Today’s Independent Schools Are More Diverse, but There’s Still Work to Be Done

When Gina Parker Collins visited the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Ala., she was struck by a replica of two 1953 classrooms: one for black children, one for white. “It was the tables, the desks and the chairs, the technology or the lack thereof, the lighting, the books. … There is still separation and there is still inequality in the classroom,” she says. “It’s a system of oppression that threads itself not only through our public and charter schools, but certainly through our independent schools.”

[Above: Gina Parker Collins with participants of the nonprofit organization she leads, Resources in Independent School Education (RIISE). (Photo courtesy Jane Feldman).]

Collins is the founder of Resources In Independent School Education (RIISE), an organization that supports families of color whose children attend independent schools. It also helps independent schools with diversity, inclusion, social justice, and equity initiatives. Given the lack of diversity in the independent school system, organizations like RIISE are necessary, Collins says.

In 2015, black and Latino students accounted for 15.4 percent and 25.9 percent of public elementary and secondary school students, respectively, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In independent schools, these students made up only 6.5 percent and 5.3 percent of the student population, according to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).

As concerning as these numbers are, they represent an improvement in independent school student diversity, according to NAIS. Historically, independent schools have catered to socio-economically privileged white students. In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, according to the Southern Education Foundation, new independent schools were founded to accommodate white families who were unwilling to send their children to integrated public schools.

Jessica Perez del Toro examined this legacy of racial privilege in independent schools in a 2017 study of three Southern California member schools of the NAIS. Her findings suggest independent schools are making efforts to increase diversity but a lingering unwillingness among some administrators, parents, and students to address issues of racial inequity is slowing progress.

Gina Parker Collins
Gina Parker Collins

Collins has experienced a similar lack of engagement from white families in the schools RIISE works with. “I think if you don’t have skin in the game, it’s kind of hard,” she says. “However, there are many families of the numerical majority, white families, who understand that part of their investment in an independent school is to prepare their child to be able to compete in a global market.”

That global market is racially and ethnically diverse and the United States is on track to become a majority-minority country by 2044, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those realities have motivated independent schools to address white overrepresentation, Collins says.

But both Perez del Toro and Collins warn numerical diversity is not the same as equity and inclusion. Some schools, in a quest for what Perez del Toro refers to as “easy diversity” in her report, focus on recruitment and enrollment without putting in place policies that support students of color once they arrive.

In the absence of strategic direction, these children find themselves learning from curricula that aren’t inclusive, taught by faculty who aren’t diverse, and often subjected to racial microaggressions they may not be able to name, let alone feel comfortable telling an adult about, Perez del Toro concludes in her report.

One of the students Perez del Toro interviewed in her case study described “jokes” her classmates told after the 2017 presidential inauguration. She said people would “come up to me and make deportation jokes because I’m Mexican. And, like, ‘Oh, let’s just send you across the border! Let’s build that wall!’”

The consequences of this type of environment for students of color are severe. They experience loneliness, racial visibility and social invisibility, and class and cultural discomfort, Perez Del Toro found.

 “[It can be] a debilitating feeling if you feel like you don’t belong because there are so few of you,” she says. “And then also, that whole idea of being an imposter, the stress of shouldering a lot of that on your own may make you feel like, ‘Well, maybe I’m not as deserving, Maybe I’m here to check a box,’ and there’s nothing further from the truth.” Collins also warns that a lack of diversity in numbers can aggravate racial stereotypes among both white students and students of color.

With thoughtful planning, however, independent schools can create diverse, inclusive learning environments where students of color are both welcomed and supported. Much of the responsibility for creating that environment lies with school leadership, according to Perez del Toro. Modeling commitment to equity and inclusion is important, she writes in her report, as are allocating resources to programs that offer support and active recruitment of faculty and students of color.

But Collins says she isn’t sitting around and waiting patiently for change. RIISE takes the approach that families of color — both those interested in sending their children to an independent school and those who already have children enrolled — should always be pushing for change. “We have to engage, we have to advocate, and we have to have agency,” says Collins.

For RIISE, equity and inclusion are less about photos in a school’s brochure or the numbers on its enrollment charts. They’re about what the school is doing for its students and families. “What is being done around curriculum to create equitable and inclusive curriculum? What kind of support systems are in place for families of color that are currently enrolled,” Collins suggests parents ask. “And again, what’s that outreach?”

NAIS is also taking action. For three decades, they have hosted the People of Color Conference, an annual event where independent school educators of color and allies work to ensure their schools are increasing equity and justice. Additionally, NAIS hosts the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, an annual event that gives students the opportunity to “develop cross-cultural communication skills, design effective strategies for social justice practice through dialogue and the arts, and learn the foundations of allyship and networking principles,” according to the organization’s website.

From recruitment and enrollment to curriculum design and faculty diversity, independent schools still have a long way to go, Collins says. But both educators and families are trying to make positive change. “Why are we doing the work that we’re doing if we know our schools will continue to struggle along racial and socio-economic lines? How do we have hope and inspiration?” asks Collins. “I’m telling you, when you’re doing the work, you’re not isolated. You jump in, and you’re part of the solution.” For more information visit 4RIISE.org.ν

Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the Spring 2019 issue.