Cultivating Public Purpose & Leadership Development at Rye Country Day School

Alison DoernbergLeadership Programs, Student Leadership

Alison Doernberg, Director of Public Purpose, Rye Country Day School

While attending the gcLi Leadership Lab in June, I began to see leadership as the development of character with an outward-facing lens – an active process of putting awareness, empathy, and courage into practice for a greater purpose beyond one’s individual experience. These ideas resonated with the way I’ve come to understand community engagement and service learning. Our public purpose approach at Rye Country Day School emphasizes service as a way of life rather than an hourly requirement. This philosophy underscores our commitment to making a positive impact on the community by cultivating authentic, mutually beneficial, and sustainable partnerships. In our public purpose programs, we ask students to consider what it means to be part of a community and the ways in which we share responsibility for one another, and we encourage them to act upon that awareness with generosity and empathy. Through this process, students move toward deeper community engagement and self-discovery.

Service has been at the heart of our school community since its founding in 1869 – our school motto is Not for self, but for service. The public purpose program, now in its ninth year, reflects an evolution from a traditional, one-directional service model to a framework of community engagement through partnerships. Public purpose is about our responsibility – as an independent school that is also part of a broader community – to extend our reach outward. Our focus on public purpose reflects a commitment to social justice; we seek to give students skills, resources, and opportunities to understand the root causes of poverty and marginalization in our society and to apply that knowledge. Students experience service with a mindset that includes not only the work they do, but also the relationships they develop and the perspective they gain.

We ask students to consider questions such as: What does it mean to be part of a diverse community? How do we share responsibility for one another? What is my role within my community? What can I learn from those around me? Grappling with these questions gives students a foundation upon which to develop a practice of leadership and empathy. Our goal is not just to help students gain the skills that will allow them to think about these issues with increasing depth and nuance over time, but also to provide them with opportunities – within and outside the classroom – to translate this awareness into leadership development and meaningful action.

Service learning is part of our curriculum from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade, but there is no hourly service requirement. Across our Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools, many teachers offer opportunities for students to build and apply relevant curricular skills through community-based projects. In our Upper School, students may also choose to participate in various types of community engagement and service because they are authentically interested in doing so, not to meet a quota of required hours.


Upper School students seeking to put their leadership skills into practice through service have created several ongoing outreach programs. The SWAT (Students Working to Advance Technology) program trains Upper School student volunteers to teach computer programming to Middle School students at both Rye Country Day School and an after-school program at a local community center. SiSTEM (Students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) brings 5th grade students from a local public school twice a week for an interactive hands-on enrichment program developed and taught entirely by Upper School students. A-Chord With Kids offers music enrichment through a local community center, where younger students might not otherwise have access to one-on-one instruction and coaching.

Why We Need More Leadership Development

These programs have a tremendous benefit for our student volunteers – they learn critical leadership skills of problem solving, compassion, creativity, and awareness of both the self and others. As SiSTEM co-founder Charlie C., Class of 2018, notes: “SiSTEM was designed with a clear purpose: to engage the students of JFK Magnet School in learning more about STEM. But I myself have learned just as much through the program. Working so closely with SiSTEM’s participants has been immensely rewarding. It’s made me a better teacher and a better leader –  I know those skills with stay with me”

In 2016, RCDS launched the E.E. Ford Community Engagement Fellowship Program, which awards summer fellowships to Upper School students, enabling them to develop and implement innovative, sustainable projects that address community needs. Fellows collaborate with a community partner organization and an RCDS faculty member on all phases of the project. The goal of the program is to offer meaningful summer service opportunities for students and to foster ongoing partnerships between RCDS and local community organizations.

During a midsummer Community Engagement Fellows gathering, when asked if any aspect of their project had gone differently than they anticipated, every single student raised their hand. This ability to pivot the direction of a project to better serve the ever-evolving needs of the community teaches the essential leadership development skills of flexibility, humility, and listening to other perspectives. These students begin to experience service as being about learning from failures, connecting with others, and building trust. Seeing themselves as part of something larger than their own experience builds a unique culture of leadership as students learn that all individuals within a community are connected. Through this lens emerges not just their purpose as individuals, but a Public Purpose for the greater good of all.

Alison Doernberg is a graduate of the 2017 gcLi Leadership Lab, and currently serves as the Director of Public Purpose at Rye Country Day School in Rye, NY. In this role, she oversees the school’s community engagement and partnership initiatives for students in grades Pre-K through 12. Alison’s work focuses on building long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships that connect Rye Country Day to the broader community. Prior to joining Rye Country Day, Alison worked as an educator in various other capacities: college counselor, admissions officer, middle school teacher, and wilderness field instructor.