$30,000! My mouth opened wide in disbelief. Do people really pay that much to send their kids to school? I couldn’t believe it. I was a sophomore in high school, at a part-time job that paid for my tuition at an all-girls Catholic high school when I first learned about the prestige of independent schooling. I was placing the invoice to the CEO’s children’s tuition bill in a file folder when I saw the amount of tuition for the year. I was aghast. Is this where all the rich kids go to school? I guess it must be a good school for the tuition to be as much as what most household incomes made in the housing projects where I grew up.
The pamphlet that accompanied the invoice included pictures of what looked like a college campus: a huge campus with a plush, green lawn, trees that stretched out into the clear, blue sky and the photographer managed to capture a group of smiling, white and brown children whose very presence embodied joy. The school was located in the Bronx, in what was considered to be the wealthiest part of the Bronx, referred to as Riverdale. It was beautiful and I daydreamed of a day that my children would run across the yard of such a school. I wanted success for them and all the opportunities that would come from being there. My dream materialized in 2006, for my daughter, and again in 2011, for my son, when they began kindergarten at an independent school in the Bronx.
At the time that I chose to undergo the independent school admission process, I had lost faith in the public school system and had given up. I lived in the Bronx, with failing public schools all around me and I wondered if I even had a choice. I was a school social worker at the time in a public school in the Bronx and was reminded by those around me that if I wanted my children to soar in life then private school was the only choice. Parochial school was ruled out because I didn’t want their learning restricted by religious doctrine as was the case for me at the Catholic elementary and High School I attended.
As a person of color, an Afro-Latina, making the choice to send my children to an independent school came with some challenges that I had never imagined I would encounter. There were some lessons and strategies I have learned along the way that I felt would be beneficial for parents to know when making that selection. But first, to put things into context, I will share my personal educational journey and then my children’s experiences at the independent school.
I began my journey with private schooling in the third grade. Up until that point, all of my schooling had been in public school. When I was in the 2nd grade, my mother was convinced by a nun that private schooling was the best option for the five of us. All but one of my siblings transferred to the local Catholic elementary school due to a very generous partial scholarship. When the four of us reached the 8th grade, we looked forward to parochial High School with financial support from the schools through various sponsorship programs. I followed in my sisters’ footsteps and attended an all-girls Catholic high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, with a partial scholarship, provided by a sponsor. My high school was racially diverse, which was not the case in my elementary school where most of the students were Latino and black. In fact, high school was the first time I built relationships with women from so many different racial and ethnic backgrounds that it was enlightening.
Unfortunately, in my sophomore year, the donor was no longer able to offer the scholarship and my mother informed me that I would have to leave the school since she and my father could not afford the tuition. Our school looked down upon public school education. As a sheltered child, the thought of transferring to a public school was mortifying to me. Coming from a neighborhood impacted by the crack epidemic, I welcomed the security parochial school offered. Having just acquired a part-time job, I insisted on paying my own tuition and staying at my high school. I did well, graduated and went on to college at State University, receiving both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Social Work. Currently, I am attending a CUNY institution as a PhD candidate in Urban Education. Many in my community did not even finish high school, far less than a college education.
In 2002, I was pregnant with my daughter and a dear friend from work gave me a pamphlet to Early Steps, an organization that assists people of color, to support them in their quest to find an independent school for their four-year old child for the following year. Early Steps works in collaboration with independent schools throughout New York City to diversify their schools and identify children appropriate for acceptance. Due to speech delay, she had reserved Early Intervention Services and I almost hesitated to contact Early Steps assuming that her speech delay might preclude her from Independent Schooling. I pushed forward anyway.
This leads us to the first tip: Be Persistent. I followed the directions on the pamphlet and, when my daughter turned four-years old that August, I called the organization. I was contacted to set up a meeting with someone to discuss their process. Early Steps also met with my daughter to assess her appropriateness for independent schooling. They recommended that I move forward with the process and, at the same time, let me know that since her birthday was in August and she presented on the young side, she may not be considered. I left that meeting feeling angry and discouraged. The anger and discouragement turned into determination and perseverance and I decided to proceed. The worst thing anyone can tell me is that I can’t do something because then I want to achieve it even more. This tip would later be crucial when a few concerns arose for my son where I had to reach out to the school community for support and assert myself as a parent. Teaching my children these skills have also been critical in their ability to navigate the space in school as well.
Although the organization recommended that I wait a year and apply when she was already five, I trusted my instincts and continued the process. At the time, my marriage was in turmoil. My husband and I decided that we would end the marriage. He was resistant to working with me, and I had to complete all the extensive forms on my own. The application process was like nothing I had ever experienced and felt judged along the way. The applications were long and each school required three visits: one tour visit, one family interview and a play date. I had to take many personal days off to complete the application process. I wondered how many families of color did not make it through the process because of the inability to have flexible schedules.
I decided to apply only to the independent schools in the Bronx since I had already concluded that my marriage was dissipating and that likely I would be the one transporting my daughter to and from school. Although the representative at the agency was extremely helpful during this entire time, her statement did not stop me from what I knew to be true about my daughter and her ability to succeed at an independent school.
When I went onto these campuses, I felt out of place. The wealth in the population was very clear and I felt awkward. One of the schools was particularly uncomfortable from the moment I walked into the admissions office and during the tour. The parent interviews were nerve-wracking as they asked questions that for me seemed like they were judging whether or not you were going to be a “good parent.” In other words, a parent that was not going to cause an uproar or follow along like everyone else. We sat in the interviews, my ex-husband and I playing the happy family role concerned that we wouldn’t be accepted if they really knew what was going on. I did not see many children of color or faculty of color and that concerned me. I could feel the history in the corridors and in my bones. All the time, wondering, am I making the right choice?
One school I loved from the moment I looked at the brochure, and it became my number one choice. My daughter also loved this school and proclaimed that she would be going there. I did my vision boarding and put the name of that school in my board and meditated on it. We waited and we waited. I had no idea what the financial aid packages would look like but knew that I could not afford the over $30,000 tuition bill. My daughter was waitlisted at two of the schools, one of them being that very school that I read about while I was in high school. Then, she got into the school that we both really wanted and I was so excited. When the financial aid letter came in the mail I leaped for joy. The generosity was overwhelming and I cried tears of gratitude. I knew, however, that the journey was just beginning and I was ready.
On the first day of school, I was nervous. You would’ve thought that I was the one starting school and, in a way, I was. I was nervous about how my daughter would fit in. I was nervous about being a single mother. By the time she started kindergarten, my husband and I had separated and there was so much I was grappling with on the home front that I prayed it wouldn’t negatively affect her at school. Three weeks before school started, I received a phone call from a parent whose family was assigned to be my buddy family. We agreed to meet a week before school began when we found out that our daughters would be in the same class. I was stepping out my comfort zone on so many levels. The family lived in Riverdale and it was my first time visiting someone there. On the way, my daughter declared that the young lady we were going to visit would become her best friend. The other family was also one of color and, until this day, I am so grateful for the friendships that we have formed and the connections I have made.
This leads us to the next tip: Be Open. I have forged very strong friendship with many people I have met at this school and, truthfully, I don’t think that would have happened had I not been open to the possibility. Many of the families I met, despite what they looked like, were similar in socioeconomic status and had comparable concerns about connecting with people who were exceedingly wealthy. I encouraged my daughter to be herself, to learn from her new friends, but to always be true to who she is and what she brings to any interaction. I realized that when I was inspiring her, I was also inspiring myself. I challenged myself to be open to all the parents and introduce myself, engage in conversations during the parent dinners, school trips and play dates. I realized that my inadequacies about being a parent of color, in this environment, was shared by many parents. I built relationships, went to parent meetings, workshops as well as other functions, and I truly engaged and affirmed our involvement in the community. I mean, after all, this was as much my community as it was anyone else’s who was present…regardless of background or financial aid status. There were some things that seemed to be the norm, especially as it related to playdates that I questioned and, instead of judging and not allowing the playdates, I remained open and flexible. I went on the play dates and got to know the parents and let them know who I was, unapologetically. Until this day, I have created the most unlikely of friendships and connections because of allowing myself to be open.
When it was time for the application process for my son to begin, I was torn. My son’s birthday is in early September, but not soon enough so that it passes the deadline for him to be admitted into kindergarten. I tried to apply for him when he was four and was informed that he would have to repeat kindergarten in order to be admitted to the school. At the time, his father and I were at odds with one another and he was very much against him repeating kindergarten. My son was at a new charter school for his kindergarten experience and had a challenging time due to some bullying. In his case, I ended up applying to a few more schools as I was working in Manhattan, at the time. However, after so many school tours, my daughter’s school was still my first choice for my son. I was so humbled when I received the call that he was accepted into the school.
Having spoken to so many parents of boys of color about their experience with other little boys in these kinds of schools, I knew that I would need to Be Present. The third and final tip is crucial to the success of all children in an independent school, but particularly for boys of color. My son is now in the fifth grade and my daughter is now in the 9th grade. I have been present throughout their entire journey thus far. I have participated in volunteer leadership roles as well as attended programs. I have scheduled meetings with teachers at the beginning of every school year so that they can get to know me and my family and what we contribute to the school and neighborhood, confirming who we are as a family, our culture, what our intentions are for the year and for the school community.
I have been present throughout this journey, even when I didn’t feel like it, even when racist comments and actions discouraged me, even when administration disappointed me. I am present. Most of the time. There are moments when I withdraw, when I have to remember why I chose this path for my children. Sometimes I wonder if the path was the right one. I have also been present to the realization that my children needed to build a community of peers outside of the bubble that is independent schooling so that they are in the know about reality, about what matters, about what they will encounter when they are catapulted into reality when they are seniors. I have been very blessed with being an integral part of such a school community, and I’m certain now that, as my son begins middle school, new opportunities and challenges await.
I don’t regret the choice of being part of an independent school community and am thankful for so many parents that have become lifelines when things happen and I am not sure how to handle it. As a parent of color, I want to make sure my children are safe and know that I am their greatest ally and advocate. Yes, it is rewarding the education they are receiving and, yes, I am wowed every day, but I also know that I contribute to that community. And for those parents contemplating the journey or for those entering into it for the first time…remember the three tips: Be Persistent, Be Open, and Be Present.
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