When Minority Students Attend Elite Private Schools

Many parents of color send their children to exclusive, predominantly white schools in an attempt to give their kids a "ticket to upward mobility." But these well-resourced institutions can fall short at nurturing minority students emotionally and intellectually.
Idris Brewster and his mother, Michèle Stephenson, in a scene from American Promise (Jon Stuyvesant)

Dalton is a prestigious, decades-old, K-12 prep school on New York City’s Upper East Side that filters its students into the best universities in the country. In 2010, Forbes reported that 31 percent of its students matriculated into MIT, Stanford, or an Ivy League institution. Former students include Anderson Cooper, Claire Danes, and Ralph Lauren’s daughter Dylan. Even imaginary people make sure their families are present for parent-teacher conferences. For years, however, Dalton was largely inaccessible to minority and lower-income students. Maintaining its reputation as a top-tier place of learning did not require administrators to extend invitations to those groups.

When Idris Brewster and his friend Seun Summers entered kindergarten at Dalton in the late 1990s, they were one of the few students of color in their class. Idris and Seun’s parents believed that getting into Dalton was the first step to a life filled with accomplishments.

"Students that came out of independent schools were well-prepared on the level of networking, internships, job and school opportunities—you name it—and we were offered great financial-aid incentives," Michèle Stephenson, Idris's mother, told me. "We thought this intensive, intellectually stimulating institution would open doors for Idris and take him anywhere he wanted to go."

Fourteen years later, Idris's parents have released American Promise, a documentary that records the boys' personal and academic experiences from kindergarten through senior year of high school. The film reveals a hard truth about being a student of color at an elite school: Simply being admitted doesn't guarantee a smooth or successful educational journey.

At the beginning of American Promise, the boys' parents are filled with hope about their sons' new school. As the film progresses, though, they become less certain of Dalton's ability to improve their sons' lives. They realize that, as Michèle phrases it, Dalton's "ticket to upward mobility" often came at a cost to their kids' success and self-esteem. "We understood that this was a school that the ‘1 percent’ sent their children to," Michèle says, "but not having grown up in that environment, neither of us understood the extent to which the social and emotional sides of our child's development would be at stake."

Dalton's school building (Wikimedia Commons)

When I entered sixth grade at the single-sex Chapin School in 2000, I was the second black girl out of nearly 60 students and one of few working-class students in my year. I'd prepared for Chapin by going through a program called Prep for Prep, a nonprofit organization that filters low-income minority students into New York City independent schools. (Idris' parents consulted with another program, Early Steps, which does similar work for kindergarten-aged students.) My peers from similar circumstances were a half-black, half-Puerto Rican girl from Queens who had started in first grade, and a Bronx-born girl of Guyanese descent that started at Chapin the year before. My parents had high hopes for my time there and believed the school would provide a more stable and nurturing environment than many public schools we could opt for.

My first few years at Chapin didn't involve culture shock as much as cultural disillusionment. Everyone was incredibly friendly (almost alarmingly so for my public-school disposition), but I was clearly a novelty. We were all New Yorkers—native ones. I found it hard to understand how such well-traveled people knew so little about their own city. I had never in my life been touched and asked with such stark curiosity how I got my hair to just "stay that way" or, even years later in high school, what a "borough was." I usually laughed, but was often as horrified as they were when I'd say that I was going home alone on the train. To them, it seemed callous that my parents would allow me to do so; I thought it was bizarre that many of them needed a babysitter just to travel a few bus stops.

Idris and I started our respective journeys at a pivotal point on the timeline of minority enrollment in independent schools, as schools started to try for more than simple numeric representation. According to Myra McGovern, senior director of public information for the National Association of Independent Schools, more independent schools are becoming invested in how diverse environments should feel, rather than only concentrating on what they should look like. Likewise, more parents of color are discovering alternatives to public school that seem stable in the face of rapidly transforming neighborhoods and school systems.

"Initially, in the 1960s and '70s there was a greater push to just integrate and assimilate," McGovern says. "It wasn’t until the late '70s and '80s that diversity became less about numbers, and more about having a community that was inclusive and drew strength from the diversity of the student body."

Today's parents have grown up in a more diverse country than the previous one, she adds, and are specifically seeking out communities for their children that are similarly diverse.

I'd argue, though, that parents of color aren't compelled by "diversity" as much as they are by reality. Independent school administrators may be invested in preparing white students for an increasingly multicultural future (or multicultural present, since children of color now outnumber non-Hispanic white children). But parents of color like the families in American Promise are more concerned with ensuring their kids' success in the still predominantly white spaces of the present. The job market is obviously strained for everyone, however, it continues to be remarkably stratified by race. Rather than waiting for their kids to deal with that reality in adulthood, many minority parents would prefer that their children get a head start when they are young thinking, as Seun's mother Stacy does in one scene of American Promise: "I want Seun to be comfortable around white folks because at this point, I am not comfortable around white folks."

The trailer for American Promise

The cultural transition into the independent school setting can be just as difficult for adults as it is for their children. Until fairly recently, the perception of independent schools as cold, elitist, and inaccessible hindered administrators' ability to attract capable, non-traditional families. At best, recruiters seemed to be shadowy benefactors that plucked bright, dirt-smudged waifs from their humble origins and placed them in stately institutions where children might, in the style of Great Expectations, become less "common." (You can almost hear the croaking echo of some horrible schoolteacher shouting "Play! Play!" at a poor brown child.) Administrators tended to reach out to social and professional networks that already mirrored the backgrounds of the existing student bodies, almost exclusively courting, for example, children at prohibitively expensive nursery schools.

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Judith Ohikuare is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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