Private School, Public Purpose



Head of Louisville Collegiate School 

In Thomas Likona’s book “Educating for Character,” he talks about the idea of “public purpose” and the three stages that people or institutions must go through in order to embrace this idea. He writes that you have to “know, desire, and do” the good in order to live a life of public purpose. Although I am the Head of School of a private school, the idea of “public purpose” is something that I spend a great deal of time thinking about because true education is about providing a quality education for all. There is no question that we all know the benefits of what a quality education can do for a person, and I would argue that we all share the desire to provide a quality education for all. The devil is in the details around what the collective “we” must “do” to make this a reality for all students.

Because my position is uniquely at the crossroads of education, the “do” for me is simple: my school has to be a private school with a public purpose. Al Adams, the former Head of School at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, expresses this best: “Independent schools are uniquely positioned to make a difference in the public domain. Given the considerable resources they command, and the powerful network of caring and influential people they attract, independent schools have the opportunity – and, I believe, the obligation – to do more than educate 1.5 percent of our nation’s children exceptionally well.” Not only do I embrace this notion, I have modeled my approach to private education to mirror this because I want my school to “know, desire, and do” all that is within our power to contribute to the education of all students.

The idea of a “private school with a public purpose” is not a new one throughout the country, but it is in Kentucky. People on both sides are skeptical about motives, yet a collective approach to educating all students would allow us to maximize resources, share best practices, identify successful teaching methods and craft a curriculum and program that has real relevance at its core. I am not naïve enough to believe that this is something that can happen overnight, but just think about what our educational system would look like if like-minded, like-willed, non-territorial, apolitical, focused individuals decided that educating all children to the fullest of our abilities was our single focus. I know I am dreaming, but dreams are what have made this country the wonderful place that it is.

This type of radical change will not come easily to our communities and, especially, our schools. Regardless of whether it is a public, private, independent, parochial, charter or any other type of school, our mission is essentially the same: to educate and prepare students for the future. Our methods, philosophies and approaches will always be different, but they should still lead us to a path where our outcomes are closely aligned. We have to see ourselves as allies as opposed to competitors. Imagine if this also applied to other non-profits and education-serving institutions and organizations. But making this happen has to be more than an intellectual exercise; there has to be real intention and action behind our words.

I believe that all schools want to develop students who will, throughout their lives, love learning and pursue wisdom; use their talents and skills for the greater good; and be responsible citizens in their local communities, their nation and the world. I also believe that all schools hope that their students develop self-discipline and self-confidence and sound moral and ethical values, including a commitment to honesty, justice, acceptance and concern for others. Yet I know as an educator that these things do not happen by themselves.

I hope that during my time here in Louisville I can find the partners that will help me to get my school closer to this, and I hope that we will be able to help others get there as well. The former Head of School at Phoenix Country Day School, Geoff Campbell, who believed wholeheartedly in finding “public purpose” in our work, wrote, “We reach out to the community at large, to teach others and to learn from others, a paradigm of two blessings. We need to provide opportunities for students and we need to model them as adults. The sense of community is one of the values that inexorably tie us together. A community exists because its members serve one another and reach out to serve those outside the community. We seek to establish a culture of community service, moved by a growing understanding that we are members of an ever-shrinking world community that shares resources, space and human capital. The intimacy of our globe compels us to see that in doing for one, we do for another.”