Wed, August 15, 2018

Supporting Diversity in an Independent School

I started teaching in independent schools twenty years ago. Until that time, I had lived and worked in fairly homogeneous environments. When I became a second-grade teacher at The Chestnut Hill School, an independent school on the outskirts of Boston, I was suddenly immersed in a setting with children, families and teachers from all sorts of backgrounds. I had students who spoke other languages at home, who practiced diverse religions, and who had half-siblings or stepsiblings around my age.

Through graduate work and life experience, I learned that I would be a more effective teacher if I could relate to my students on their terms. I learned to adapt lesson plans to meet the needs of students with various learning styles. On the cultural front, when I was invited to a Seder, I jumped at the opportunity. I learned to make an mkeka, the woven mat used during Kwanzaa celebrations. As I encountered these new experiences, I realized how much richer my life was becoming as a result. At the same time, because I was able to bring these experiences into the classroom, the lives all of my students similarly were being enriched.

Providing What Each Child Needs

Now, of course, independent schools overtly share their commitment to diversity in their mission statements. While some schools are more successful than others at recruiting and enrolling a diverse student body, all endeavor to incorporate a wider array of perspectives into their curricula and more innovative strategies into their teaching practices.

In the lower school at Poly Prep Country Day School, we have learned that we must put structures in place to support children from non-majority backgrounds. A mantra we’ve adopted sums up our reasoning: “Being fair isn’t giving every kid the same thing, it is giving each kid what he or she needs to succeed.” For example, if a child is having trouble understanding a new strategy in multiplication, the homeroom teacher or math specialist will provide additional support. If a student feels he has no friends, we try to foster relationships between him and his peers.

While this work may be done to support children from various ethnic or racial backgrounds and family structures, and those with other attributes that might label them “different,” research proves that all students in a diverse setting benefit from interacting with children different from themselves.

Affinity—and Beyond

In other areas we try to be more proactive. If we have fewer numbers of children of color in a grade, for example, we might place all of those children in the same homeroom so they don’t feel like the “only.” We also have offered opportunities for children to get together across grades by starting affinity groups. Our first was Banana Splits, a group that is made up of children whose parents are divorced or deceased. Since our school has a longer history of being an all-boys’ school rather than the co-ed institution it is today, our middle school began offering Girl Up, an affinity group for female students. The younger sister of a middle school student asked, “Why don’t we start our own club in the lower school?” Lo and behold, our second affinity group was started.

This past year we began hosting an affinity group for students of color in the third and fourth grades, following models established in the middle and upper schools and in other elementary schools. To be frank, I was more nervous about community reaction to this group than the previous two. Parents without background knowledge about the value or efficacy of race-based affinity groups sometimes assume their existence smacks of segregation. Indeed, I was nervous in responding to a voicemail left by one mother. “Here it is,” I thought to myself as I dialed her number. It turns out the communication about these affinity groups led her to ask, “Would you consider starting an affinity group for students who have siblings with special needs who attend other schools?” I was chagrined for two reasons: I had made assumptions about what I thought this mother’s reaction was, and I had never before thought of this type of affinity group. We hope to begin one for this population in the next school year.

We have taken other steps to give children a sense of affirmation. The second grade teachers, for example, have invited parents to share their families’ immigration stories, modern-day or from the past, when the students study Ellis Island and the waves of (mostly) European nationals who came to the United States through this gateway. We ensure that our homeroom and school libraries include titles that reflect not only the current student body make up but also nationalities and family structures that might not be represented. The second grade’s Cinderella Unit, which confronts the moral lessons to be found in “Cinderella” and other similar tales, now includes King & King, a book in which the prince ends up living happily ever after with the brother of a potential princess prospect.

Building a Diverse Faculty and Staff

Independent schools with a focus on diversity take additional steps to support and promote our missions. One goal for most of us in leadership positions is to diversify the faculty and staff with whom our students interact. When children can make a personal connection with a teacher, they typically feel validated, more at ease, and therefore more open to instruction.

A laudable benchmark is to have the make-up of personnel reflect the student population. How many Asian and Asian-American teachers do we have? How many male teachers? How many teachers were born in a different country or speak a different native language? One great resource we have in New York is the annual Job Fair to Promote Diversity, hosted by the New York State Association of Independent Schools. The fair, usually held at a New York City school, allows prospective teachers of color to meet with administrators with hiring needs. It’s a terrific opportunity to diversity the faculties at our respective schools.

Educating Educators

This hiring effort doesn’t imply that teachers and students from different backgrounds can’t make connections. It’s important for teachers to attempt to bridge gaps even if they’re uncomfortable doing so. Once, in a year when I had a sizeable population of students of color in my fifth grade class, I asked, “Is it okay that I talk to you about race?” I knew I certainly wasn’t an expert and that I could easily make mistakes in broaching any subject in which I did not have expertise. The response from my students was telling and affirming: “If you don’t, who will?” Educators need to take risks sometimes, stretching their boundaries and getting out of their comfort zones, in order to meet the needs of all of their students.

Educating educators so they are more comfortable in these instances is paramount. Schools that have directors of diversity can rely on the people in these positions to help provide this training. Smaller schools need to depend on other administrators to schedule speakers or coordinate participation in workshops. Additionally, initiatives can include a school-wide “faculty read” about topics germane to diversity. One summer my colleagues and I read Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, in which social psychologist Claude Steele addresses the effect of stereotypes on educational outcomes. During the following school year, faculty meeting time was devoted to discussing our reactions to the book and the implications for our practices in the classroom.

The Entire Community Needs Support

While schools are making inroads in supporting their students, concurrent efforts are being made to support the adults in the community. We host a series of Diversity Coffees, for example, over the course of the school year. Parents, teachers and administrators are invited. Sometimes school personnel drive the agenda, and sometimes parents bring forth concerns or suggestions for improvement. Fostering these conversations leads to better practices, more home-school dialogue, and parental buy-in. After the coffees, we share the content (at the macro-level, so as not to divulge any individual person’s feelings) with the full parent body and faculty to ensure everyone is made aware of any changes in practice or policy or any upcoming initiatives. This promulgates the importance of diversity as a schoolwide pillar.

We can’t ignore the need to support our faculty, too. Schools frequently have gatherings for faculty of color to foster camaraderie and allow for a common space for teachers to reap the benefits of an affinity group themselves. This is recognized at a national level: the National Association of Independent Schools hosts an annual gathering entitled the People of Color Conference. We send a large number of teachers and students each year and, upon their return, attendees frequently state, “This is the most powerful conference I’ve ever attended.” The implication for me, as a white administrator, is that it can be emotionally exhausting to always be a minority in a majority setting. Further, I wonder, “If the teachers feel this way, how do the students feel?” We can usually rely on adults to advocate for themselves, but young children are not able to express their own needs so readily.

Overall, independent schools realize the benefits of supporting diversity. It is incumbent on our institutions, however, to ensure that this doesn’t simply mean enrolling students from various backgrounds. We need to support our children, parents, faculty and staff in the manner in which they need so that they feel validated and can be full members of our communities. This might require more effort, but we all reap the rewards.


de Haan, L., & Nijland, S. (2003) King & King. Berkley, CA: Tricycle Press.
Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Sandilos, L. (2015). “Improving Students’
Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for
Learning.” American Psychological Association.

Siegel-Hawley, G. (2012) “How Non-Minority Students Also Benefit from
Racially Diverse Schools.” The National Coalition on School Diversity.

Steele, C.M. (2011) Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us
and What We Can Do. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

About the Author
Larry Donovan is Head of Lower School at Poly Prep Country Day School, a Nursery through 12th-grade school with two campuses, one for its Lower School and one for its Middle and Upper Schools, in Brooklyn.

This article first appeared in the 2016 issue of the Parents League Review. Get the current issue of theReview free with a family membership. Or purchase it separately.

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