An Interview with Jacqueline Y. Pelzer, Executive Director, Early Steps
Tell us about Early Steps. When was it founded, and what does it strive to do?
Early Steps was founded by the New York City independent schools in 1986 as part of their commitment to build lower schools that are more racially diverse. Our mission is to broaden the base of the applicant pool for kindergarten and first grade.
There is much talk today about getting into a school. We would like to talk, instead, about fitting into a school. Many of us feel that our family is "different" in some way: we might not have much money, we are of a different race or ethnic background, our religion might be different, we might be a single parent or part of a same-sex couple, or maybe our child is adopted, and maybe from another country. Are there key questions a family should ask themselves � and the school � to determine whether they will be comfortable in a school?
One of the things I tell families to do when they visit schools is to look for children who remind them of their own child, more in personality and style than necessarily in ethnicity. How is that child faring in that classroom: are they having a good time, are they involved, are they included? That might give you a sense of what your child's experience might be. Also, look at the people who are on the tours and are in the applicant groups, although that is not always representative of who might enroll. But if you are interested in a school and you go to enough of the activities they have for applicants, you begin to see if there are kindred spirits in what you might think of as your "otherness," whatever that might be.
Think about the things that are important to you about your family's identity, and come up with questions that you ask every admissions director. Make judgments about how they handle your questions. Do they brush them off? Do they offer to have someone call who may have your shared experience? Do they honestly say, "I don't have an answer to that question, but let me see if I can find out"? Their responses give you a sense of how welcome you may ultimately be in the community.
Many schools are not yet in the place where they have consciously examined how families who consider themselves "others" are going to feel in their community. If they hear enough of those questions from people who are looking at them, it reminds them that there are things that they need to think about, things that they need to look at.
What else should parents look for when they consider a school?
While "fit" is important, this is about a lot more than that. It's about academics, also. Families should not get totally immersed in social factors, and should remember what's important to them with regard to academics.
A certain comfort level is helpful. Parents have to be mindful of their own feelings, because even though they aren't the ones attending school, they do have to go to school. For instance, parents who were educated in British schools see a level of formality as intrinsic to a proper education. Teachers who sit on the floor, teachers who are called by their first names � all of this could make them feel uncomfortable.
But there's a lot about educating children that requires parents to have faith. They have to have faith that the people in charge know what they're doing, and that the end product is going to be what they are looking for. There are moments when you're in the dark, and you have to have faith at least that the methodology matches what you're looking for, so that you can step back, lean into that faith and wait to see what happens next.
How important is the level of parental involvement expected at the school?
Parents should ascertain what the expectation is, and see whether it matches what they can do and what they want to do. At some schools parents volunteer a certain number of hours a month. If you're a parent who works and travels, you may constantly feel that you're trying to play catch-up or that you're not a good parent. There are other schools that have the attitude: "You've chosen us, you've chosen well. Leave them at the door. We will give them back to you, and they will be wonderful." If you are a hands-on parent, that's not going to work for you. Understand the expectation, then see how it matches what you realistically can do.
Do you advise families of color to look for a school where their child will be in a class with other children of color? Does the same apply to other situations � for instance, for an adopted child, or the child of a single-sex couple?
As a parent whose child was one of the only children of color in his class for a very long time, I do encourage parents to look to see what the diversity feels like. If there are going to be more than one or two children of color in that grade, they should ask about the school's philosophy on placing those children. Will they be together at least for a year or two, or is the school going to use them sort of like seasoning in the stew and sprinkle them around?
You have to think about what that means to you. For some parents, it's very important that their children have classmates who look like them. Some people are oblivious to it until they live it for a month or two, and then they discover that they really do have strong feelings.
Having taught in schools, I myself think that it's valuable for children and their psyches that there are others in the class who look like them. Sometimes these kids are not going to be friends, but that's not the purpose. The purpose is that, on the day the class is discussing Martin Luther King, there's somebody else who shares that experience. One child doesn't become the sole focus of "How do you feel, and what do you think?"
Families must share with schools their feelings, and the basis for those feelings. Many school administrators have not lived lives that allow them to understand what it means to feel "different." Sometimes it's just because they're not a parent. Being a parent can change your view about a lot of things.
Does placing a child in a school that is far from his home cause any social problems for the child or the family?
It depends on the personality of the child, as well as the personality of the family. There are families that pick up and go to church across town, there are other people who do everything right in their block. For a family that does everything right in their block, it's a stretch to choose a distant school. In fact, some families bring their children to school, tell them they're not there to make friends, pick them up at the end of the day and take them back home with no opportunity to go on play dates or to birthday parties. And that means that they wind up with an isolated child.
No matter what, families have to work hard to make certain that they maintain connections for their children in their community, as well as the connections that they make in school.
How do you advise parents to think about transportation before they actually go into a school, so that they'll be comfortable in the long run?
I let them know at the outset that the school is not going to help them do it; they can't go in thinking that they will figure it out later. They need to figure out how difficult the trips will be. Don't travel in an unusual fashion when you go for your child's visit. Don't make that the day you take the cab if you're never taking a cab again. Do it on the subway, if that's how you're going to do it, so that you have a sense of what it means to get your child there on the subway.
Transportation is an area where schools could come together in a concerted effort, maybe by helping their parents to find families in neighboring schools who live in the same zip code. Many schools have bus companies they send families to, but they usually don't like to get involved in the whole transportation issue.
Who should arrange play dates, existing parents or the newcomers? Or should they wait for their children to express an interest?
One of the things that schools should be aware of is that play dates are a foreign concept to many families. Families from some cultures don't let their kids go off with strangers to sleep; they need to know what's going to happen in that house. Are there rules? If the nanny is the one in charge, is she really going to pay attention?
As for arranging play dates, I really think that most of the time the effort should come from the children. There's nothing worse than shoving somebody down your child's throat in his own house if he doesn't want him there. But you can orchestrate activities where it's not a go-home play date, or where there are two or three children and one of the children is somebody new. It is important to reach out to new families, especially if they step into an existing class comprised of people who have known each other for some time.
One thing that helps is when schools establish "buddy families." That provides a natural connection. Then you can say to your child, "Look, this is our buddy family, it's our job to welcome them to school." But, again, unless it's a job � and a buddy family is really a job, a very serious responsibility � it's hard to push kids together.
Also, teachers have a responsibility to pay attention to children who never get invited anywhere. They are the ones who get the notes, and really know who's going where. And they see mothers who come and drop their children off, but nobody seems to talk to them. There is always some simpatico parent a teacher can go to and say, "It would be really nice if Derrick's parent got invited to coffee one morning before the parents association meeting." Then they could go to the meeting together, already in the middle of conversation.
If a family is applying for financial aid, or is of limited means, they may feel a greater need to know they will be comfortable once their child is admitted. Should they ask about coverage for ancillary items, like class trips?
Often these questions are best asked when parents are having their one-on-one interview with the admissions representative. It's hard to ask those questions in groups, because it's really nobody else's business. But sometimes you can get the answer to your questions without making it so personal. Start with tuition. Ask what is included. Because if lunch and books are included in the tuition, then they're included in financial aid.
It's important for schools to make families aware that, when it comes to financial aid, only those who need to know, know. As a former teacher in independent schools, the only times I ever knew that families were on financial aid was when the parents told me.
What should parents want to know about a school's fund-raising or development practices?
Schools are hopeful that every family will make a donation, and that's exactly what they're interested in. They're interested in every family giving within their own means. To the school, 100 percent participation is more important than waiting for the year that you can save up enough to give a big gift. If what you can afford to give this year is $10 and you give it, your name is checked off on the list, and they're one step closer to 100 percent participation.
And take a look at those giving envelopes that come from the school. They start with some amount that escalates, and then there's a blank. You need to understand that that blank isn't necessarily for more; the blank can be for less than the first amount.
The school itself might not be the best source on this subject. Should parents seek out a currently enrolled family to talk with, or is there another way to get this kind of "insider" information?
Applying and new parents want both sides of that coin. They want to hear the "party line," they want to hear what the school says. Then they probably want to talk to someone who has lived the life, and can tell them what the practice is. More often than not, they're going to find that the two are pretty much the same. But it's comforting to hear that a school walks their talk.
It is always appropriate to seek out a current parent, especially as you get closer to decision time. If you've been accepted and you're trying to make a decision, at that point it is perfectly legitimate to ask to speak to another adoptive parent, another same-sex couple, another African-American family. Especially you might want to talk to someone whose child is in the grade that your child will enter next year, so that you can talk to somebody who is living what will be your life next year, right this minute.
But remember that some of these things can wait until your child has been accepted. You don't need to know everything before they say "yes." They may not say "yes," and that's something you have to be mindful of.
Once enrolled, what are some of the things a family can do to be-come a part of the community?
Attend activities that go on in the school. If the children are having a play and your child is going to be a leaf for thirty seconds, go sit with the other parents and watch your child be a leaf. Sign up to do some project with the parents association, even if it's something that you take home. You don't always have to be there, and there are little things you can do. You may not be able to give a big cash donation to the annual fund, but you may able to take envelopes for a mailing and stuff them at home. Get involved and think creatively about ways that you can give your talents. Volunteering to read a story to the class is a way to get to meet your child's classmates, if indeed that kind of thing is encouraged.
If you could wave a magic wand and have schools put an end to one practice, what would it be?
Many schools on their applications focus a lot of attention on parents' education, background and connections, which presents a scenario where people who are less educated or affluent can feel out of place.
Schools shouldn't decide for a family that they're going to be uncomfortable and therefore not offer the child the opportunity. It should always be about "Is this the right kid for this school?" Because there are parents who have very little education, parents who hardly speak English, who know that this is a good opportunity for their child. They're going to get that child there, they're going to show up, they're going to bring Grandma, and they're going to sit there and smile.
Is there one practice you think all schools should adopt?
Schools need to do a lot of internal thinking and studying and truly know who they are. They need to make certain that, as they "sell" themselves, they are really selling themselves and not the selves that they hope to be, or hope to come to be at some point in the future. To be realistic about whom they can serve and what programs they can offer, as well as whom they can't serve, regardless of what their resources are.
Your experience has been with independent schools, but do you find that public schools are more supportive of diversity?
It comes down to individual schools and sometimes to individual classes, but many of the public schools considered most desirable are more exclusive than most independent schools. I don't get the sense that they're spending energy on examining this or thinking about ways to do better.
Ultimately, does it matter if the fit is not right for the parent as long as it is right for the child?
It can be really hard on young children when parents don't fit in. Parents who feel that they don't fit in don't come to school the way they ought to, and don't participate in a way that makes their child feel affirmed in school. It's less difficult for older children, who often don't want parents in school anyhow; they're not going to give their parents opportunities to come unless they have been there all along and have established a presence.
Anything else you want to add about fitting in, or being comfortable in a school?
Parents should go looking for ways that it works, as opposed to looking for ways in which it doesn't. Look for places where you could have "aha" moments, because you can always find places where you're not going to fit. Ultimately, it is always, always about the children. Is this the right opportunity for them? We make ourselves do all kinds of things for our children. We can make it work for school.
Jacqueline Y. Pelzer is the Executive Director of Early Steps, Inc., a counseling and placement service for families with Black, Latino, Asian or Native American 4- to 5-year-olds who seek guidance and support with the process of applying to New York City independent schools.
This interview was conducted by Marye Elmlinger, Assistant Editor, The Parents League Review.