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Independent Schools Tackle Diversity Issues

Fostering a school environment in which lesbian and gay students, teachers, and parents are treated with respect was one of many diversity issues addressed at this year's annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools.

The conference drew 5,200 participants, making it the largest annual conference ever for the Washington-based organization.

At one session, Ken Jackson, the head of the upper school of the Ross School, in East Hampton, N.Y., provided guidance on how adults can help produce a school climate that is more accepting of homosexual youths.

"I strongly suggest you be known for treating all people fairly—whether a Muslim student or a right-wing Christian student," said Mr. Jackson, who is gay and described his experiences in raising awareness about issues affecting gay students at three schools.

While working at a public school in Florida, for instance, Mr. Jackson said he provided counselors with information from the New York City-based Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. He said a school administrator responded by telling him he wasn't permitted to hand out the materials.

"I said, 'I sort of can give this out, and don't you think I ought to,'" Mr. Jackson recalled. The administrator checked with the school's lawyer and later agreed with Mr. Jackson: He was entitled to distribute the information.

By contrast, Mr. Jackson said, the Ross School encouraged him from the moment he was hired to talk about "diversity issues," including those affecting gay students.

Mark P. Weissman, the director of choral and theatric activities at the 460-student Staten Island Academy, in New York City, asked Mr. Jackson how he managed to get his colleagues to view issues affecting homosexual students as relevant to everyone. "How do you get your faculty to perceive it's not just your issue?" Mr. Weissman asked.

Mr. Jackson said he was able to broaden interest in the treatment of gay students at one school by conducting a student survey on attitudes about diversity. The results showed a sizable number of students had heard "fag" jokes, he said, which led faculty members to realize they were overlooking some problems.

Another session on diversity at the Feb. 28 conference featured the Making Waves Education Program, which helps minority students from low- income families in San Francisco and Richmond, Calif., receive the academic support they need to attend the colleges of their choice.

Making Waves, supported by various private donors, pays for many of the program's participants to attend Roman Catholic or independent schools.

D. Jeffrey Towey, the co-curricular coordinator for Making Waves, said many students of color experience culture shock when they enroll in an independent school.

He said he tells them it's not their job to educate other students about being a member of a minority in the United States. "It's their job to remain sane and socially balanced," he said.

Participants in Making Waves are selected in the 5th grade for academic support outside of school that lasts for eight years. "We get the kids into the [private] schools. We get them through the schools," Mr. Towey said.

All of the students who stick with the program for eight years graduate from high school, and 94 percent attend college. Mr. Towey acknowledged that the program is designed to help just a small number of students. Since it was started in 1989, it has served 400 students.

With a grant of $100,000 from the Washington-based Edward E. Ford Foundation, the NAIS has launched a program aimed at helping people explore becoming the head of an independent school.

Many of the 54 fellows selected for the program in its inaugural year participated in a preconference session and several social gatherings.

"We have a graying school-head population," said Jeff Moredock, the chief operating officer of the NAIS, in explaining why the program was established. "Our research indicates that in 10 years, more than two-thirds of school heads are going to be retiring."

The yearlong program, he noted, provides each participant with a $2,000 stipend and assigns him or her a mentor who has been the head of an independent school. Fellows— all administrators at independent schools below the top level—attend conferences and complete a leadership project.

Darren J. Pascavage, the director of measurement and evaluation for the 900-student Walker School, in Marietta, Ga., said he particularly appreciated the mentoring aspect. "It provides someone with whom we can speak candidly about the positives and negatives [of being a school head]. The alternative would be for us to try it on our own."

Most of the participants are in the early stages of their careers.

But others, such as Mary K. Duttera, the acting assistant head of the 235-student York Country Day School, in York, Pa., are experienced administrators. The 55-year-old said she would like to be the head of a school before she retires, and she believes she has a lot to offer. "We've been through searches for heads of school," she said, "and the pickings are slim."

—Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 22, Issue 26, Page 12

Published in Print: March 12, 2003, as Reporter's Notebook
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