Prep schools casting an eye on inner city

November 04, 1990|By Will Englund

Private school people often talk about values, and the values they emphasize are those of the culture they serve. Elite private schools help to cement youngsters into the world of their parents. And the parents are happy to pay for the service.

But what about other children? Do they have any place in that world?

More and more private school administrators believe they do. It has become stylish to talk about reaching out to children whose lives are worlds away from the sweeping lawns and leather-bound libraries that mark the typical prep school. Private schools are casting an eye on the inner cities.

A conference last weekend at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore on just that topic brought participants from as far away as California. Their aim, as one speaker, Lisbeth B. Schorr, put it, is "bridging the worlds of privilege and disadvantage."

It's not easy for schools to build that bridge. But it's also not always easy for young black and Hispanic children to walk across it.

John A. Wilkinson, the head of Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, read a remarkable essay by a student who lives in the slums of North Philadelphia. Referring to himself in the third person, the student wrote that he had to learn to wear a mask at school -- a "good, quiet, well-behaved mask."

But at home, every afternoon, he must take that mask off again, so that he is not taken for "a punk, a pussy or a faggot."

He described his neighborhood as "a place where violence and death exist, as common as the leaves falling off the trees in the fall."

But he went further and wrote as well about the strengths of his neighborhood, about the bonding that takes place, the pride and family feeling. Ties in North Philadelphia, he wrote, are so strong that you would kill for a friend.

It's not like that at Germantown. Friendship is superficial, he wrote. People are genteel. But it's important to learn to get along in that world. He wears a mask, he wrote, because he wants to.

"He wants to survive in a society where achievement is measured by success," the student wrote of himself. "He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it."

Mr. Wilkinson -- who mentioned that the last time he had been in Baltimore was when he was in jail here in 1963 after a desegregation demonstration -- seems every inch the prep school headmaster. Yale-educated, with neat bow tie, regimental mustache and leather patches on the elbows of his tweedy suit, he nevertheless has helped to push Germantown Friends into increasing its minority enrollment to 33 percent of the student body.

Still, he finds that the school staff has far to go to understand the needs of many of those students. Private school teachers don't realize how daunting it is to face the Scholastic Aptitute Test and apply to college when no one in your family and none of your friends has ever done it before you. They don't realize how difficult it is just to get a pair of eyeglasses when you can't afford to walk into an optician's and simply buy them.

And issues like that, said Pearl R. Kane of Teachers College at Columbia University, absolutely must be addressed. If teachers are unwilling to understand children of a different culture, she said, and if the school curriculum has nothing to say to those students, they will become alienated and the whole experience will turn into nothing more than an exercise in fruitless do-goodism.

But she cast the issue in terms that could only flatter the private schools. Such schools have traditionally turned out the country's leaders, she said (although some might debate the point). As America changes, the leaders it will need in the future must not be composed of people from a narrow ethnic group who have spent their years with like-minded people, she said.

"Schools that are overwhelmingly white and privileged can no longer claim to be providing training for prospective leaders," she said.

Currently, 13 percent of private school enrollment is of minority children, "but we are talking about radical changes in the ethnic rTC composition of independent schools," Ms. Kane said.

Moreover, she went on, public schools simply are not working for many youngsters. But private schools know what to do, she said: They are "success-oriented," have high expectations for all students and expect hard work of their low-paid teachers.

And, as Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund said at the conference, it is minority children whose destinies are most often closed off in public schools.

Can independent schools come to the rescue?

Directly, not in a big way. They can make a difference in the lives of their students, but they enroll just 2 1/2 percent of the nation's schoolchildren. And they have their well-to-do communities to think of. Bryn Mawr toyed last summer with the idea of enrolling teen-age mothers from Baltimore, but backed off.

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