Diversity in Schools

Memo to elite private schools: I don’t care how good it looks on your calendar, or on the cover of your annual report—if you’re not able to handle a diverse population, please stop trying to pretend that you are.

Not that I have any strong feelings about this.

I will describe our specific school experiences in detail elsewhere, but for now let’s just say that where school choice was concerned, there were some amazing successes—and some notable fails. Said fails boiled down to one thing: My kids have particular needs and issues, and the schools were unable or unwilling to deal with them. This, in and of itself, is not a problem—there are many days where I struggle to address my kids’ needs and issues, and I live with them. And of course, a private school can define itself however it wants, and can put together a student body that embodies that definition. But man—and I write this with the best of intentions—these schools could really do us all a favor by not accepting kids who don’t meet that definition.

In case you don’t know, elite private schools require an extensive amount of parent writing on the application—you’d think I was the one who was enrolling. Being me, I tried to be as honest and detailed as possible in my responses, figuring that the school should know who they were getting. I made—or tried to make—it clear that each kid experienced particular background circumstances, and because of these circumstances, there are issues. And just like in any relationship, if you’re going to take the person, you get the whole package.

Either I wasn’t honest enough, or someone didn’t read carefully enough, or other factors were at play. In any case, on more than one occasion, the school accepted my kid, who accepted the offer to attend, and—the relationship didn’t work out.

Which brings me to: The Bay Area is a wonderful blend of races and colors—that’s a big part of the area’s appeal, for some of us at least. Private schools here make a great show of incorporating that blend into their student bodies. I think they are sincere in their intentions, but they may not always be super-sensitive regarding what they are really looking for. From where I sit, there’s a certain student profile—in terms of background, family structure, personality, behavior patterns, academic ability and approach, etc.—and for most of these schools, they’re pretty much equipped to deal only with kids who fit, or at least come close to, this profile. The good news is, you can find those kids across the racial/ethnic—and, to a lesser extent, socioeconomic—spectrum, so a school can still have its calendar and have a functional relationship with all of its students.

For those kids outside the profile, trying to fit in at these schools is a futile exercise in “square peg, round hole.” And, at the risk of sounding defensive, it’s not just us: I’ve talked to other parents of private school kids who are just “outside the profile,” and everyone shares similar stories of struggle and frustration—with the students, staff, administration. In some cases, we have left, voluntarily or otherwise. In others, we have chosen to stay. But it’s a lose-lose either way, and this takes me back to: You can slice and dice diversity a number of ways—where big chunks of a kid’s life are involved, I humbly submit that an organization should have a very clear concept of how its slicer works. And then not try to pretend otherwise.

This is probably mean, but I have to close this section with a story about our visit to one school that, fortunately—in my opinion, anyway—my son chose notto attend. During the open house, the very white school made a great show of their embrace of diversity. The admissions director kept mentioning how “we” love “our” diverse students—without seeming to realize that if there is a “we” that’s doing the embracing, clearly the “diverse students” are something else—a “you” or a “them” or, who knows, an “it”? Not clever.

This was followed by a student who told the story of a peer, an Italian exchange student who loved soccer. After some big victory, said student rushed onto the field and kissed the team captain. And while this was “a little weird,” it showed how much the school embraced diversity.

Second memo to elite private schools: If your open house audience includes any gay members—and remember, this is the Bay Area we’re talking about—calling a kiss between men “a little weird” may not be the smartest PR strategy. Not to mention the diss on Italians. If you had told any of the (straight, married, usually old) Italian guys I grew up with that kissing each other was weird, they would have introduced you to a concept we affectionately called “break-a you face.”

Next: Communication

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