The Public-Private School Divide

It’s been a couple of weeks since the publication of the Civil Beat editorial, “The High Cost of Inequality Between Hawaii’s Public and Private Schools.” After reading the editorial and the large volume of comments, I’ve been thinking about what schools might do to bridge the divide between the haves and the have-nots because there is a difference in what exclusive private schools can offer their students.

As a public school educator for 45 years but also as a mother of two sons who graduated from a private school, I saw first-hand the difference in opportunities between schools. My husband and I never regretted the sacrifices we made so our sons could benefit from everything their private school had to offer. Yet we never lost our commitment to support our public schools as well.

When we meet someone new in Hawaii, we often ask, “What school did you go to?” We often make judgements about people based on their reply. And yes, I am one of those people who usually cheers for the underdog public school sports team when they are playing a private school. Unfortunately, we do have biases even now, over 150 years after some of those private schools were established.

Civil Beat writer, Sterling Higa, mentions the PUEO program as a good start. Although I agree that it offers opportunities for several hundred public school students each year, it will take more than programs like PUEO to change people’s perceptions. The intention is good: to give less privileged students an opportunity to experience what private schools offer, but that alone will not make the kinds of changes we need if we are to bridge the divide between public and private schools.

The only way we can change our perceptions about people is to get to know them and to realize that everyone can contribute whether it is in school, on the playing field, in an organization, or in the workplace. Our students need to learn to collaborate on projects with others who come from diverse backgrounds.  What better time to learn skills in working together than in school? Learning the skill of working with and listening to other viewpoints is essential. This why I believe that we need to provide opportunities for students from public and private schools to collaborate and learn together. I’m not suggesting that private school students “do a project” for public school students – things like collecting school supplies for a public school or helping out at a homeless shelter. Yes, these are admirable projects, but they don’t bridge the public-private school divide.

Here in Hawaii, students in many schools are examining problems in our community or in our environment using project-based learning. Imagine how powerful it would be for students from public and private schools to work together on projects to address issues that are important to them and which impact their future. Living in an island state, our students realize that we cannot rely on others to tackle issues such as reducing the amount of trash we generate, seeking ways to ensure that we use less disposable plastics which take hundreds of years to decompose in landfills, addressing how renewable energy systems can benefit our community, and even how we can improve our educational system in Hawaii. It would take collaboration between teachers and opportunities for the classrooms to come together to discuss, ask questions, explore, research, and to create a way to share their learning. Hopefully, through collaborative project-based learning, students will realize that it doesn’t matter where you live or where you go to school. Anyone can have great ideas and everyone can contribute to the team. Perhaps, too, private school teachers and students will realize how fortunate they are to have the resources that public schools may not have. This could be the first-step in bridging the divide that now exists.

Three years ago, I was fortunate to attend a series of professional development sessions focused on project-based learning through the Hawaii Innovative Leaders Network. Public and charter school principals were invited to participate, and until then, I had never worked with or gotten to know any charter school principals. What a missed opportunity! All of us got along so well, and we realized that all of us were committed to providing our schools with rich PBL experiences. It made me realize that as school leaders, we had the same goal: to provide our students with rich educational opportunities that will empower them to make a difference in their communities. It didn’t matter if we were a public school or a charter school leader, and we learned a lot from each other through our discussions as well as our learning walks to other schools. That experience can hopefully be replicated with students and teachers.

I look at our world today, and there is so much divisiveness. It seems that people don’t want to listen to opinions that differ from their’s. Part of the problem is that we lack empathy or the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. When we can work together, however, we discover that we are more alike than we are different, and that’s what we need in our world today: people from different backgrounds working together to discuss and come up with solutions to make this world a better place.

Hawaii is too small to divide people into haves and have-nots. Let’s find ways to provide opportunities for students and teachers from public, private, and charter schools to collaborate and discuss problems and solutions that impact us now and in the future. We will all benefit from that collaboration.