Clutch: Black Students, White Schools

Over the weekend, I stumbled across a story in The New York Times “Admitted, but Left Out” about Black students who attend or did attend elite, mostly white private schools in New York City. Unsurprisingly, the article took on a familiar refrain, documenting the awkwardness and difficulty that students of color can encounter when they don’t match up neatly with the dominant race, and often the culture and class level, of their peers. It’s a downside of private education that I’ve often heard discussed and worried over, mostly by Black parents who want the best education — often perceived not to be a public one or in a predominately Black environment — for their kids. Even when the kids hail from Black families that are staunchly middle-class or even affluent, those parents still wonder specifically how their Black kid will manage, it being a given that they won’t quite fit.

It’s a worthy concern, as demonstrated by the Times article. A lot of kids face adversity and culture shock that thus far there hasn’t been a way conceived to fully prepare them for. It’s important to acknowledge their stories and work on ways to help the schools and students adapt better to diversity. But there’s another side to the story too, a much less dramatic or controversial one, which is why I’m assuming it’s not so often told.

I’m one of those Black kids who went to what some might consider an elite prep school. It wasn’t in New York, but Maryland, and as far as the elite ranking of prep schools goes, mine probably fell midway on the list. My parents were lured to send me there by its proximity to our house and the promise of its 100 percent graduation and college attendance rate.

We had a campus, not a building, but no one was delivered to it via helicopter, or to my knowledge, a personal driver as can be a non-eyebrow raising occurrence at the most elite schools. Most of my classmates didn’t have nationally notable surnames like say a few students at our rival school Sidwell Friends where Chelsea Clinton earned her diploma and the Obama girls are currently educated. My schoolmates did include the offspring of a high–ranking government officials and notable local businessmen, but mostly it was the spawn of two-parent households where both degreed parents worked hard, got paid well, and sacrificed a bit to shell out around $17k (adjusted for inflation) a year for their kid, often more than one, to attend.

I showed up at my school in 1991 as a 12-year-old eighth grader. Until then, I’d attended mostly Black private schools. I lived in a Black neighborhood, went to a Black church. At my new school, my class — around 30 kids and at the time, the largest in school history — was the first with a significantly “of color” population, about one-third of the class, the same as the students mentioned in the Times story. Both the senior and junior class that year has one Black student each. I don’t recall any other “of color” students among them to add to the diversity.

At the new school, it wasn’t so much the white that was the issue, it was the freedom. There was no asking to go to the bathroom, just get up and go. There were breaks and free periods where students could just roam anywhere we wanted to on campus and as long as we weren’t destructive, no teachers bothered us. It sounds like a free-for-all — and it seemed like one initially coming from a place where students were treated more like inmates — but it was just differently structured, not poorly structured.


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