This week's Sunday Long Read is from NY Magazine's Lisa Miller, reporting on Fieldston Lower School, a Bronx private school that began an experiment to deal with race and racism in America head on, starting in the third grade.
In recent years, under the direction of its principal, George Burns, Lower has come to look a lot less like the white, mostly Jewish Riverdale neighborhood that encircles the school and more like the Bronx in general. Just fewer than half the kids at Lower are white. Twenty percent are black or Latino, and another 20 percent multiracial. The remainder are Asian or won’t say, making Lower one of the most racially diverse private elementary schools in New York. This has been a big change (when Burns took the job 16 years ago, about 20 percent of the students were kids of color), but as this parent body sees it, it’s all to the good. Lower has always been a progressive place, and in 2015, many are happy to see it as a kind of racial utopia, too.
Now the school was promising to do even more in the name of racial equity, offering a pioneering new curriculum designed to give its youngest students the tools they’d need to navigate their own futures — and to bolster Fieldston’s sense of itself as a standard-bearer in progressive education. The program, which was also put in place this school year at Ethical Culture, Fieldston’s other elementary school, would boost self-esteem and a sense of belonging among minority kids while combating the racism, subtle or otherwise, that can permeate historically white environments. It would foster interracial empathy by encouraging children to recognize differences without disrespect while teaching kids strategies, and the language, for navigating racial conflict. Efforts like this had been popping up around the country over the past decade in progressive private schools and public schools wrestling in more direct ways with the tangle of race and achievement. Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has developed an anti-bias curriculum that 16,000 teachers have downloaded since it became available in September. The Anti-Defamation League does training for kids and teachers in schools — 200 a year in Connecticut alone. And Welcoming Schools, connected with the Human Rights Campaign, helps train the staffs of elementary schools for this kind of learning, traveling last year to Boulder, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Arkansas. In Gallup, New Mexico, a fifth-grade class planned and staged a community arts crawl showcasing the theme “Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action.” In Greenville, Alabama, fourth-graders made picture books answering the question “How have people fought for what is right at different times in history?” and then read them aloud to the school’s second-graders.
But Fieldston’s program would be bolder, more radical: It would be mandatory rather than voluntary, and built into the school day itself; it would compel participation from children of all races who would at first be separated into racial “affinity groups”; and it would start in the third grade, with 8-year-olds, an age when many of the kids have only an inchoate sense of what “racial identity” means. It would be a boundary-pushing experiment, in other words, in a place that seemed exceptionally hospitable to progressive experimentation — but also, undeniably, a privileged and racially anomalous bubble. Fieldston’s unusual identity gave it a better shot than most schools, perhaps, at making this work; and if it did work, its administrators thought, the impact might reach far beyond its cloister.
To all these ends, the third- , fourth- , and fifth-graders at Lower were to be divided once a week for five weeks into small groups according to their race. In 45-minute sessions, children would talk about what it was like to be a member of that race; they would discuss what they had in common with each other and how they were different, how other people perceived them, rightly or wrongly, based on appearance. Disinhibited by the company of racially different peers, the children would, the school hoped, feel free to raise questions and make observations that in mixed company might be considered impolite. The bigger goal was to initiate a cultural upheaval, one that would finally give students of color a sense of equal ownership in the community. Once the smaller race groups had broken up, the children would gather in a mixed-race setting to share, and discuss, the insights they had gained. Then — after all this — their regularly scheduled school day would continue: math, English, social studies, science, gym.
The kids seem to respond pretty well to the program. The parents...well...they're the ones that were taught the most valuable lessons. It's a good read.