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.
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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.

In recent years, though, Dalton has done more than many schools in its arena to extend itself beyond the old parameters. It made headlines in 2011 after announcing that 47 percent of the incoming kindergarten class that year was comprised of students of color: 24 percent multiracial, 11 percent black and Asian each, and one percent Hispanic—compared to a New York City independent school average of 29 percent total. Alumna and head of school Ellen Stein says that when American Promise started, her school was at the "very early stages of our efforts to be an intentionally diverse" place that mirrored the variety of New York. She defines "diversity" as not only racial and economic, but also religious, geographic, professional, and by style. Administrators have fulfilled these expectations by reaching out to a variety of nursery schools in the city—rather than focusing on well-established favorites—as well as contact an array of churches and afterschool programs.

Lisa Waller, the head of upper school, adds that the parents of African-American children have executed a "tremendous sweep in terms of reaching out to their peers and neighbors," and have helped to plan popular, longstanding events have that allowed families to get a better sense of life at Dalton. Staff turnover is much less frequent than student turnover, and some parents might wish for more diversity among faculty, but Waller says the school has changed its routines to allow for better communication. For example, pushing events later in the evening means longer days for people who work in the school but, unlike morning meetings, "guarantees the broadest amount of participation" for members of the parent body who need to be at work earlier in the day, or need more time to arrange childcare.

Still, until fairly recently, minority children who entered independent schools weren't engaging with already-diverse environments as much as creating diversity simply by being present. In the sixth grade, when another student told me to "run like the KKK was chasing" me to get a good time on the mile-run fitness test, I had to choose between exploding at her, trying to educate her (one 12-year-old to another), or finding someplace calm inside myself so that I could walk away. I walked away—and I hated myself for it. But I also understood that for many of my peers who had gone to the school for years, I was one of the first, unquestionably racially distinct people their age that they had interacted with on a daily basis. My parents or outside friends wouldn't be there to help me through it, even if they wanted to be, and I didn't trust my teachers and advisors to address these issues honestly and directly without catering to the other girls (many of whom who seemed naïve, even to me), or their parents (who paid full tuition).

Ronnette, who attended Packer Collegiate, a co-ed K-12 school in Brooklyn, told me she also walked away when a white student told her to "go back to Darfur" in seventh or eighth grade. Although Ronnette was dubbed the "Queen of Diversity" for writing about her experiences in the school newspaper, she says that she "didn't necessarily want to be the advocate or 'martyr'" she was portrayed to be. "I would much rather have kept a low profile and been a friend or mentor to younger Prep and minority kids," she explains. "But for me, my frustration was making sure I did the work in the classroom rather than being upset about percentages."

Entering Packer at as a teenager with outlets to alternative environments made Ronnette's transition somewhat easier, as it did for me. When he is young, Idris plays basketball at a Harlem league but is called a "white boy" by peers, and called out for code-switching—changing the way he speaks and the vernacular he uses—by his parents. But Ronnette and I had deeper, more extensive relationships with peers outside of Packer and Chapin. After all, we had attended elementary and middle school elsewhere.

The difference age makes is evident in Ronnette's immediate family; her sister attended Packer from kindergarten through fifth grade "until the school started to scapegoat her blackness"—blaming academic or social difficulties to her race. Ronnette attributes this to her sister's age. "Lower schools struggle because one, the age group doesn't have the vocabulary to express themselves and, two, the administrators are scared to offend."

Educational psychologist Pamela Brown calls this the Pollyanna Effect: "the tendency for schools to wrap their messages so nicely that you don’t hear their actual concerns, [throwing] many parents of color for a loop." The effect is a series of miscommunications, misperceptions, and omissions. For example, a parent is "invited," as Brown calls it, to meet with a teacher about their child's difficulty in some area. "Trained to have a strengths-based approached to supporting children" rooted in "sensitivity and care," the teacher goes on and on about all of the good things so effusively that the parent has no idea what is wrong. Then a breakdown occurs: The teacher assumes the parent has understood the message and will do what needs to be done; thinking the coast is clear, the parent or guardian changes nothing about their child's routine; the student's work or place at the school suffers until some, more drastic, action is necessary; the parent or guardian and teachers blame each other.

From Ronnette's standpoint, situations like these occur because schools lack experience relating to young, minority children and their families. "It seemed that once the diversity numbers were up, it was enough to just have children of color there but not nurture them," she says. "A lot of the ‘lifer’ kids of color in my sister's grade that year transferred out. That’s not the kids being unable to handle the schoolwork—that’s the school not being able to handle the diversity they think they want. It sucks because my mom struggles to reconcile the [overall] positive experience that I had, and the struggles my sister went through at the same place."

Arguing that the independent-school experience is much less alienating for low-income and/or minority students when they are older is an awkward stance. (After all, I don't believe kids should remain segregated until puberty.) What is more feasible is for administrators to very thoroughly explain the culture of the school to incoming parents of color, and for parents of color to internalize those messages and not simply jump at the best financial aid package or best-name school. Every school will have small class sizes, attentive teachers, and provide personalized college recommendations when the time comes. But not every school will wrestle with the same books in English class, or have a strong focus on the arts, or top-level sports teams. Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson realized this nuance in time for their second son to attend Brooklyn Friends, an independent Quaker school closer to home with what they say has a "slightly different philosophy and student-and-parent body makeup."

Sitra, a friend of mine and fellow Chapin alum, learned about the challenges of attending an independent school from a young age, as well as the variability of schools within the system. She graduated from the Grace Church School in eighth grade before going to Chapin for high school. Sitra hails from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and entered Grace in pre-kindergarten when she was four years old. The school accepted several church employees' children and helped to devise suitable financial aid packages for them, so Sitra was acquainted with one other boy whose father worked with on the custodial staff with her own.

“If I was white I’d be better off,” Idris says to his parents. “Isn’t that true?”

Overall, Sitra's time at Grace was positive (in fact, after we became friends at Chapin, her Phoebe-esque phrase, "At Grace, things were so different…" was a familiar refrain), but she occasionally felt singled out or overlooked in ways that were subtly tied to her background. In kindergarten, Sitra told a teacher that she knew how to read, and was "completely brushed off"—but a white student who made the same pronouncement was supported and encouraged. Eventually, another teacher realized the other's error and told Sitra that she would get to read to the entire class. Even at four years old, Sitra knew what had happened.

"I have hated that teacher ever since," she told me, laughing a little. "I knew that I was getting to have this fun experience because someone had screwed up."

Seun and Idris also pick up on the ways that they are different from their peers, and it affects their self-esteem. Seun tries to brush the brown out of his gums so that they will be "pink" like those of his white friends. Idris is penalized for getting into a fight with a white student he says he did not start—then penalized again for "lying" about it.

"If I was white I’d be better off," Idris says to his parents. "Isn't that true?" From behind the camera, Joe and Michèle are speechless.

Like the boys in American Promise, Sitra struggled with her identity at Grace, wanting "badly" to fit in when she was young, but also wanting to have her experience reflected in the curriculum in some way. "We studied immigration in third grade and did a mock Ellis Island, but it was all about white people who immigrated to the United States—or people who count as white now, like Eastern Europeans and the Irish," she recalls. "Looking at my parents who are also immigrants but from the West Indies, it was like, 'What do you mean by immigration, and why don’t we talk about that'?"

A change finally came in sixth grade when an English teacher assigned The House on Mango Street. The book takes place in a different city, Chicago, but the protagonist, Esperanza, is also from a working-class, immigrant family. Sitra read the book excitedly, feeling like she understood the story "on so many levels."

"In some ways, it seemed like her story could be my story," she says. "And that was a turning point for me. I didn't have to be silent about who I am, or ashamed to be different, because there are people who do talk about their differences and are accepted into society. We were reading one of their books in English class."

Leaving Grace for Chapin was difficult. There wasn't necessarily more racial diversity at Sitra's first school, but there was "definitely more" socioeconomic diversity at the time. For one thing, because of its location in the East Village, Grace students were present during the gentrification of the Bowery and the Lower East Side. Parents that sent their kids to Grace were also "super-duper wealthy," but many of them were artists and a bit more liberal, so they taught their kids about inequality.

"I knew that Chapin would be different because of the neighborhood and the type of people that sent their kids there," Sitra explained. "But I just couldn't imagine that people would want to keep their kids so sheltered from everything beyond the Upper East Side."

Seun in a scene from American Promise (Alfredo Alcantara)

In American Promise, one Dalton administrator claims that the independent school experience presents a "greater cultural disconnect [for] African-American boys" than it does for African-American girls. Lisa Waller addressed the remark saying, "I don't know that that comparison can be made or how that could be parsed by gender. Different people will manifest their sense of cultural disconnect differently should they happen to have it." I asked Collin Williams, who attended the all-boys Collegiate School starting in sixth grade, what he thought. He agreed that the question is a nuanced one.

"Some difference does exist. Boys and girls learn differently and have different social interactions. And they enjoy things in different ways, whether that’s a biological or a socialization process. What is more important is the fact that both men and women struggle in the same ways—but I think it looks different."

I have never been incredibly graceful—and I felt even less so at Chapin as the tall, solid black girl who galumphed around in scuffed Nike hi-tops and wore my brother's sweatbands as accessories. Though I was mostly comfortable with myself, I was always hyper-aware of the amount of space I took up, physically and emotionally. Even when being loud or excitable, I always tried hard not to seem angry or aggressive. Collin's experience as a black boy at an all-boys' school was very different.

Collin's parents were new to the country when he was born. They sent him back to Antigua to be raised by family until they were able to support him in their new home in New York, and he returned to the States when he was five. Collin's mother was particularly uncompromising with regard to his education. "After moving to America and not having much family or many connections, my parents' thought process was, "Our son has to have the best education possible,'" he says.

In public school, "a lot of privileges went along with being the smart guy," even when Collin was rambunctious. He continued to do well academically at Collegiate and forged close relationships with several teachers. But he always felt "very noticeably black." He sensed that some students picked on him because of his race, and he refused to be disrespected. So he fought.

"Literally all the time," Collin says. "There were times I was on probation and it was never because of academics. As a guy who embraces masculinity, I was like, 'You’re not going to punk me or talk to me this way, and I’m going to punch you in the face so that everybody knows I’m not the black guy you’re going to pick on.'"

"It’s not just about opening doors and creating a ‘diverse’ environment."

That changed after an incident in his sophomore year of high school. Collin was playing ping pong with friends in the student lounge, and another student entered and took the paddle from him, declaring that it was his turn. Collin's friends demanded that the boy give it back—it wasn't his turn and, if Collin wanted to, he could take it back by force since he was bigger. Still, Collin insisted that it wasn't worth it and let it go; the other student agreed.

"Collin's smarter than that," he said. "He knows if he takes it from me, if he physically touches me, he'll definitely end up working at McDonald’s in ten years." Stunned, Collin left the lounge, went to a bathroom down the hall, and cried.

"I thought about all the fights I got into and how they were similar," he says. "I'm a big optimist so I used to think, 'Oh, that person didn't mean it that way, it's not like that.' I really thought that I was part of the community and a valued person, but I was still this little charity case. It was like he was saying, 'My grandparents' grandparents went to Harvard, so my life is set. You got this one chance, but if you fuck it up you've got nothing to fall back on.'"

Though Collin says he knows female friends at other independent schools had similar problems, he doubts that he would have gotten into as many—or any—confrontations if he were female. A heightened degree of physicality (or back-talk, or confrontation, or subversion) is already expected from boys more than it is from girls; physical altercations may be more common for boys of color because they are boys, not because they necessarily have more difficulty adjusting to independent schools than black girls do. Not every girl who smiles, or appears unfazed, is actually okay.

***

American Promise uncovers the constant build up and breakdown of parents' expectations over the course of their independent-school journey. Idris imagines that varsity basketball will be a highlight of his Dalton experience, and is crushed when he doesn't make the team. After being diagnosed with a learning disability, Seun and his parents Tony and Stacey Summers hope that he'll be able to succeed at Dalton with extra support, but his grades fall too low to continue at the school beyond eighth grade. Even after her son's disappointing experience, Stacey Summers wonders how it will be possible to go from Dalton to another school. "It’s like, where do you go after [here]?" she asks, looking at a final letter of concern from the school. Still, Seun enrolls in the public, mostly-black Benjamin Banneker Academy where he meets nurturing administrators and pursues travel opportunities.

After what looks like a typically stressful college-application experience, Idris is rejected from his dad's alma mater, Stanford, and enrolls in Occidental College. Seun enrolls in SUNY, Fredonia to study graphic design.

I asked Idris's parents if, in hindsight, they believe their expectations of Dalton were unrealistic.

"When you ask a question like that, 'Were you unrealistic?' I am always going to say yes," Idris’s dad, Joe Brewster, answered. "But the reality is that our son was able to achieve a certain level of academic success that’s rare in any school. What we have become increasingly aware of is that there are multiple developmental skills with which we must monitor our sons: Are they empathetic? Do they care about other people? Do they have a sense of justice, and morality? Are they aware of the importance of taking care of their bodies? If you look at all of these scales, Idris has done very well."

For Michèle, the question is less a matter of unrealistic expectations than understanding what the expectations are.

"It's not just about opening doors and creating a 'diverse' environment. It's about putting all the cards on the table about what it takes so that you’re striving toward true equity in the educational journey," she said. "Public schools should also be demanding that kind of expectation from both their teachers and their student body, but my son should also be able to be in an independent school environment and own it, and have that sense of entitlement."

Like all parents, low-to-middle income parents of color can be remarkably demanding of their children. But ensuring their children's success at independent schools requires some leveling of expectations—not by aspiring to less, but by realistically assessing the abilities of individual private schools to nurture their children. It is easy to assume that these schools will be able to provide everything any child might need, and far more difficult to accept that even these impressive places have flaws. Likewise, if independent school administrators want new students to become a real part of the fiber of their old institutions, they must be honest about the culture of their schools, not only when courting students, but when dealing with conflict.

In American Promise, nearly every parent and educator—both inside and outside of Dalton—says that they want their children to acquire a sense of self-esteem and self-determination. And every permutation of the academic experience (single-sex/co-ed, public/private/charter, racially diverse and downtown, or socioeconomically stratified uptown) is presented as some grand experiment that might reveal The Solution to growing exceptional children, as if such a thing exists. After seven years at Chapin, most of which were happy ones, I am not disappointed that my experience was neither exceptional nor perfect, but grateful that I learned in time that it would not be.

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Judith Ohikuare writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel.

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