I wish our schools asked these same questions.
Independent schools were conceived as exclusive but evolved as society progressed to realize that in order to survive, let alone thrive, diversity was a necessary precursor to achieving lasting educational outcomes. In truth, when private schools were created, they were inherently exclusive, and inclusion was not even a superficial concern—and in the rare instance someone outside of the majority was included, they were offered crumbs off the table in exchange for assimilation. At first, even the progressive schools got it wrong, believing that by adjusting what they served, they could foster the same outcomes achieved through diversity. However, without diversity, this often looked like a caricature of multiculturalism; the structural inequality within continued to rot at the inclusive mission language.
Then came the era when schools decided to focus on investing in diversity efforts through financial aid and advertising. The brochure photographs may have offered a more varied skin tone, but a closer look at school demographics showed a lack of diversity. At the same time, some schools paired the idea of diversity and equity, trying to channel advancement and tuition dollars toward programs for equity. However, without proper direction, this was just for optics.
It’s not enough that schools champion diversity. They must understand how it intersects with equity and inclusion so that they can develop a lens to truly see whom they are serving. By building a dashboard around inclusion metrics, schools can put inclusion front and center through curricula, programming, and social aspects that are thoughtful, respectful, and enjoyable. Inclusion is the only way for students and educators of color to feel safe and whole.
A Deeper Look into Student ExperienceThere is a secret tug-of-war with diversity and inclusion. Schools champion diversity through their admission program and support it with financial aid dollars. Regional accreditation and national measures look to the financial aid percentage of an overall budget as an indicator of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) health—however, this is a false impression. These dollars may help invite “different” people to the table, but they don’t change the nature of inclusion. The more differences schools include, the greater the need to diversify what is offered. And this costs money. The greater the diversity, the greater the cost to inclusion. Furthermore, these dollars are not necessarily measured in the same way as financial aid. So, rather than engage in the complexity of this equation, schools at best participate in cognitive dissonance toward this need, or at worst, it’s an institutional blind spot.
The secret sauce is the simple realization that the traditional metrics used to measure healthy DEI with financial aid dollars and diversity numbers are flawed. These are not indicative of what it means to be included at the school. In terms of dollars, schools prioritize financial aid first and maybe DEI offices and programming next, but schools rarely, if ever, put inclusion as a line item in the budget.
To understand this, think of a school from the vantage point of the student experience, made up of three parts: curriculum, program, and social interactions. There is a lot more that goes into a school from the business or administrative perspectives, but for the purpose of understanding inclusion, let us focus here: DEI as it has evolved to serve the needs of students interrelates with these three areas in different ways. It seeks to make the curriculum diverse, provide equity in terms of programs, and react to exclusionary things that happen on the social front. While there is overlap, the ways in which schools deal with inclusion is flawed. It is further problematized by a culture that seeks to diversify instead of building inclusion, such that dollars are funneled to financial aid and never to the inclusion needs of students.
In our household, when we invite folks over to share a meal and inquire about their needs and interests, we discover things about them. We may learn that one guest is gluten-free, another only eats halal, and the third is not familiar with very many cuisines outside of their own cultural framing. Having these three people over means we need to construct an all gluten-free meal, which is halal and speaks to the cultural background of the third guest. These considerations have a cost, and if we have finite resources, our family will opt to make the experience the most inclusive we can for our three guests rather than invite a fourth and risk exclusion at the dinner table. Schools are not thinking the same way.
Gluten-free is a symbolic metaphor for curriculum. If a guest has celiac or a wheat allergy, they cannot partake in a meal with gluten. If there is cross-contamination, the guest will have to navigate a culinary minefield with a real and lasting impact. This is no way to enjoy a meal. This is like students of color learning a Eurocentric curriculum, trying to find a reference or an annotation about themselves in the history they are learning. It puts the onus on students to process their own triggers, to discover their own place in what they are learning. The psychological impact of how most curricula approach people of color narratives, when and if they are included, is doom and gloom—it’s also like being the one Black student in the room being asked their thoughts on the one traumatic Black history footnote that happens to be included in class.
Many independent schools have hallmark programs. These are showcased and used to distinguish themselves from cheaper public school options. The admission team dangles these opportunities to recruit all students, but options like international travel or outdoor education come with hidden ingredients or qualifiers that are needed to fully take advantage of them, such as money or experience. Students who either don’t have the funds, passports, or previous experiences, like having gone camping with their families, will be less likely to engage in these programs. It limits the experience, and the school’s promise is never fully realized because certain students are never fully included.
Finally, there is the spice. At our schools, we need to incorporate spice in social interactions that are facilitated by schools, that happen as a course of our culture, and that we see as important to our commitments to social-emotional learning. Imagine the culture around the school dance, for example. Consider the culture at the school—the parties hosted by families with great means and those on financial aid. If the school is residential, what does it mean for a student on financial aid to board next to the daughter of an oil-rich emir from overseas? When we view social interactions as acceptably bland or fail to consider the flavor and needs of those who don’t fully participate in these experiences, there are costs. The social costs are often things that schools apologize for and react to when exclusion happens, but all schools are fully aware of the social dynamics and the ways in which students connect with each other. And when the ways in which they connect are not flavored for those invited to the party, what does it mean to belong at a school?
Who’s Coming to DinnerStill there will be those who say, inclusion shouldn’t be so hard. This is the problem: It’s about making experiences that people will enjoy, not just tolerate. Schools need to establish inclusion metrics and then create inclusion budgets to hold schools systemically accountable. The proposition can seem daunting, but it starts simply with a conversation. The greater the diversity, the greater the inclusion budget will have to be, even with schools that believe they have an all-inclusive tuition.
At The Athenian School (CA), where I am the director of teaching and learning, the creation of the inclusion dashboard and understanding our inclusion metrics led to an inclusion budget. It has been used to support outside tutoring (something we noticed that students with means had), travel support (for trips), special program support (for opportunities that come up for students who may not be able to afford them), and the Black Athena Project, which engages our Black alumni to create a generational community that remains in dialogue with our school as a model for other cohorts.
The mindset of inclusion and the line item in our budget has allowed us to provide halal meat, always have gluten-free and vegan options, and provide meals that speak to the cultural backgrounds of our boarding students. During the time we pivoted because of inclusion metrics, we did not aggressively grow our financial aid. In truth, we could have invested all of the dollars from these inclusion ventures into financial aid instead and brought some other students to our school—but by creating a culture of inclusion, we attract diversity and build our institutional capacity for intercultural fluency. When everyone is enjoying the meal at the table, they are fully communicating with each other, experiencing empathy, and gaining cultural wisdom.
Husna is starting sixth grade at Athenian this year and is excited to be finally going to a school that seems to consider who she is—she keeps telling me, that in spite of COVID-19, a distance-learning start, and the wildfires that she feels fully included as a member of a vibrant community. Despite the lack of contact, she has made friends through Zoom orientations and is excited to meet her teachers who have made their curriculum speak to who she is. I’m hopeful too, that the work we have done should appeal to students like her. The truth is that schools like ours that incorporate inclusion metrics and have inclusion dollars set aside in their budgets to hold themselves accountable to the belonging felt by a student, co-create experiences in dialogue with them.