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For the Common Good

Ann Mellow
March 07, 2011
Dan Heischman and I recently returned from the NAIS Annual Conference in National Harbor, Maryland where we had a chance to connect with many NAES members. The conference theme was “Advancing Our Public Purpose.” A range of speakers and workshops focused on ways that independent schools can and should use their considerable resources to advance the common good, particularly to collaborate with the public sector to close the education gap between the affluent and the poor.

The conference theme spoke directly to the fact that tuition-driven schools have a particular burden. Seen for so long by so many as bastions of affluence designed to educate the wealthy and powerful, today’s independent schools are slowly but surely striving to be socio-economically, racially, and ethnically diverse communities that advance social justice in meaningful ways.

Unfortunately, the realities and economics of private education often work against these noble goals. Episcopal schools, however, have a powerful and enduring “higher purpose” that calls them to be truly outward looking institutions.

Many Episcopal schools are striving to do this hard work. They are partnering with public schools; dedicating facilities and resources to significant summer and weekend programs that extend quality educational opportunity to historically under-served students; making a commitment to financial aid and admission policies to insure that the school is genuinely accessible to and welcoming of poor, working class, and middle class families; working with community groups to open the school’s facilities to the public for the benefit of all, be it hosting programs that serve those most in need or making space available for community activities; and working with their parish, cathedral, or affiliated organizations of the Episcopal Church to advance significant work on issues of social justice.

Perhaps the most dramatic expressions of Episcopal education’s commitment to public purpose and the common good are the small but growing group of low-tuition, sliding scale, and tuition-free Episcopal schools and early childhood programs that expressly serve low income families and communities and, in so doing, seek to break the cycle of poverty and oppression through education. Scattered across the country, they face enormously challenging financial realities. Episcopal schools of all kinds have an opportunity and an obligation to support their work.

I am interested in hearing from NAES members about your trials, errors, successes, and challenges to be genuinely welcoming, engaged, and inclusive institutions that reach out beyond their walls to serve the greater good and, in so doing, make real our shared Christian calling to manifest God’s love to all and bring Jesus’ message of redemption, love, and hope to the poor and the oppressed, the forgotten and lonely—however difficult that work can be.

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