Most private or independent schools originated as schools of privilege, serving the offspring of a culturally and socially elite group of white American families (Cookson, 2013; Flewelling, 2013; Slaughter-Defoe & Johnson, 1988). Since the 1960s these institutions have worked to change their predominantly White, elitist image by broadening their access and striving to become diverse and inclusive institutions that prepare all students to “thrive in a global, multicultural community” (Quanti, 2013, p. 13).
Although independent schools have made some progress toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, more work remains (Bisgaard, 2005). Independent schools continue to serve low numbers of historically underrepresented groups, such as African American and Latino students. These students often feel disconnected from their school community (Arrington, Hall, & Stevenson, 2003; National Association of Independent Schools [NAIS], 2015; White & Boyd, 2015). Despite increases in numerical diversity, some schools continue to lack the appropriate systems to support students of color, particularly through faculty professional development, curricula, and school programming (Stevenson, 2014). Research stresses the importance of schools engaging in strategic planning for diversity and inclusion along with continual monitoring and assessment to identify any “gaps between [a] school’s vision and its current reality and direction” (Arrington et al., 2003; Harris, 2013, p. 44).
This qualitative multi-site case study investigated how three Southern California member schools of the National Association of Independent Schools and the California Association of Independent Schools take their espoused commitments related to diversity, equity, and inclusion and make them the lived experience of the school. The study examined how these institutions carry out, monitor, and measure their stated goals related to these topics, particularly through recruitment practices, curricula, and professional development. Finally, this study investigated the barriers schools face in this work.
The findings from this study demonstrated that independent schools continue to need programs and policies that support diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as tools to evaluate the outcomes of such initiatives. Across the three schools the barriers of silence, discomfort, and a lack of engagement around diversity, equity, and inclusion hindered further progress in this work. These reactions to diversity, equity, and inclusion relate to White privilege and White fragility and result in slow cultural and organizational change within historically White independent schools (DiAngelo, 2011; Hossain, 2015).