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Going to an Elite School
New York public schools are 40 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African-American, 15 percent Asian, and about 14 percent white. However, when it comes to private and Independent schools the demographics are reversed. For despite vigorous and successful efforts to create a diverse student population, New York City Independent and private schools continue to have a much whiter student body than the public schools. So, during the 2011-12 school year, 29.8 percent of children at the city's private schools were minority students, including African-American, Hispanic and Asian children, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, up from 21.4 percent a decade ago.
In 2011, Dalton School - an intensely competitive, high pressure Upper East Side private school, whose annual tuition is $36,970, promoted the fact that nearly half its incoming kindergarten class will be students of color. It was a big change from 1995 when only 6 percent were. No one can fault New York private schools like Dalton for not aggressively working at achieving diversity, creating forums for discussion about race and privilege, and offering a great deal of financial aid to students who have difficulty meeting the steep tuition. But the effort to create a diverse student body is never a seamless one.
A recent illuminating and intimate vérité documentary American Promise depicts the difficulties that particularly black (male) adolescents have in adjusting to schools like Dalton. Its filmmakers are Joe Brewster (a psychiatrist and Stanford and Harvard graduate) and his partner, Michele Stephenson (a Columbia law school grad) who committed 12 years of their family's life to charting the progress of their son Idris and his friend Seun from kindergarten through middle school at Dalton, where their paths then diverged. Brewster and Stephenson and Seun's parents view the public schools as inadequate; they see Dalton (with a touch of wariness) as offering their sons a much richer educational curriculum and future lives with many more options.
However, their sons' experience at Dalton has its painful moments, and is never free of problems. Though both Idris and Sean are middle class, and live in their own private homes on tree-lined streets in Brooklyn's rapidly gentrifying Fort Greene, they feel somewhat isolated attending a school with many white students that are the progeny of Upper East Side wealth.
Seun is a reticent, reflective and deeply feeling boy, whose mother is a warm and perceptive nursing care manager and his caring father a systems engineer for CBS. Both emanate earnestness and sweetness. However, Seun doesn't hand in his assignments and performs badly academically (he carries the added burden of dyslexia). After middle school, he leaves Dalton for an almost all-black, good Brooklyn public high school, Benjamin Banneker Academy, where he is clearly more comfortable and much happier. The film's directors center much of their attention on Idris, their small, vulnerable, lively son, whose lack of ability to focus and whose acting out in class is diagnosed as partially caused by ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Although racial difference may play a role in his difficulties, the boy faces no overt racism from students and staff at Dalton. In fact, the school's staff is aware that diversity doesn't work automatically, that it takes a special effort on their part. Some of Idris's problems are those of any pre-adolescent - black or white - whose bodies are changing and who find making the basketball team, fitting in socially and dealing with the opposite sex never comes easy. Still, race heightens Idris's difficulties. Idris recounts how he had to change his speech patterns with black friends at a summer basketball camp, and drop the way he talks to kids at Dalton. White girls at student parties also reject him as a dance partner.
And there is the constant pressure from his ambitious filmmaker parents (who have overcome their own disadvantaged pasts) to succeed at school. His parents provide a great deal of love, but, at the same time, are frustrated by his lack of discipline, and too impatient and anxious about his present and future success. Consequently, Idris can respond with irritation to his parents' sometimes being too hard on him, and their overly controlling homework regimens.
Nevertheless, Idris begins to mature in high school, becoming more responsible and successful. Despite his adjustment, one of the film's telling images observes Idris after his Dalton graduation, where it turns out that almost all his friends - boys and girls - are black. I don't know if most students at Dalton separate themselves socially by race, but Idris and his friends appear to do so.
Idris does not get in the college of his choice—Stanford, his father's alma mater - but though disappointed - he rebounds and looks forward to going to a less prestigious school - Occidental College in LA. The arc of his young life may not be dramatic, but the film makes it socially evocative.