Guest Blog Indie School Alum – Jason Caldwell, From The Heart

 

Since the New York Times article, Admitted, But Left Out, there has been a flurry of conversation regarding the issue of socioeconomic diversity in independent schools. In a ramped up New York City environment of elite schools where tuition nears $40,000 for some schools and surpasses $40,000 for others, how can it not be a topic for conversation? As the Director of Admissions of my alma mater, a school where I received financial aid in order to attend, I am particularly sensitive to these issues. The school I work for wages a battle every single day to make sure students from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds are admitted, enrolled and supported. From the Head of School to the Board Chair, from the Director of Financial Aid to the Head of the Parents Association, key members of the school make it possible for students from a multitude of different backgrounds to attend the school and take advantage of the opportunities that exist on campus. This enables the admissions office to recruit a diverse set of students that enrich the campus, making this Director of Admissions’ job a lot easier. The school awards over 8 million dollars in financial aid per year which makes it possible for 17% of our population to attend Horace Mann. This doesn’t count the extra funds students on aid receive for books, lunch, transportation and activities. We hold a number of our events on campus and during the evening so we can accommodate our working parents. We have a full time Director of Diversity Initiatives that holds conversations dealing with this very issue. Students entering the middle school have the opportunity to talk about this during their orientation. The head of middle division has a session specifically dealing with parties and how to negotiate the costs of the social scene. These are just a few of the things we do, to address the issue. So, my school has the issue well in hand, right? Wrong. No school does.

While we provide aid for 17% of the population, what happens when these students participate in social activities with their friends that are not school related? Yes, my school makes it possible for you to go to the football trip or the Model UN conference. Why? You should not be at a disadvantage in your activity because you cannot afford it. What about the trip to Aruba with your best friends? Are you at a disadvantage with your peers, peers you have known for four, seven or sometimes thirteen years? While we do our best to level the playing field so that our kids can compete academically and outside the classroom in terms of their extracurricular activities, can we level the playing field in terms of the social environment? Is it a school’s responsibility to level the social playing field? There is no easy answer.

In the days following the article, three Horace Mann School students came to my office to talk about their experiences at the school. One student explained that while he has had an amazing time at Horace Mann, and that he has received an amazing education, if he truly understood what some of the social pitfalls would have been as a result of his economic situation, he might have made a different choice. Another student explained that his friends recently asked him to go on a trip to Aruba. The trip costs about $1500. When he talked about this, he explained that he has been friends with this group of kids for seven years. He considers them amongst his closest friends. Yet, they did not realize that there was no way he could afford that trip. He wondered, “Do my friends really know me?” After further introspection, he then wondered how he would have felt, if they hadn’t asked him. While their lack of understanding could be considered tone deaf, a different act, an act of exclusion, a parallel universe where they just assumed that he would not go and as a result did not ask might be considered insensitive, cold and callous. The issues raised here are heightened because we are dealing with a population whose identities are still forming; we are dealing with kids. While the majority of the kids here travel across different social groups based upon their various interests and while a huge part of their identity is wrapped around race and religion, it would be wrong to believe that money and the access money gives a student is not also a huge component in the shaping of the adolescents under our care.

When I was a student here, I had friends whose parents owned multiple companies and friends who lived in the projects. During the first half of my student career at Horace Mann, I lived in a modest apartment off the Bruckner Boulevard, in a neighborhood that wasn’t great, but wasn’t bad. During the second half of my career at Horace Mann my family moved to a beautiful house in a nice suburb of Westchester. While I traveled the country as a result of Junior Statesman of America, the Student Multicultural Union and football, I did not leave the country until after I graduated from Horace Mann at the age of twenty. Simply put, my family couldn’t afford it. My mother would always ask me, “Do you feel out of place?” I would always say no, because I didn’t. I never wanted for anything. Did I drive a Jeep Grand Cherokee, the unofficial sponsor of the Horace Mann School in the 90’s? No. I took the bus, Metro North and received rides from my parents. I collected comic books and wrote short stories. I took advanced science classes and learned valuable lessons in leadership as a result of being the captain of the football team and head of the Student Multicultural Union. That said, this was my experience. I have been fortunate enough to be a member of a school community that puts an emphasis on lifelong connections. As a result, I keep in touch with about two dozen of my friends from school on a regular basis. When I say keep in touch, I don’t mean Facebook. I mean actual human contact. These twenty-four people vary from extremely wealthy to lower middle class. Most of them would characterize their experiences at Horace Mann as amazing. For the small subset that might not, there is no question that socioeconomic background played a role in their experience at the school.

There is no silver-bullet that will solve this problem; no overnight solution. While we have affinity groups for race, gender and sexual identity, there is no affinity group (at least at Horace Mann), for people that are on financial aid. In terms of students, some students are not even aware they receive aid. Should we have an affinity group for socioeconomics? I am sure that there are proponents that would argue that this would be a great idea and others that would oppose the formation of such a group on the basis that it would separate us more. In an era where the term class warfare has become popular in our social lexicon, the issues raised in the New York Times article evoke raw emotions. It will force schools to reexamine where their responsibilities lay in regard to making all students feel like they are a part of the social fabric of the school. 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Allen McFarlane
    Posted November 20, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your story. The perspective you shared
    is critically important to this discussion and the dialogue
    that needs to continue. Maya Angelou wrote, “people will
    sometimes forget what you say and forget what you do but they
    will always remember how you made them feel….” I think you
    just came up with the name of your new campaign… “From the Heart”

  2. ginaparkercollins
    Posted November 20, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Allen, thank you for your comment. We will share with Jason.

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