The Independent School Test

One of the most powerful books I have read, as part of my doctoral work, was an ethnographic research study of an independent school by Alan Peshkin, titled “Permissible Advantage: The Moral Consequences of Elite Schooling.” As part of a series of explorations of American high schools, the author spent a year deeply immersed in a well-respected independent school, seeking to establish what set these kinds of schools apart from their public counterparts. He discovered that the most common denominator was a student and parent population with a shared commitment to and expectation of academic accomplishments leading to college attendance and future success. Peshkin explored the additional markers that tend to characterize most independent schools—highly accomplished teachers, small class sizes, extensive academic and extracurricular opportunities that broaden students’ education far beyond the traditional academic disciplines, beautiful facilities that often replicate and rival college campuses, state-of-the-art technology, an admissions process that identifies students likely to succeed within the school, and an expectation that every admitted child will succeed, both academically and in life, with the resources and support services to help make this so. Finally, and significantly, the cost of tuition is also a distinguisher, but with that comes a robust commitment by most independent schools to provide extensive financial support to assist need-based students.

The origin of most private and independent schools in the United States, dating back to the 18th century, was built on supporting the economic needs and growth of a developing nation. By default, most of these schools served to perpetuate privilege of those already well-educated and coming from significant means. By the 19th century, a small but powerful group of philanthropists saw the significant societal and economic benefits of an outstanding education and began to very generously fund opportunities for promising students from families without means to attend such schools. This generosity continues to this day, and is even more specifically defined in each independent school’s philanthropic efforts to support financial need, to demonstrate a deep commitment to equity and access.

Dominating Peshkin’s observations and research is an overarching sense of privilege and advantage for the students who attend independent schools. Almost everyone who is connected to independent schools—students, teachers, staff, alumni, families—identify that this quality and experience of education should be the right of every student and accept a level of remorse that this is not always the case. 

As Peshkin states, “Permissible advantage captures the tension between the belief that there is something unfair and unseemly about advantage and the understanding that it is an unavoidable fact of life” (page 122). This is a reality that exists not only when one considers independent schooling vs. public schooling, but also when one acknowledges the significant differences among public schools across the city;  inequitable access to property tax resources; and the disproportionate ability of parents and guardians to commit their time, treasure, and talent to school and student success. 

As a career independent educator and leader, I consider one of my greatest responsibilities is to enhance access to an independent school education. Currently 62% of Bosque School’s students receive some level of financial support to offset tuition costs. Our families represent a wide range of identities such as single parents, first-generation college attendees, bus drivers, bankers, public school employees, grandparents, and small business owners, just to name a few. They reflect diversity of ethnicity, race, culture, socio-economics, identity, and thought. There is no doubt that our schools are strengthened through diversity. The global economic marketplace we are preparing our students to thrive in requires skills in collaboration, communication, and cultural competence, as well as outstanding core skills in reading, writing, mathematics, science, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. These skills are built through broadening perspectives and practice with healthy civil discourse, something that has greatly eroded in our country in recent years. 

Another difference between independent schools and public schools is on stark display now across the country as we face the global pandemic of COVID-19 and national school closures. Independent schools are poised to pivot by their very nature: they are smaller in size, have fewer levels of organizational structure, and are focused on parents/guardians’ return on their investment.  Some examples:
  • In a series of days, we shifted to a remote learning platform. On Friday, March 13,  Governor Lujan Grisham announced schools would close for three weeks, starting on Monday, March 16. On the same day as the governor’s announcement, I shared our plan for our first week of remote learning with students and families. Not a day of learning was lost in the transition as we had seen the possibilities on the horizon and initiated a variety of internal task forces to prepare for remote learning. We were proactive and prepared to support our community. 
  • Since that first week of remote learning, we have made two further modifications to our Principles of Remote Teaching and Learning, all guided by feedback collected from students, parents/guardians, and staffulty.  Have we perfectly replicated our regular in-person experience? Absolutely not. It would be impossible to do so as a community, and face-to-face interaction is such a significant part of the Bosque experience. We continue to do our best to be responsive to the needs of our community, working to support our families who have suffered significant financial loss during this pandemic, even to the extent of gathering information from our families who own businesses and informing our greater community to promote their offerings. Our school continues to lean into our values of scholarship, community and integrity, even as we had to shift, almost overnight, to a remote learning model.
    • Scholarship: The expectation of our students to remain engaged as active learners and leaders has not changed in light of the global pandemic.Students continue to be challenged in their learning and assessed for their contributions.Our teachers continue to anchor teaching and learning in our academic mission statement and to design lessons and assignments that deepen learning, promote inquiry, and help students make sense of the world around them. Many lessons have been completely reconfigured to help create space for our students to process the challenges of social distancing and a global pandemic through economic, societal, cultural, artistic, entrepreneurial, musical, historical, mathematical, scientific, and personal lenses. Excellent examples of the ways we continue to challenge education, remotely, can be seen in my last Buzz post
    • Community: Beyond maintaining academics, our teachers continue to recognize that the power of community is equally important to help maintain consistency, connections, and meaning in the midst of a scary and unsettling current reality. We nimbly adjusted from our cherished daily in-person Morning Meeting to an electronic version full of engaging and creative community challenges, school spirit activities, and wellness resources. Advisers are offering virtual “themed” lunches, social gatherings, and 1:1 check-ins with students. Staffulty and trustees have been reaching out to families to see how they are doing and offer support, especially for those who have lost significant income and those on the front lines of the medical crisis. In addition, I am offering weekly virtual coffees for parents and guardians; we will launch a student wellness virtual meeting starting next week hosted by our student-support team; and we are providing parents/guardians access to a mindfulness workshop this Friday, April 24, to support clarity, calm and anxiety during this disorienting time. We continue to contribute to our service partnerships and support broader community needs. Our three community engagement programs (Horizons Albuquerque, BEMP, and the Sofia Center for Professional Development) continue to remotely offer meaningful resources to their constituents across the city. 
    • Integrity: Our students continue to be challenged to lean into their values and “choose courage over comfort” (Brené Brown). We are seeing this as they continue to speak up to ensure our community values are protected, and in the ways they are so generously supporting each other and the broader needs of those in Albuquerque. Our staffulty are going above and beyond to support their students, while balancing almost impossible childcare realities and broader personal family concerns. We are putting countless hours into creatively reconstructing end-of-year celebrations to honor our students' accomplishments. The shift to remote learning has asked all of us to lean even more into integrity, in the midst of significant stress levels, and Bosque Bobcats continue to rise to the challenge.  

Like many other independent schools, Bosque is a “private school with a public purpose.” Bosque reflects its public purpose in so many ways—an equitable and accessible admissions process; our commitment to service learning at every grade level; adding a lens of diversity, equity and inclusivity into our teaching and learning; and as the innovator, incubator, and site for three significant programs:
  1. Horizons Albuquerque - a tuition-free academic enrichment program that addresses the achievement gap and summer learning loss for public school students from low-income families. 
  2. The Sofia Center for Professional Development - engages educators in reflection, dialogue, and action focused on essential questions about teaching and learning. The Sofia Center nurtures and restores educators’ sense of calling and purpose, and empowers educators to be creators of innovative change in their schools and communities. It supports not only a very robust annual schedule of professional development for Bosque staffulty, but also offers a free monthly professional development series that has hosted educators from over 245 schools and organizations to date.
  3. The Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Project (BEMP) - In partnership with UNM, BEMP brings together community members to collect local ecological information to both enhance scientific research capabilities and educate local citizens about the bosque. BEMP currently has 33 active sites, across 270 miles of the Middle Rio Grande, and over 1 million data points are collected each year. Data is primarily collected by K–12 students and their teachers—from public, pueblo, charter, and private schools throughout New Mexico—demonstrating how local science initiatives can successfully connect people to their landscapes while helping inform resource management policies.

The current reality is truly “testing” the creativity and resiliency of educational institutions in supporting students using a completely different model of teaching and learning. It is also justifiably testing the patience of families who signed up for and paid for a very different educational model than we are currently delivering in the midst of this global pandemic. I am very grateful that our families are so supportive and committed to our school, and I believe that this comes from having seen the power and value of the Bosque education prior to our shift to remote learning and a trust in the continued value. I hope our families see how hard we are working to support our students with meaningful and mission-aligned teaching and learning while maintaining our ongoing commitments to the various and vital relationships within our community. This is what truly makes Bosque unique and defines an exemplary independent school. 

Thank you for believing in the value of an independent education, for contributing so meaningfully to our community health, and for believing in Bosque.

Stay calm. Stay healthy. Stay Connected.
All the best,

Jessie Barrie, PhD
Head of School