Education Opinion

Diversity and Multiculturalism: The Independent School Story (Part 3)

By Peter Gow — August 05, 2013 5 min read
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While in recent years many independent schools have been focused program-wise on “21st-century learning” and all its largely technological trappings (along with the professional development challenges these bring), the question of “demographic sustainability” still lies at the core of many schools’ anxieties.

It’s not just a matter of filling seats at most schools; several decades of grappling with diversity have turned this into a eternal issue. How do we fill our schools, yes, but more critically, how do we create student bodies that mirror, to at least a plausible extent, the demographics of our communities and our nation? This is a question that requires not just the endless game of whack-a-mole that sometimes characterizes life in school, but rather systemic, mission-informed thinking.

As “schools of choice"--people choose us, we choose our students--independent schools have a unique relationship with the concept of diversity. For thirty years and more many schools have chosen to be more diverse, which means attracting a more diverse applicant pool and then convincing accepted applicants to come. As with every question relating to enrollment in independent schools, making this work is conditional around the inescapable fact that most independent schools charge tuition, often lots of it. (A handful, like the Christina Seix Academy profiled in an early post here and the venerable--and lately retrenching--Girard College in Philadelphia, charge virtually no tuition to student families at all, covering expenses through their endowments.)

An independent school’s applicant pool and the body of enrollees must, in the end, represent enough revenue for the school to pay its bills. In National Association of Independent Schools member schools last year this included (on average) a financial aid commitment of around 11.7 percent of spending (covering, incidentally, some 22.9 percent of all students). Some schools make much of this up through tuition income alone, although many devote large portions of giving and other non-tuition revenue to financial aid.

There’s an ugly reality around money in this country, and that is that not only is more and more of it being concentrated in the hands of fewer families, many of these families are white. Poverty and want disproportionately affect the lives of historically oppressed and underrepresented minority families.

This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of well-to-do and at least solidly middle class minority families. But not all these families see independent schools as the best choices for their kids, just as not all white families do. The numbers, then, pretty much dictate that building a more diverse student body is going to have special costs--in recruitment, in building appropriate support for students and families, in training teachers to operate effectively in multicultural classrooms, and in financial aid.

Many schools have risen to the occasion, some spectacularly. There are schools that have made extraordinary strides toward affordability by expanding their financial aid budgets. New Roads School in California, for example, devotes forty to fifty percent of its budget to financial aid; Sequoyah School (also in California) indexes tuition to family income--more than a third of their students pay less than full tuition. These schools seem to have found financial practices congruent with their demographic aspirations, inviting obvious questions.

You would be somewhat hard-pressed to find more than a handful of independent schools whose mission and values statements do not contain at least one word like “diverse,” “multicultural,” “global,” “inclusive"--words that, as mission statements are intended to, commit the school to preparing students to live in a world in which everyone is not going to be just like themselves. Some schools even include terms like “equity,” “justice,” and “community engagement,” committing the school to acknowledging, and then presumably preparing its students to struggle against things like inequity, injustice, and self-interest or apathy.

Ideally, the best way for schools to live up to these commitments is to model them, in their programs, their values--and in their own demographics. Teachers, familiar at ground level with the wonders that multiple perspectives can work in classrooms, tend to be especially enthusiastic about this approach, and many administrations and boards are equally dedicated to the diversifying of the student body--and to providing the infrastructure that transforms diversity into multiculturalism and inclusivity.

It’s common for educators in our day and age to cite an overabundance of “things to work on” in schools, and currently issues relating to teaching and curriculum tend to occupy the top of most independent school to-do lists. But schools that are truly committed to carrying out their mission not just as places where kids learn academic material but as communities of values are built around shared goals and perspectives understand an omnipresent imperative to do not just satisfactory but energetically excellent work around diversity and multiculturalism, work that serves the direct personal needs not just of minorities of all students and all faculty.

I referred in the previous post to a kind of utopian strain in independent school ideology, the idea that schools are intentional communities aspiring to a kind of social perfection, an admirable if perhaps unachievable goal. Embedded deep in the notion of “mission” is the idea that no school can forget its human responsibilities, even above its academic ones.

And so the work of diversity and multiculturalism goes on, difficult and repeated in endless variation as successive generations of teachers and students pass into and out of schools. We see our society at large make what looks like progress, and we see its terrible failures. Our schools, we believe, must model only the former, although we know that we are bound at times to fail. The belief, the principle, is what must drive us forward.

(As I still find myself faced with the task of tabulating all of the endemic challenges around multiculturalism and inclusivity in independent schools, this series will run to a fourth part, to appear here on Wednesday, August 7.)

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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