Polytechnic School has benefitted from the program. “We have more teachers of color and more students of color now than when we started the program,” he says. “The school is more inclusive, and more connected to the community. We’ve even created other service-learning projects in collaboration with the local public schools.” One such project, pre-Covid, included a joint trip to the U.S.-Mexico border region followed by a student-led symposium on immigration for the broader community.

Barbara Gee is a co-founder and long-time director of PSPP and has run the Heads Up Program at Head-Royce School in Oakland for years. She also notes that her school has benefitted significantly from running its outreach program. For one, Head-Royce was a predominantly white institution when it launched the Heads Up Program. In fact, a main impetus for the program emerged from a school evaluation for accreditation that made it clear Head-Royce needed to be more diverse and engage more in the local community. Today, Head-Royce is 60% students of color, reflecting the greater Oakland community. With a wider diversity of students have come a number of additional beneficial changes to the school, says Gee, especially regarding the value of diversity and the students’ understanding of the complexities of the world.

What is clear is that a number of public-partnership programs at independent schools are thriving today — offering thousands of deserving children support they would not otherwise get. Indeed, they have been a lifeline to many public school students and their families during this difficult past year. At the same time, the programs are also supporting essential community growth and learning on their own campuses.

Exemplary Programs

One could choose any number of PSPP programs in independent school as exemplary. Here is a small sampling of the programs that have caught my attention for their commitment to and impact on the lives of children from low-income communities:

Horizons National (multiple schools)
Horizons National began in 1964 as the Horizons program at New Canaan Country School in Connecticut as a way to serve low-income students in Fairfield County. The national version was established in 1995 to encourage more schools to get involved in similar outreach. That year, two Horizons programs were established. By 2007, there were 13 programs at independent schools across nine states. In 2019, the Horizons network reached over 6,000 students at 62 programs in 19 states. Horizons students attend a tuition-free, six-week summer program on the campus of an independent school, college, or university, and receive additional support throughout the year. In small classes led by professional teachers, students dive into a rich curriculum with a focus on reading, STEM, and art. Students also engage in various activities designed to expose them to new opportunities. Children join Horizons the summer before kindergarten and return to the program each year through high school.

The Clarence T.C. Ching PUEO Program at Punahou School
Founded at Punahou School in 2005, the Clarence T.C. Ching PUEO Program aims to serve and support public school students with demonstrated potential but limited economic resources. PUEO — which stands for Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities — support students with a seven-year academic scholarship from grades 6 through12. The overall goal is to help motivated low-income students (most rank in the middle of their classes academically) prepare for, enter, and complete college. At the core of PUEO is a summer learning program designed to promote academic readiness for the upcoming school year, helping to address the achievement gap associated with an absence of summer learning. In addition, PUEO offers year-round academic support for its students, along with help in college readiness. Students receive school credit for the work they do in the program. The program currently enrolls 350 students who come from around 80 schools. All costs are covered by the program.

Partnership for Success! (multiple schools)
Founded in 1990, and hosted at Polytechnic School in California, Partnership for Success! is a partnership between the Pasadena Unified School District and four local independent schools (Chandler School, Mayfield Junior School, Westridge School for Girls, and Polytechnic School). Each summer, the Partnership provides an intensive five-week enrichment program to approximately 400 public-school students who are chosen by their school principals based on their academic promise and financial need. Once students are nominated in their fourth-grade year, they remain in the program for eight consecutive summers. This long-term commitment between the Partnership and its students is essential to the program’s success. During their time here, students build their skills in math, science, and language arts. Virtually all graduates go on to attend college, most at four-year universities. Students also earn credit in the University of California system. All costs are covered by the program.

The Malcolm Coates Prep@Pingree Program
This year-round program at Pingree School, Massachusetts, seeks to enrich the lives of motivated, low-income students from the cites of Lawrence and Lynn and other communities near the Pingree campus in northeastern Massachusetts. Students in the program, all who have completed seventh grade at their public schools, are offered academic, cultural and social opportunities at the Pingree School for four weeks during the summer and periodically throughout the school year. The goal is to help students thrive in high school and enroll and succeed in college. Students in the program study math, English, engineering, and history in classes taught by experienced public and independent school teachers and assisted by high school student instructors. They take part in co-curricular activities and workshops on team building, public speaking, financial literacy, interview skills and more. Students also take day trips within greater Boston area to visit sites such as MIT, Harvard University, the Ipswich River, the New England Aquarium, and Boston’s Museum of Science. All costs are covered by the program.

KA’I Programs at ‘Iolani School
Started in 2010, KA‘I is a community partnership between ‘Iolani School and the community in nearby Pālolo Valley. What started as a middle school summer program has grown to support low-income students from pre-kindergarten to the post-secondary years. KA‘I provides an early childhood summer program to better prepare them for kindergarten; a long-term academic enrichment summer program to raise the high school graduation and postsecondary matriculation and completion rates of Pālolo Valley youth; provides a year-round tutoring program to keep students on pace; and oversees a network of educators and community partners dedicated to supporting these students from preschool through postsecondary education to employment. All costs are covered by the program.

AIM High Program, San Francisco
The AIM High program was found in 1986 at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco. At the start, the program served 50 students. Today Aim High now located at 18 campuses across the Bay Area and Tahoe-Truckee. In June of 2020, its 35th summer of operation, Aim High expects to serve 2,400 middle school students. The program provides a nationally recognized summer enrichment program that teaches middle-school students from low-income households the skills they need to succeed in high school and beyond. Ninety-eight percent of the AIM High alumni graduate from high school on time and enroll in college. To date, the program has served more than 10,000 students. Johns Hopkins University has named AIM High “one of the nation’s best summer programs and awarded the program its Excellence in Summer Learning Award. All costs are covered by the program.

Heads Up Program at Head-Royce School
The Heads Up Program at Head-Royce School was founded in 1987 by the then-Head of School Paul Chapman and faculty member Barbara Gee, who would now leads the PSPP group. The program’s primary goals have been to give back to the community and to make Head-Royce a true citizen of Oakland, rather than the isolated school on the hill. Heads Up provides first-generation college-bound students of color from Oakland public schools with challenging and enriching programming to cultivate socially responsible leaders. The program currently serves 116 students in grades 6-9 annually. To date, Heads Up has graduated more than 1,000 students. On average, 85% of students complete the four-year program — which includes summer school and year-round support. All costs are covered by the program.

LEEP Program at Lakeside School
LEEP, Lakeside Educational Enrichment Program, is a four-week summer program at Lakeside School, Seattle, designed to stimulate the intellectual curiosity of 100 high school students from low-income communities. The program has five components: Academics (math, English, and geography); Athletics (field sports and rowing); Stand and Deliver (a three-to-five minute presentation before the entire LEEP assemblage); Community Service (3-day field experience with local non-profit organizations); Graduation (an official and heartwarming graduation ceremony attended by families). Participants apply for admission to the program when in eighth grade and attend each summer throughout their high school career. Students usually come from the Seattle Public Schools that serve those in greatest need. The program’s aim is to boost students to higher achievement during the summer and throughout their high school careers and beyond. The LEEP program has also helped reshape Lakeside into a far more diverse, inclusive school with steadily deepening connections to the broader community.

One might argue that independent schools, by the very nature of offering a high-quality education and focusing on developing smart and good students, are engaged in a form of public good. But members of the PSPP argue that it’s not enough. The need for greater support for low-income students today is immense — and many independent schools have the resources and the skills needed to make a difference.

José Melgoza, makes the point more directly. “Schools that have worked together through the PSPP group have now established an effective model of collaborative partnership,” he says. “We’d love to share what we know works — and help other schools get involved in this important work on behalf of children everywhere.”


Michael Brosnan is a freelance writer with a particular focus on equity, justice, and innovation in education. More at www.michaelabrosnan.com.

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