The Private School Diversity Struggle

**Note: I’m defining diversity in terms of ethnic diversity unless otherwise stated.**

I am the product of a predominately white private school in Atlanta, The Westminster Schools. I was one of two Black girls, maybe three for a few years, in our grade from sixth until graduation.

In middle school, I remember sitting in a religious studies class when the teacher referenced the South side of town, the Black side of town, as a horrible area full of violence. I lived on the South side and I knew well-educated people living in nice neighborhoods. They were teachers, doctors, business owners, and lawyers and had homes with tennis courts and swimming pools; even the mayor lived down the street. Despite this, I felt shame and singled out as I was the only one that lived in that part of town in the class.

I remember stressing about a big, annual, Sadie Hawkins school dance that was always held at the Whites-only private member club. It meant having to ask a (White) boy to the dance and going to a historically racist facility where the only faces that looked like mine would be in service positions, probably looking at me like I was crazy. I was conflicted, trying to fit in and wanting to go to the dance, but also hating that it was even being held at this club in the first place. I was alone in having that concern.

I recall a lot from those days but unfortunately, I don’t often think about a favorite teacher or experience. I remember counting down the days until graduation. I remember the many instances of feeling bad or angry because I was in the minority and most of my peers were clueless about what that meant and how it impacted me each day.

Yet, now as a parent, my kids attend a private school where they are often one of two or three in a grade. I know, I know. What am I thinking? I evaluate this decision often but for a host of reasons that I’ll save for another post, I am back in a private school community repeating experiences from over 25 years ago.

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It’s no wonder that not much has changed, really. The very foundation of private school as an institution is rooted in racism. These institutions were created after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling because White families did not want to send their children to school with minorities. That’s a heavy historical fact that most families in private school don’t know but it is the subtext to what Black students in private school experience each day.

I’m already hearing a range of troubling experiences from Black families in local private schools. One friend’s son shared that his teacher is calling him by the wrong name and that name is of the only other Black child in the grade. Her son looks nothing like this other child and their names don’t sound similar. Another friend, who is relatively new to the community, attended a parent social in the backroom of a local restaurant. When they arrived to sign in, a parent volunteer told them that the event was private. Another friend walked their child into school last week only to be mistaken for the nanny. My girlfriend’s daughter has experienced the class petting, ahem, I mean touching of the hair thing because it’s so fluffy and curly. These are the daily experiences of Black families in private school.

So, what can you do? If you’re already attending a private school or applying into one, there is a lot you can do as a parent. Your involvement doesn’t have to take a lot of time or need to be controversial. You also don’t have to be part of an underrepresented group to get involved.

The first step to dealing with the private school diversity struggle is really simple–ask questions and then, ask more questions. A good one to start with is: How is the school defining diversity? It’s important to know this so that you can start to understand how progress is being measured specifically against elements of this definition. For example, it’s easy for a school to say X grade is 50% diverse when the definition of diversity includes race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical ability, religious and political beliefs. How diverse is the school when it comes to each area of diversity, individually, and is the school addressing the areas that matter most to you?

The second step is to understand who “owns” diversity in your school. Unfortunately some private schools see diversity as “everyone’s responsibility” and it is to some degree. But who is proactively leading the charge, who is responsible for being aware of the latest research about classroom bias, multicultural curriculums, and ongoing trainings? Who is responsible for helping the community have difficult conversations in the interest of educating and growing, and who tracks the data and strengthens the systems and policies to ensure progress. Every initiative needs a leader who has clear objectives and goals (not to mention strategies and tactics to get there).

The third step is to learn more about your board of directors and senior, decision-making administrators. You need to explore their level of commitment to diversity. If diversity is an issue for your school, like it is for a lot of them, and your senior-most leaders are all the same race, gender, religion and age, then you have possibly found the reason why your challenges persist. We operate by what we know, based on our personal experiences and culture. If your school lacks diversity at the highest levels, it is operating from a homogenous perspective. It’s obvious why that’s problematic.

Few parents understand the role of the private school board and the decision-making, power structure within schools (e.g. who holds it, how is it evaluated or checked when needed, etc.). Essentially, the board exists to further the mission, determine policy, and give long-term direction to the school. They are not involved in “day-to-day” operations (that’s for the administrators to manage) but rather the long-term planning that makes the school successful. Diversity is crucial to the success of any school, if preparing students for the real world is a priority. It therefore should fall within the purview of the board as part of their long-term planning. Do you know what your leaders want to accomplish this year when it comes to diversity and how they’re planning to tackle those goals? Again, every initiative that’s a priority to the school needs strong leadership who will engage, educate, and help the community grow.

We live in a different world today. There is more overt hate, anger, and fear and we are increasingly polarized around elements of diversity such as race and gender. If you care about the private school diversity struggle then get involved and ask questions. It’s that simple. Push, nudge, inquire, whatever you must do because it’s just that important.

So, do you know how your school defines diversity and the steps being taken to address each area of that definition? If you don’t know, ask. When you find out, dig deeper and ask even more questions.

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2 comments

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  1. Anonymous

    Excellent, well written post. The advice about researching your board members and the boards mission is priceless and often overlooked. That is my go-to move before I make moves of any kind professional and personal. Yay Lisa!

    Liked by 1 person

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