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Private Schools Struggle to Fully Diversify

Despite sincere efforts to diversify, private schools have been stymied in making minority students feel included. In the 2011-12 school year, for example, 26.6 percent of students in independent schools nationwide were minority, compared with 18.5 percent a decade before. Yet admitting more students from these groups has not necessarily led to their feeling particularly welcome ("Admitted, but Left Out," The New York Times, Oct. 21).

The distinction between admittance and inclusion is largely the result of the attitudes and values that advantaged students bring to school. They are often manifested in "polite indifference, silence and segregation." For minority students, this creates a feeling of exclusion, no matter how academically able they may be. That's because many lack the same self-confidence in their ability to succeed as other students. This "stereotype vulnerability" is exacerbated by the failure of others to accept them as their equals.

Private schools have hired diversity directors, created mentoring programs and used forums to help disadvantaged students fit in. But altering values and attitudes is a slow and frustrating process. Many privileged students naively assume that their lives outside of school are not much different from the lives of other students their age. Raising their awareness takes time. I've long believed that interacting with others from different cultures can pay off in better understanding than any formal course because it destroys stereotyping. That's why team sports have been so successful in this regard.

But I've also seen how even the boldest attempts to bridge the gaps between students from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds have backfired - at least in public schools. When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified District, integration through busing was done far too quickly to allow teachers and students to adjust. As a result, cliques hardened, leaving both newcomers and neighborhood students feeling more apart than before. What I experienced, however, was nothing compared to what Boston underwent starting in 1974 when a federal judge ordered white students to be bused to black schools and vice versa. The fallout is still being felt today ("4 Decades After Clashes, Boston Again Debates School Busing," The New York Times, Oct. 4).

Over the past decade, philanthropists have gotten more involved in education, both in private and public schools. I've warned before about the strings attached to their largess, but I now hasten to point out another concern. I don't think they fully understand the obstacles that these students face. The problem in higher education is described in detail in Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It (Basic Books, 2012) by Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr. The authors maintain that many minority students are not well served by enrollment in marquee-name schools because their academic credentials often leave them ill-equipped to hold their own against their classmates. As a result, they become discouraged and drop out. Although the authors confine their argument to academics at the college level, I wouldn't be surprised if a parallel doesn't exist at selective high schools as well.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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