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Colorblindness, Comfort, and Amalgamation: Diversity and Inclusion in California Independent Schools

  • Author(s): Eshoo, Karen Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): Mintrop, Rick
  • et al.
Abstract

Independent schools across the country - which historically have served almost exclusively the children of the elite class - have made significant strides in increasing their percentages of students of color and students who participate in financial aid in recent decades. This exploratory study investigates the manifestation of increased racial/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in these schools’ cultures, and the perception of administrators, faculty and parents of its impact. I first sought to understand how administrators, teachers, and “typical” independent school parents assign value to racial/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in California independent schools, relative to other priorities they hold. Second, I sought to understand how these actors perceive the extent to which students of color and students on financial aid are fully included in the life of the school, insofar as they are accepted as full members of school communities with unfettered access to all school resources. Since there is a dearth of research on independent schools, particularly on topics related to diversity and inclusion, this study is a first attempt at understanding the meaning of diversity and inclusion for this specific population.

This study found that actors place high value on a positive school culture when choosing an independent school – as high a value as a strong academic program – and that the desire to preserve school cultures that feel “comfortable,” “warm,” and “nice” persists and deepens once they have joined a school community. While all participants in this study expressed satisfaction in the diversity of the student population in their schools, they rarely described the value of the presence of these “atypical” students from diverse racial/ethnic and socioeconomic background in moral or political terms. Instead, they tended to cast diversity as strong preparation for life in a “real world” that is increasingly globalized and multicultural, and as a value add for “typical” students’ social experiences. However, this study also found that, despite these positive attitudes towards diversity, there also existed expectations for a certain level of homogeneity within their communities that served as the glue that holds the school culture together. That homogeneity is characterized by similar academic capability and attitude, as well as behaviors; these factors contribute to the positive school culture, and the value that actors’ attached to it. Symbolic boundaries that exist to sort students into in-groups and out-groups and thus silence divergent and disruptive voices, also contribute to positive school culture. While an expectation of assimilation of “atypical” students is usually rejected as outdated, expectations of amalgamation are clearly present in these school cultures. These attitudes and values have major implications for schools’ ability to build inclusive community, since the very strengths associated with communities of mostly like-minded employees and families leaves little room, if any, for recognition of differences, divergent opinions or disruptive conversations that might spark deeper organizational change.

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