Last week, PBS aired “180 Days,” a film that examines one year at DC Met, a school that serves of The District’s most dispossessed young people- and an institution under scrutiny by local public school officials because of its scores on the DC CAS. PBS is airing another film that examines black student life in an American school, which will also be available to see in Washington DC movie theatres this fall. Titled American Promise, it examines 12 years at The Dalton School, one of the most prestigious private schools in the nation.
Free public education is a right in this country; indeed, Americans are compelled to educate their children. Yet schools serving people of color too often fail to meet the basic educational goals required for children to become functioning, tax-paying citizens in our post-industrial society. In “180 Days,” teachers and other staff suggest that the ongoing problem of an educational system that fails our children is a Civil Rights issue. In “American Promise,” though the middle class boys featured are full of academic potential, the film asserts that even elite private schools fail our children.
If public education is a Civil Right, then perhaps fair and equitable treatment for all private school students, regardless of race or gender, is a Personal Right. In “American Promise,” filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson document the journey of their own son and his best friend at The Dalton School, a New York City independent institution that Forbes magazine ranked 13th in a 2010 list of the country’s top 20 prep schools. If “180 Days” asks why the public schools fail so many of our disenfranchised young people, “American Promise” asks how the private schools fail far too many of our middle class kids.
Scheduled to air on PBS and in Washington movie theatres this October, “American Promise” opens with the image of two smiling, bright-eyed, African American boys. Thrilled to be going to school together, Idris Brewster, son of the filmmakers, and Oluwaseun “Seun” Summers, Idris’ best friend, run up and down the sidewalk, excitedly searching for the car that will take them to their first day of kindergarten. Idris is the firstborn child of a mother who is also a lawyer, with degrees from McGill and Columbia, and a father who is also a Harvard and Stanford educated psychiatrist. Idris has been tested for giftedness and ranks in the top tier of preschool learners. Seun’s parents are also both college-educated, with degrees from the State University of New York and fulfilling careers that provide a middle class lifestyle for their four children.
By the year the boys reach 5th grade at Dalton, they smile less, appear less engaged, begin to struggle academically. Toward the end of their middle school experience, Seun’s academic status is in jeopardy, and the audience wonders what happened to the unfulfilled promise of Idris’ giftedness.
The dramatic tension of the film is heart-wrenching, as audiences root for these beautiful brown boys to overcome the barriers that would prevent them from fulfilling their personal potential, potential that was so evident when they were both 6. As they grow older, Idris’ and Seun’s disengagement only renders the boys’ desire to achieve more poignant.
Winner of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Achievement in Filmmaking, “American Promise” focuses on a specific experience at a nationally-ranked prep school, but the lamentations of these two families will resonate for any African American caregiver with a child attending a majority white school. This film is important for everyone on your family team, including partners, grandparents, even babysitters, to see. The narrative offers solutions families can employ to enable their children’s success.
In one scene, Idris’ and Seun’s parents gather with other African American caregivers that have formed a support group. Over coffee at the kitchen table, they discuss their experiences and their frustrations, seeking solutions to the specific issues their children face in school. While this level of networking is certainly helpful during the admissions process, it is essential once families join a school community.
Stephenson thinks black families interested in forming their own parent-led support groups should keep them “informal and intimate” while remaining separate from the school PTA or PAT. In an interview for TheRootDC, Stephenson explained, “They need to be independent of those structures and be safe spaces to problem solve.”
The film also examines class issues and the impact of wealthy families’ vast resources on their children’s level of achievement. For those of us with modest incomes who have promising children in independent schools, many of these scenes will feel familiar. For example, I remember very distinctly talking to the father of a child in a private school who shook his head as he recounted his experience with his own son’s seemingly apparent underachievement. This father said that he knew his child was just as smart as his peers, yet his grades always lagged behind the others. An epiphany came for him, he said, when he figured out what was really going on – and how connected it all was to money.
First you pay for tuition, he said to me, then they want you to contribute to fundraising, and then you learn that these other families are paying more money on top of all that money for private tutors. That was the disconnect for him – that he did not realize supplemental learning in the form of expensive, one-to-one enrichment was taking place in the homes of the wealthy white children he was sending his child to school with, to compete with, every day. Of course his child was just as smart, just as capable of success; the other families had simply, and quietly, given their children an advantage he couldn’t afford.
A very similar scene plays out in “American Promise”, when the black families share this high-priced secret the wealthier families employ to insure their children’s successes while chatting in the safe space of the support group.
“For us it was a safety net,’ Stephenson says. “Being able to pick up that phone and brainstorm, even gossip at times, troubleshoot about certain things our kids were confronting and just share information. I think the most eye opening experience for us was this whole issue of tutoring for enrichment. Being able to share those experiences with other parents helped us gain a greater understanding of what the culture of the institution was like for our son and find out what other parents were doing.”
Without that informal group of like-minded parents, many African American students may have simply slid down an incredibly slippery academic slope. Perhaps more importantly, they would have figured that they themselves, and not socio-economic forces well beyond their control, were responsible for the slide. And, most essentially: the parents would have never figured out the game, would have never figured out exactly what it was going to take to win at this level of highly competitive private schooling.
Stephenson and Brewster feel so strongly about the importance of black family support groups at majority white, wealthy schools, that they are creating a community engagement campaign. “We are working on helping parents across the country build these types of parent support clubs for their boys’ educational success,” Stephenson says.
Get the Kids Together
In a Q&A following a screening of the film, Idris credited an organization of black students for helping him get through high school. Diversity Awareness Initiative for Students (DAIS), “was founded by the parents of one African American female high school student who wanted to encourage more socialization among the students of color at independent schools in NYC. Little did they know how important this organization would end up being for these kids,” Stephenson says.
Stephenson says that DAIS created the same kind of safe space for her son that her parent-led support group did for her and her husband. Young people of color “across schools” could share their experiences with each other. Run by the young people themselves, DAIS members decide what their social events will be and identify topics for discussion at their monthly meetings. The social aspects of membership in DAIS may be most important of all for active members, especially as the “identity politics,” Stephenson says, that black students at majority white schools experience are complicated by young peoples’ growing awareness of “cultural, racial, and socio-economic factors.”
Young people in DC and throughout the nation can form an organization like DAIS, where they cease to be a minority on the margins of the school community and step into the center of a group of kids with similar school experiences, “somewhat free of having to face implicit bias and stereotypes.” Organizations like DAIS, Stephenson adds, can be “a bit of a life float for them.”
Hire Black Folks
In American Promise, an African American teacher leads a class discussion of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, “Invisible Man.” He challenges all the students, across racial lines, in their use of racialized language; indeed, he challenges the notion of race itself.
Even more important than the rich content of their class discussion, Stephenson asserts, may be the presence of a black male authority figure in a majority white institution. “Diversity benefits us all,” she says. “And the one major thing that having a Black male in a position of authority over white students does is break through the stereotypes we are all bombarded with day in and day out. It pierces through the implicit bias we all internalize. Perhaps white students will think twice about the black male they see walking down the street or that they meet in a public setting as a result of their experiences at school. The more diverse an experience all students have with faculty of all colors and nationalities, the less they can rely on cultural biases once they step out that door. They have encountered and exchanged with human beings not like them and have had to deal with them at a different level. If these experiences are properly taken advantage of and channeled by a school such as Dalton, the students will come out of it the wiser and more exposed as global citizens and can have a more complicated view of the world they live in.”
Hire a Director of Diversity
Stephenson says the presence of a head of diversity is “very important -- in fact crucial -- but it cannot be a token position. The students will see right through that both in terms of the respect they give to the person in that position and in how important they perceive the issue to be for the school.”
Read the Book
Stephenson and Brewster have written a book, scheduled for fall publication by Random House, called “Promises Kept: How to Help Black Boys Succeed in School and in Life.” “Caregivers will find all kinds of shared stories, experiences, as well as evidence based advice from experts, from the basics around the impact of nutrition on academic performance, to how to handle issues of implicit bias that a high schooler may encounter in school and on the street, to a very deep discussion about parenting styles that will make parents think twice about their relationships with their child as well as reflect on how they themselves were raised,” Stephenson says. “There will be much for parents and communities to discuss regarding how do we as caregivers of the next generation want to provide in terms of preparation for the outside world.”
And, Most Importantly, Love Them
During a Q&A following a screening of American Promise, Brewster said that black boys are the most likely of every demographic in this country to be punished by teachers, by people in their communities - and by their own parents.
Stephenson says that “the bottom line is that our job as parents is to be there for them. That they know they are loved. It is, of course, crucial that we maintain high expectations, surround our boys with the right positive reinforcement (it can be hard to be consistent on that one), and stay involved with those who are influencing the opportunities and experiences our boys are having in school and their wider education.”
Though admission to an independent school is a privilege, a school culture that honors the potential of each individual child is a right. In schools with pedigrees going back 100 years, to a time when Irish, Italian, and Jewish students, as well as girls, were often barred from admission, African American students today will likely encounter young people and adults whose only daily contact with people of color is limited to the handful of non-white people in the school building.
Even in cities as diverse as DC, once lovingly called Chocolate City by the majority black residents who lived in the district, the problem of segregation has disabled the potential to form enduring, intimate, organic relationships with black people from a diverse range of personal and professional backgrounds.
There is so much to overcome, and parents of black children have to take the lead in supporting diversity efforts in wealthy, majority white schools – public or private. American Promise will help all members of a school community begin the sometimes difficult conversations that will help institutions respect the specific, individual needs of every young person who arrives on the first day, gleeful, bright-eager, eager to do well, eager to learn.
Eisa Ulen has an MA from Teachers College Columbia University and over 20 years of teaching experience. Contact her online at EisaUlen.com or on Twitter @EisaUlen.