Most independent schools began their history surrounded by a wall. For many schools, the wall was literal, but even schools without a brick or stone wall had a metaphorical one. Both served as boundaries, and far too many independent schools systemically excluded students of color, poor and working class students, gender-nonconforming students, and many more without privilege. The walls served a second function, too: they kept the practices of the institution private. Even as schools began to tackle histories of exclusion and bias, they still attempted to keep their culture and practices behind a boundary, setting the terms of accountability only within the rules and norms of the institution.
In analog times, this insularity was made possible not only by the wall, but also by the role of the gatekeeper, who sits at the intersection of the private and public, deciding what people, concepts, and issues are allowed to permeate the private world of the institution, and what news of the institution is appropriate to share in the public sphere. All too often, the only information allowed to flow outward was in the service of burnishing the school’s reputation, and the information that came in propped up the systems of privilege that maintained both the material and cognitive comfort of the predominantly white and wealthy institution.
In the digital age, the walls have tumbled and the gatekeepers are gone. This isn’t just true for schools--self-publishing, citizen journalism, and social media platforms all disrupt the traditional structures that mass media was founded upon. What would have once been an internal matter at a school now becomes a news story. At the same time, in this era of increased political polarization, school policies and syllabi are being scrutinized for partisan implications.
Most independent schools aren’t used to this expansive visibility. In response, they’ve attempted to rebuild those walls. Sometimes that’s seen in how schools interact on social media, and how they attempt to control and restrict the impact of these platforms in the community. Others have handled larger conflicts with settlements and non-disclosure agreements in an attempt to control the narrative.
The only ethical response to transparency, however, is to embrace it. This visibility doesn’t make the work of leading a school easier. When everything is on display, your community sees the messiness that process requires, and even after the process concludes, leaders’ choices are questioned. In the end, however, transparency requires leaders to be accountable to the values of their institution.
Independent schools have long held aspirational values--to be good, to do good, to serve, and to lead. Whenever a community strives towards goals like these, there will be times they fall short. Those shortcomings are not well served by secrecy. Transparency and accountability are essential to becoming better schools.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)