Approach vs Intention

Today I heard a peculiar story today of a private school community helping a public school community. Each year students and parents from a private school help to “restore” a neighboring public school. On the surface, it seems fine, but in an area already fraught with a polarized educational culture marked by fear of public schools, I can’t help but wonder if this arrangement perpetuates an unfounded negative perception of the public schools. The ironic part of this fear, is that the public school district in question actually has some very strong and progressive programs, so the fear seems based on historic class differences and tension, rather than the reality of today’s schools.

The general idea of giving back to the less fortunate is a delicate and confusing issue. When money is exchanged, it’s actually much simpler – an entity is in need and someone with resources helps. It can be anonymous, both parties benefit and yet it can also be impersonal and unfulfilling. However, when people volunteer their time, a vulnerability can exist. People’s true biases, fears and insecurities can easily emerge without one even recognizing it. So, in this situation, what does it accomplish for both sides? For the privileged, volunteering in an underserved community can be eye opening to see there is a world beyond what they know, but does it serve to humanize or patronize those they serve? And for those receiving the help, what message is sent that they need help from “outsiders”?

I’m a huge supporter of civic engagement, service and service learning, but I also believe success and the development of real, honest empathy is dependent on approach versus intention. I don’t doubt the intention of the aforementioned private/public school partnership, but I wonder if students and parents from both communities would gain more from the experience by working together on projects instead of the private school members working at the public school…on the weekend…without any of its students or parents there.

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