More Minority Faculty Would Benefit All in Independent-School Communities

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It's admissions time again. St. Paul's School, like most independent boarding schools, is in the midst of reading through the applications of prospective students. One of the recurring themes in the applications of young black and Hispanic students is their awareness of their own, unique heritage. Parents also express related concerns, repeatedly: Will the institution that we are applying to support a diverse educational experience? Will it offer our children an atmosphere that helps them better understand their unique cultural heritage. Will it help or hurt them? And does the institution foster the growth of a black and Hispanic presence among its faculty, staff, and student body?

The admissions process is a search for independent thinkers who will work within the structure of a close-knit community. We, as all other schools, are looking for leaders who do not mind following the lead of others.

As we look for that special student, our search takes us to places where independent secondary schools are not used to going. Once the admissions "junkets" in New York City went no farther north than Central Park, in Los Angeles, no farther east than the Harbor Freeway, and in Miami, nowhere near Liberty City. But now they do.

Most of our independent-school admissions officers have come to realize the importance of black and Hispanic students in our school communities. And in the last dozen or so years there has been a concerted effort to bring these students--in sizeable numbers--into the mainstream of independent-school education.

Most of the private schools here in the Northeast would staunchly defend their decade-old efforts to find, attract, and admit the best the minority community has to offer. But lest we applaud these efforts too much, let me hasten to add that these same schools have rushed headlong, with more good intentions than expertise, into minority communities all over the nation. Often they end up doing their young constituencies a grave disservice.

It is hypocrisy of the highest order to bring a student into an alien and sometimes hostile environment without providing the proper mechanisms to help him or her survive. The assumption of many of our more prestigious boarding and day schools seems to be that once signed, sealed, and delivered, the students--by osmosis or association or luck--will simply be assimilated by the new-found community. But, as minority students become more and more like their white peers, they lose the ethnicity that makes them special and that makes our schools better places for their presence. A much-needed support system for black and Hispanic students is lacking.

While the admissions departments of many schools are making good-faith efforts to attract minority applicants, their counterparts in faculty recruitment and hiring are still in the grips of a 19th-century mentality when it comes to hiring blacks and Hispanics for faculty positions.

The excuses are many; a few even seem plausible. But admissions officers at many schools (and minority faculty at all the schools) emphasize and reemphasize that for schools to be truly successful, that is, to turn out a student body that is truly "well educated," a representative number of minorities must be on the staff. Further, and perhaps most important, is that minority faculty members at independent schools are a crucial ingredient in the support system that makes the secondary-school experience successful for black and Hispanic students.

The minority faculty person provides the security and stability that many black and Hispanic parents need to know is there before they will send their children to boarding school. These faculty members often take on the role of surrogate parent for the student newly separated from his or her own parents.

The minority faculty member has other roles. When some people in the independent-school community naively view the minority student as one who will educate the rest of the school's population about what it's like to be a minority, the minority faculty member steps in to remove from the student the responsibility and the burden of being both teacher and student.

The homes of minority faculty members are often places of refuge when the environment gets to be too much for a student. Such faculty members are disciplinarians when no one else on the faculty or staff has the common sense to know how to deal with a particular student. They are counselors and advisors who help a student cope with feelings of being more comfortable at school than at home. If they are sensitive to the need for developing the minority student's perspective, the minority faculty person will never let the student forget his or her heritage--not in a paternalistic way that retards growth, but in a positive way that fosters educational achievement.

It has been my experience, and the experience of my colleagues at a number of Northeastern boarding schools, that having a significant number of minority faculty members, people to whom the black and Hispanic students can turn, affects not only the minority students, but the entire school. Majority faculty members who have felt too ashamed to admit to problems in dealing with minority students can learn from their black and Hispanic colleagues. Majority students learning, say, algebra from a Puerto Rican teacher can no longer rely on the "West Side Story" stereotype of a Hispanic as they once could. And the school community can deal with, rather than shun, the problems and prejudices that at one time or another affect us all.

Parents looking into schools for their children know that most of the top independent schools in this country have a minority-student population. These same parents find it hard to believe that these institutions have gone out of their way to find minority students but have maintained the status quo when it comes to faculty hiring. By doing so, schools cheat all their students out of the diversity, perspective, and support that is important to the educational experience.

The real alternative to the status quo is significant change. The independent schools, with few exceptions, seem loath to undergo that change, at least when it comes to hiring black and Hispanic faculty members. What is needed is a radical alteration of the priorities of the independent schools. That takes commitment, money, new and sweeping changes in the traditional methods of recruiting, and courage.

Vol. 02, Issue 26, Page 24

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