Diversity at private schools is expanding Number of minorities rises at 12 institutions

December 02, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven and Mary Maushard | Marilyn McCraven and Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Elijah E. Cummings looked heavenward and cried: "Martin, can you believe I'm here at Roland Park Country School and we're celebrating your birthday?"

The passionate remark by the 7th District congressman -- delivered at Roland Park's Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in January -- could have been made at a number of Baltimore's top private schools. Although they integrated a generation ago, only in the past year or two has minority enrollment risen to a level where campus culture is changing -- inside and outside the classroom.

Most of the independent schools surveyed for this article routinely hold ceremonies marking the civil rights leader's birthday, Black History Month and Kwanzaa, the African-American harvest festival. "Awareness clubs" -- for blacks, Asian-Americans and other minorities -- are commonplace. And schools have started three gospel choirs in recent years.

Nearly all of these schools have someone responsible for curriculum diversity. As a result, works by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are as likely to be found on reading lists as Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain. History exclusively told through the deeds of Western white men has been jettisoned by some for a more inclusive approach.

"We've come a long, long way. Eight or 10 of the independent schools are more diverse than many of the [suburban] public schools," says A. Hamilton Bishop III, former headmaster at Odyssey and Boys' Latin schools and a former Gilman School teacher.

Today, 1,400 minority students, accounting for 17 percent of the total, are enrolled in the dozen independent schools -- Gilman, Bryn Mawr and the St. Paul's schools among them. Roughly half of the minorities are African-Americans.

But diversity is still a work in progress for these schools, which have educated generations of Baltimore's elite.

Tension and misunderstandings remain, and minority teachers and administrators remain scarce.

Last spring, for example, tensions climbed at Boys' Latin, Gilman and Roland Park after a "yo-boy" party -- at which many of the all-white partygoers dressed like rap singers -- was held at the home of a Boys' Latin student and attended by students from the other schools.

"That party really ruined the last weeks of school for us, but it didn't make me hate anybody," says Dawn Welch, a black Roland Park graduate attending the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. "It just showed me how far we have to go."

First blacks students

Still, the schools have come a long way. A generation ago, Friends School and the Park School were among the first to admit blacks after the Supreme Court outlawed public school segregation.

In the late 1960s, longtime Gilman Headmaster Redmond C. S. Finney became a leader in private school desegregation, aggressively recruiting minority students and faculty. Upon his retirement in 1992, minorities made up 30 percent of Gilman's student body.

"It was somewhat of a painful experience for some schools. They have an environment that realistically was not created for these children," says Greg Roberts, former executive director of Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust, or BEST, which recruits black city youngsters and raises money to help them attend independent schools.

Roberts has watched the schools become more welcoming.

"It can be just little things, such as where to hold a parent meeting," he says. "Instead of holding it in a parent's home, hold it at the school," where everyone is comfortable.

Other signs of change:

Of the 28 administrators and teachers hired at Park in the past two years, seven were African-American, two Hispanic -- an unprecedented rate of minority hiring there.

St. Paul's School for Girls, where minority enrollment has more than doubled to 17 percent since 1994, has set aside more money for financial aid.

At Roland Park, black parents and others raised $25,000 to create a library "resource center" named for civil rights activist Juanita Jackson Mitchell, whose portrait is as prominently displayed as that of the woman for whom the library is named. In 1992, Headmistress Jean Brune became the first head of a local private school to hire a coordinator of multicultural affairs, Evelyn McClarry, whose influence stretches from the curriculum to social activities.

Diversity will be the main topic when about 700 students and teachers participate in the annual People of Color Conference, sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools, from Wednesday through Saturday in Baltimore. Among the issues: assimilation, student-teacher relations and teacher training.

Changing demographics and economics are key to the schools' transformation. The number of area residents of Asian and Hispanic origin is growing, and more African-American families are choosing independent schools.

Also, some white parents see diversity as a way to prepare their children for a changing workplace, school officials say.

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