Listening to Our Kids


Last evening RIISE attended POCIS/DAIS Panel Discussion: What Kids Wish Adults Knew About Being a Student of Color at an Independent School, held at the beautiful new upper school of Grace Church School in Cooper Square.The panel consisted of seven (7) brilliant, confident, and witty students from middle and upper divisions. Most began their indie school careers in those divisions.  All were members of DAIS.

It should be recognized from the onset that despite the obstacles and challenges, all of the panelists value their independent school education, are growing from their experiences, and would do it again in a heartbeat. This is not unlike the responses of parents of color to the recent RIISE Town Hall -Admitted & Successful registration survey, they too would absolutely do it all over again.

It is clear that families of color who choose to make the investment of time, talent, and treasure in an independent school education do so with a clear vision of what the outcomes will/should be: highly functioning young women and men who are beyond capable of leading. As smart as they are, the stakes can be high for students with their emotional capital challenged in the classroom, in the hallways, at the lunch table (no matter which table they decide to sit at), and outside of school.  Monday through Friday, most of our children (parents too) can reside somewhere between two worlds culturally, racially, socially, or economically.

Student names and schools remain confidential, but this is what we heard last evening:

  • moving from a PS to a Pvt school can be difficult if there is a strong difference in school culture, for example, a student brought with him a guarded survivalist attitude that was perceived as being unapproachable and self-segregating
  • self-segregation- like sitting at “the kids of color table”, can also be a product of wanting to be part of a larger community where more connections and the ability to engage in meaningful conversations exist
  • strength in numbers is impossible at many schools when there is only one or two students of color per grade
  • finding connections with other students beyond the traditional social identifiers like race and economics have been achieved, but can be challenging having to go well beyond comfort zones
  • some students do well fitting in at different tables, but then find themselves answering to questions from either table like, “why are you sitting at THAT table today?”
  • self-identification and acknowledgement in classroom settings by kids of color can elicit a response from their white peers that race is being shoved down their throat; or identification robbed as white peer redirects conversation back to their own cultural experiences
  • assimilation (disdain for the word was palpable) was the word that panelists used to describe getting by at an indie school
  • minority (another word that made audience wince) was used often by students when referring to their socially identified group
  • seeing more people of color in power (teachers, heads of school, admin) encourages students of color to work even harder
  • many white teachers are seen as allies, but, some are not equipped to handle the micro aggressions that occur in the classroom
  • most of the students experienced racial slurs and micro-aggressions inside school from white students
  • some students faced similar aggressions from kids of color too, particularly if they don’t connect on a social/economic level
  • some of our kids are equipped at calling out “disobedient white kids” on their micro-aggressions, intentional or not
  • some keep quiet
  • some have told admin and not received support or seen action to combat it
  • some students have been able to positively influence insensitive remarks/actions by well-meaning teachers in the classroom
  • some faculty skirt around the difficult topics like slavery in the curriculum
  • students felt that many of their teachers were doing the hard work,  or desired to do the work to create culturally competent skills & classrooms
  • overtime some students are able to comfortably advocate for themselves when faced with stereotype threats from peers & teachers
  • all students valued the vast resources, unmatched tools, quality education, invaluable exposure, leadership skills, and privileges that a private school affords
  • all of the students are seizing opportunities to ensure their current and future successes – whatever that looks like to them

The panel was moderated by Joan Marable, Executive Director of DAIS and supported by Martha Haakmat, Head of MS at Brooklyn Friends. Both have over two decades of considerable work within independent schools (see recent blog DAIS-A Love Supreme). Martha shared that the experiences of faculty of color often mimic that of students of color. She also said that she did not know weather to laugh or to cry at some of the responses (again, often witty at times) of the students simply because “we are still having the same conversations two decades later”.

Martha went on to say that she has seen transformation with how we are addressing why we are still having the same conversations, noting that the focus is moving more towards understanding the systems of privilege and race at many of our schools. There is hope that getting to and discussing the root of it can create better and stronger communities for all; as we all benefit from the undeniable educational opportunities offered at our schools.

As a parent of two at independent school, I picked up on discussions that pointed to the power of parents to positively influence or unintentionally disrupt (often in an effort to protect) their children’s experiences as they navigate the educational and social environment of a private school. More on how we can disrupt or empower in another blog! Perhaps, the blog comes from you.

Thank you to Joan, Martha, POCIS, and more importantly, the Students for their candor, honesty, brilliance, and well-earned confidence!





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One Comment

  1. Annette Carter
    Posted January 17, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    My top 3 take a ways from last nights panel.

    1) In the end our children come out of the Indy school experience wiser, stronger and prepared for the larger world out there.

    2) Not a lot has changed.

    3) Be prepared to respond to inappropriate comments. It is ok to have a script in your head.

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