Pamela D. Brown
Independent schools are far more diverse today than they were a decade ago. Yet strong anecdotal evidence suggests that students and families of color in our communities still feel marginalized. As it is, a recent National Association of Independent Schools study indicates, about 35 percent of parents who send their children to independent schools rethink their school choice annually.1 One wonders if this rate is even higher among families of color.
When students of color were few and far between in independent schools, the financial fallout of losing one or two families of color mattered less. Today, however, families of color may comprise up to 30 percent of the student body. As such, losing any of those tuition dollars poses a greater challenge for schools. But of course, the issue of student marginalization is about more than maintaining a robust enrollment. It’s about schools living up to their missions.
In the past, parents of color may have tolerated a certain amount of disconnect from their child’s independent school, but today they expect more. Although parents of color may not seek the same particulars regarding their child’s experience, they all want their child to be treated equitably and to be valued. After all, that’s the promise schools offer.
What can schools do to be more mindful of their parents’ and students’ needs? What follows are tips for working with parents of color. Needless to say, many of these suggestions apply to all parents who are likely to feel marginalized. Reaching these parents and having them feel part of the community is crucial to their sense of belonging and to the health of your school community. Their belonging will go a long way toward building trust and creating a true parent-school collaboration, which is ultimately necessary for the best student outcomes.
When you pair new families and students with a host, make certain that the host will be hospitable. This is perhaps the most important action you can take. It sets the stage for the family’s success. Be sure the host welcomes the new family. Some parents of color say that their hosts never contacted them, much less offered to meet for a cup of coffee or suggest a play date for their children. Select a host family who has integrated into the community. Make certain the host knows and will share important tips with the new family. You don’t need to match one family of color with another. It is fairly likely that they will seek out the other families of color on their own. What matters most is to find a family deeply integrated in the community who will make an effort to be an engaged host.
Basic etiquette will help, too. Make sure that your faculty and staff speak to parents and students of color regularly. Say hello; learn their names. Many parents and students of color say that, despite being members of the community for years, faculty and administrators still get them mixed up. If the parent has an advanced degree or title, use it, at least the first time you meet with him or her. With grandparents, err on the side of greater formality, calling them Mr. or Mrs. Let them tell you it’s OK to use their first name. Don’t contradict parents in front of their child, especially about their child’s acceptable behavior. If you contradict them, you undermine their authority and their ability to teach their child. If you disagree or are more lax in your expectations of students, share this with the parents when the child is not present, explaining that the school has a different standard and that the child’s behavior was OK with you. Make clear that you respect their standards as parents and that you will support them as long as those standards don’t conflict with a school principle or value.
Educate the parents about the school community’s play date culture if their child is young and they are new to the independent school world. For some parents the whole play date culture is foreign. If social interaction with other students is important to the family, let the parents know that they need to facilitate it by getting to know other parents and having other children interact with their child outside of school. If they don’t trust parents that they don’t know, suggest that they arrange a play date at a neutral location to start.
Query parents about what events they want. For parent-related events, don’t just rely on your class parents. Because they are closely connected in the community, they will likely choose activities that appeal to similarly connected parents. To engage parents of color, you need to think about what the “minority” wants, not the majority.
Hold school events that are considerate of parents’ obligations. Offer childcare and food. Inquire about families’ availability and give them adequate notice of upcoming events. Even if only a few parents of color show the first time you hold an event, understand that some may be waiting to check out the benefit of an event from other parents before they commit to coming themselves. Hold events on a predictable and frequent schedule. For example, hold a monthly or bimonthly event, making it on the same day or week in the month. When a family is juggling multiple demands, a single situation can come up that prevents them from attending. If you only have one event annually and families miss it, they have no other formal opportunity for connecting.
The Lay of the Land
Share school norms and what it takes to be successful. What are the expectations for parental involvement? How much do they need to be involved in the community? How much do they need to directly support their child’s learning? How long should they read to their child? Is enrichment tutoring the norm? How much time do students put into homework? Even though the school may cover these topics and other topics at back-to-school nights, realize that schools are sharing a lot of information in those meetings. For new parents, it can be information overload. Parents who are less connected in the community don’t have people to go to after an event to ask questions and clarify expectations. And some parents who don’t feel comfortable in the community might be too embarrassed to let schools know that they missed something critical to their child’s education. Rather than assume that new parents of color understand the expectations, reach out to them early in the year to confirm.
Articulate the school’s philosophy. Share the school’s values with parents. Different parents come to independent schools with varying expectations and notions of what constitutes academic success. Elaborate your school’s philosophy on, say, homework, quizzes, standardized tests, or class participation. Tell parents the benchmarks teachers use to evaluate their kids. This helps parents understand the school’s perspective — even if they challenge it or disagree with it.
Be transparent about the procedures for sharing worries or concerns. A lot of misunderstandings can occur when families of color believe they are being treated differently than their white counterparts. What’s the process for recommending additional support, counseling, psycho-educational testing, or remedial tutoring? Is it the same for all students? Do you initiate the conversation similarly with all parents? Do you involve the same people in the conversation with all parents?
Less may be more when the school is raising a concern. In meeting with parents of color to discuss a concern about their child, including more people in the meeting does not necessarily communicate more support. It may suggest to parents that the reason for meeting is that there’s a really big problem and it will take a village to solve it. Few parents want to hear that the village is needed. For families of color receiving financial support, having more people in a meeting than necessary can also create anxiety about whether their child will be able to remain in the school. Anxiety does not elicit the best parental response. It often evokes a defensiveness that takes the focus away from the child. Worse yet, it can create an adversarial relationship characterized by distrust.
They know when the emperor is naked. Avoid embellished or untrue public statements. For example, if your school doesn’t have many faculty of color, don’t act as if you have a diverse faculty. Maintenance staff and coaches don’t count as teachers. Many parents of color already come to independent schools uncertain as to whether they can trust the schools. Marketing sound bites designed to attract families of color but which turn out not to be true in practice give these families no reason to believe they can trust the school. So think before you speak (or post your marketing material). Think also before you act. When you are working with a family of color, think about whether you would act similarly with a more affluent white family. If your answer is no, don’t do it.
Don’t say you’re going to call if you’re not. Basically, don’t make commitments to diversity that you are not able to honor, regardless of the reason. Doing so creates mistrust, which can be toxic to a family of color’s longevity at your institution. It gives them a good reason to look elsewhere, especially since they probably have friends whose children attend your competitors. The flip side of this, of course, is that you work hard to honor your public commitment to diversity.
The single big act affirming your commitment to diversity is probably less important than ongoing, smaller actions that let parents of color know you value their presence. Attention shows that you care. As with any other relationship, it’s the constant little things that put money in the bank that you can draw upon when times are tough or you make a mistake, which you are sure to do. You need to cultivate goodwill all along. Big action may win you praise, but it tends to be short lived — especially if parents feel neglected later on. Being inclusive doesn’t mean you need to be experts on multiculturalism. But you do need to be open and willing to learn and grow. Sometimes small questions during casual conversation go a long way in building trust. For instance, while watching kids practice a sport or prepare for a holiday, be inquisitive in a non-offensive way. Ask: “Did you grow up playing a sport?” or “How was May Day celebrated when you were growing up?” “Was it celebrated?” “What holidays were big celebrations in your childhood?” These types of questions let parents know you’re interested in learning about their culture and background. If you’re lucky, this inquisitiveness will trigger more ideas about improving the curriculum or school celebrations.
Be politic. Just because families of color are pleasant, doesn’t mean they trust or like you. I find that families of color are less likely to share their discontent with you. If they don’t feel comfortable with you, they are much more likely to share their discontent with other families of color or with the one or two people of color on staff with whom they feel comfortable. And by the time they decide to break up with you and send their child elsewhere, it is too late for you to change their mind. Basically, don’t assume that a series of polite exchanges equals contentment with the school. Ask parents of color regularly about their experience. Talk with teachers and staff to get their views on the experiences of parents and students of color. Get to know the real climate.
Standards and Expectations
Hold children of color to the same standards as others. When you don’t, you do the student a disservice, and you communicate to parents and the child that you expect less from him or her. If the lower standard is in regard to behavior, and the parents become aware of it, they may wonder if you feel that this unacceptable behavior is acceptable to them. If they do, it affirms their concern that you think they have lower standards. When you hold students of color to a lower standard than white students it suggests you don’t believe they are capable of higher caliber work. Even with a new student coming from a less rigorous school, the child, as well as the parents, could be more frustrated when you lower the bar, when you treat them as less capable. If a student of color is struggling, work out a strategy for success, don’t lower the bar.
Be careful with the language you use in a report card or at a conference. As a rule, you are best off sticking to what is concrete, observable, and indisputable — and not make judgments about the child’s ability, effort, intentions, and motivations. No one wants to be unsuccessful, whether it is in a social or academic sphere. School is a child’s job and a student’s life in school is a significant part of his or her identity. If a child is struggling in a class, it’s most helpful to include clear suggestions for improvement. If you can give him or her a road map for how to thrive, both the student and parents will be grateful.
Don’t tell parents not to worry, especially not without understanding their concerns and their bar for success. What I hear over and over again from many parents of color is that their bar is higher than that of other parents. Parents of color often believe that the opportunity of an independent school education will raise the playing field for their children, not necessarily level it. Many of these parents believe that their children will have to work harder than other children to find access to opportunities that are available to their peers. Remember this: Parents of color chose an independent school because they want the most and best for their child and his future — not something slightly better than they had before.
Be conscious about the questions you ask families and the assumptions you may make in asking these questions. Do you make assumptions about a single-parent family? Do you presume things about parents who come from similar educational backgrounds? At times, you need to ask students and parents questions, but check your assumptions at the door. Get to know the students of color and their families as individuals with specific needs and interests.
Be conscious about what you ask children regarding their home life. Some cultures are less open about sharing what they believe to be private aspects of their lives. They are particularly sensitive to what children share. You may just be curious and making small talk with a child, but the parents may wonder why you are inquiring.
Know that the parent is in charge and not the child. A lot of our schools put children at the forefront of their own learning. For many parents, especially parents of color, this is a novel positioning. Although that may be part of the school’s philosophy, realize that it is not necessarily part of the parents’ philosophy.
A Word About Faculty of Color and Role Models
When parents of color ask about faculty of color, it may not be about seeking role models for their children, but as role models for white faculty, staff, and administrators. Most parents of color at your school are or have role models of color in their children’s lives. The other reason parents of color may ask about this is they want their child to cross paths with someone they feel understands their child at a different level, someone who does not necessarily prejudge them, lower the bar, or treat them differently, and knows some of the realities of their current and future world.
Climate of Conversation
These suggestions are only a beginning of the process of building good relationships with students and families of color. They come from my own experience as a student of color at an independent school, my extensive conversations with parents of color, as well as with the faculty and administration at the school where I have worked for the past seven years. I have also come to know many of these parents over the past two decades in my private practice.
In addition to these universal wishes many parents of color have regarding their child’s education, there are also wishes that are specific to a particular community. To best know which issues are most salient at any particular school, it is important to create a climate where conversation can occur and is actually desired. With students of color comprising an increasingly larger percentage of the independent school population, it becomes crucial that schools address the needs and wants of their families and make all reasonable efforts to retain them.
1. See 2011 NAIS Parent Motivations Survey, www.nais.org/articles/pages/member/2011-nais-parent-motivations-survey.aspx .