Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Diversity is a must!

As the dawn of a new school year is upon us I was struck by the number of missing faces in my neighborhood school. Over the past few weeks I have talked to at least a dozen parents who have jumped ship and invested their savings, and their hopes and dreams, in private schools. I understand the frustration and have entertained the option more than a few times myself. But, as I look at the diversity across my child’s public school classroom I wonder if parents are counting the cost of what they are leaving behind.

Academic prowess has become the goal of most parents. Parents do everything they can to give their child an “edge.” Parents put children in tutoring so they can get ahead and maintain their advantage. In an effort to secure a Harvard acceptance letter, parents invest thousands of dollars a year buying workbooks, software, educational toys and games, music lessons and enrichment camps and classes. Few parents devote as much time, thought or energy focused on their child’s psychosocial development.

I value traditional academics, but when I think about educating my children I do not think about factual knowledge. I want my children to think, reason, and analyze, but I also want them to think globally; to understand their place in the world and the impact they can make. I want them to be compassionate, empathetic, and altruistic. I want my children exposed to as many different people, environments, and beliefs as possible. I have toured the many private schools over the years, many of which have superior educational programs, but consistently there is one thing missing: Diversity!

As a parent of a minority child, lack of diversity was a deal breaker. Despite my mounting concerns with the academic deficiencies of my neighborhood school, I could not enroll my daughter in a school where she might be the only minority in her class, and in some cases, the only child of color in her grade level.

Minority status aside, lack of diversity should be a deal breaker for parents of ALL children. All children benefit from spending time with people who are different from them. Children as young as 3 and 4 years old have already begun developing biases and beliefs about people who are similar to them and people who are different from them – and these early beliefs persist throughout middle childhood, and often last a lifetime. Children who live, play, and learn in diverse settings have a more nuanced understanding of themselves and others. When parents give children the opportunity to cross boundaries (e.g., racial, cultural, economic, etc.) they minimize bias, prejudice, and discrimination and increase self-awareness, cross-cultural understanding and acceptance.

My child’s school is not the most diverse, but the diversity in our neighborhood school is at least 75% greater than any private school I have visited over the years. During open house I observed different races, cultures, and varying levels of socioeconomic status. Additionally, I expect there are varying levels of academic preparedness, intention, and ability. So, despite my nagging concerns about whether my daughter is maximizing her academic potential I get satisfaction in knowing that when she looks around her classroom she sees people who look like her and those who do not, when she attends birthday parties she will see people who live like her and those who do not, and when she is grouped with other students there will be students who are academically superior and those who need a little extra help. My hope is that her experiences will minimize her biases, help her identify the similarities among us, and teach her an appreciation for that which makes us unique.