Student Perspectives on Navigating Race and Class in Elite Spaces

Fall 2018

By Deborah Offner

Graduates of Beacon Academy (MA)—low-income children of color—entered the ninth grade of Boston’s Commonwealth School like all their classmates: They were ambitious, excited, and scared. Unlike most of their classmates, they were visibly in the minority. The other difference for these students: When they faltered, Beacon’s head or assistant head called Commonwealth’s student life team, or arranged to attend our team meeting alongside the students’ parents. I was dean of students at Commonwealth from 2014 to 2017, and had been working there 11 years before that; knowing our students was my job. But in these meetings with Beacon administrators and students, I began to understand how much I didn’t know. 
Beacon Academy is a private, philanthropically funded “extra year” of school between eighth and ninth grade that prepares motivated, promising urban students for success in independent day and boarding schools. Its mission is comparable to that of other, older preparatory programs for low-income students, such as New York City’s Prep for Prep and Boston’s Steppingstone Foundation; however, Beacon is the only full-time academic program of its kind in the country. Beacon students come from low-income families, many of whom are poor enough to qualify for secondary school application fee waivers. Beacon graduates inhabit at least two spheres of intersectional identity; whether boy or girl, straight or queer, U.S. natives or immigrants, they are at once disadvantaged by their color and their socioeconomic class. 

Beacon Academy’s distinct, intentional practice of talking openly with their students about race and class means its graduates become adept at reflecting on their experiences. Beacon also facilitates powerful, transformative conversations between its alumni and the broader independent school community, at its Annual Symposium on Race and Class. The symposium, which takes place every October and is in its 13th year, is attended by teachers, counselors, diversity directors, admission officers, trustees, and donors, as well as deans, assistant heads, and heads of school from throughout New England. Gathering insights from the panel of students that spoke at the symposium over the past couple of years, as well as from conversations with about a dozen low-income students of color over the past three years, I hope to represent some of their perspectives, across their many different independent secondary schools.

Tuition Isn’t the Only Expense 

Over the past two decades, many independent schools have transformed their admission numbers, conversations, and climates. Still, while attracting students of color and those from diverse class backgrounds is an explicit goal of most contemporary independent schools, many of us are just beginning to learn what school is like for these students.
“When friends ask me to go out [for lunch], it’s terrifying because that can cost $10–$15,” one student says. “For them, it’s just a little bit of money. And they say, ‘What’s the big deal? Just ask your parents.’ But for me, spending that much will mean I can’t do my laundry or buy the pens and notebooks I need for school. This makes it hard for me to make friends, because I can’t do the things they like to do.”
Many schools now recognize that tuition is far from the only expense for independent school students and families; some schools award additional money to scholarship students, often in direct proportion to their financial-aid award, or maintain separate funds to finance school trips, team jackets, class rings, and other incidental expenses of membership in the school community. A formal institutional practice like this ensures that students in need do not have to ask. 

A Closer Look at Curriculum 

While many schools have expanded their courses to represent more diverse populations and perspectives, numerous students report feeling excluded, or at least overlooked, by the curriculum. Teenagers learn best when they can relate to the people and stories presented by their teachers and texts. Further, they need to feel “seen” or reflected in the classroom conversation, at least some of the time.
“When we study the history of immigration to the United States, it’s interesting, but a little weird because for me, immigration is not just something historical. My mom immigrated here when I was 2, leaving me with my grandparents in [our home country] until she had enough money to come back and get me, when I was 5. So, personally, I immigrated to the U.S. 10 years ago.”
One Latino student talked about what it meant to her when her English class read Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, the story of a Mexican-American girl growing up in inner-city Chicago. “This was a story about a girl like me, living in a family like mine. We hadn’t read anything like that before. It was amazing!”

Different Perceptions

Some students report what sounds like sociologist Robert Merton’s 1948 “self-fulfilling prophecy” regarding white educators’ perceived expectations of them. “[I felt that] expectations in the classroom were set low for me…because of the color of my skin. And because I was a student-athlete, people assumed I was just at my school to play sports and coast academically. This was really hard for me. Sometimes when you are not expected to do as well, you fly under the radar. And, at some points, I did.”
An 11th-grade Beacon alumnus who says he loves his current school, in fact has “never been happier,” describes how it was hard, at first, to feel “different” because his race and class distinguish him from the majority of his classmates. “It took me a while to realize that being different isn’t bad. It doesn’t mean you are lower ... and I think [my being there] is helping other kids to realize that, too.”
The same student mentions a painful experience of “difference” with which he “came to terms” through a combination of conversation and reflection. “At one point, I heard a rumor that this [white] friend of mine was racist. I couldn’t really understand because, I mean, he was really good friends with me, so it just didn’t make sense.”  
He goes on to explain that in talking with a mutual classmate who had attended the same independent middle school as his friend, he came to understand that, “there is a difference between ignorance and racism. I think my friend is just ignorant. People can’t help the way they grew up, what they were exposed to ... They had some kids of color at their old school, but making jokes about race was just something people did.”

Starting the Conversation

Many students tell their stories behind closed doors, to other students or teachers with comparable identities or backgrounds. Others tend not to voice their concerns at all. Many students decide, whether consciously or not, to perform now and process later, if at all. Kids often keep the really important stuff to themselves, unless we ask them about it. “A lot of things happen to me at school that I bury,” one student said.
“Even if it’s not on our faces, because we’ve been taught to be resilient, to be strong, we may be struggling,” another said.
Independent school diversity directors and consultants emphasize that in addition to creating safe spaces for one-to-one conversations with students, teachers and other adults on campus must initiate and model the change they want to see by engaging in difficult conversations about race and class among themselves. For many of us, this prospect is far more daunting than that of talking openly with our students. Many schools suggest a faculty summer reading that raises these issues as a useful starting point for reflection and conversation.
Beacon alumni frequently observe that their parents are far less comfortable in their independent schools than they are. “This is the first parent-teacher conference my mom is attending, ever. She is scared because she doesn’t speak English that well, and she was only able to go to school through eighth grade.”
“My mom has an email, but she doesn’t know how to work it really. I fill out my own health forms, financial aid forms ... If I ask you, please send me the emails you send to my mom, so I can take care of it. It’s not that she’s a bad mom, she just can’t do it because she doesn’t understand it. My friends’ parents do everything for them, but a lot of students like me, they [have to be] independent.”
To make the school environment more parent-accessible, the director of community and multicultural affairs and director of parent relations at one Boston day school facilitate an information and affinity group for parents who are “new to independent schools.” The same school is starting an affinity group for students who are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, in recognition of the salience and challenges of their particular experiences and identities.

Taking the Long View

Beacon graduates and those from comparable backgrounds struggle in at least proportionate numbers to privileged white students with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, family strain, and navigating the complexities of peer relationships and adolescent identity development. In addition, these students, without exception, face the psychosocial stressors of prejudice and discrimination. For many, this gets harder as they navigate elite, white-majority secondary schools. Beacon starts by providing its alumni with practical advice and problem-solving assistance. How do you approach the financial-aid office when your family can’t close the gap between your aid award and tuition? What do you do when all your classmates look at you every time slavery is mentioned during history? But Beacon never hesitates to delve into the personal. How are you feeling? What is hard?
Beacon Academy has learned over time that for its students, high school admission is but a single step in a long-term process. Beacon has seen its students tackle common challenges across a wide range of independent school environments, including stereotyping or prejudice from peers or teachers, tension between their identities as privileged students and poor teenagers of color, or the feeling that every time they speak, they represent a whole category of people. In response, Beacon has gradually broadened its own horizons and ambitions. Initially conceived as a launching pad into independent schools, Beacon now expects to follow and support its graduates, to whatever degree necessary, all the way through high school and college. In doing so, Beacon has established the kind of productive partnerships with New England schools that facilitate both institutions’ thoughtful care of their students and communities. Through both its public forums and the voices of its graduates, many of whom become leaders on their campuses, Beacon Academy continues to ask the difficult questions—of all of us.




Deborah Offner

Deborah Offner is consulting psychologist at Beacon Academy in Boston and author of the book Educators as First Responders: A Teacher’s Guide to Adolescent Development and Mental Health.