In October, I had the opportunity to attend Beacon Academy’s 13th Annual Symposium on Race and Class in Boston, where I heard important stories from Beacon students and alumni that made plain some of the ongoing challenges within elite, historically white schools as they strive to become safer and more welcoming places for diverse student bodies.
Before I moved to the Boston area in 2017, I did not know about Beacon Academy. A relatively new school, Beacon has quickly become, well, a local beacon lighting the way toward greater educational access and equity within the independent school world. If you want to learn a little more, the school and its students are the subject of psychologist Deborah Offner’s recent NAIS article, “Student Perspectives on Navigating Race and Class in Elite Spaces.“
According to Offner, who worked with Beacon students for a few years when she was at the Commonwealth School in Boston, Beacon offers a unique “private, philanthropically funded ‘extra year’ of school between eighth and ninth grade that prepares motivated, promising urban students for success in independent day and boarding schools.” Its students leave their neighborhood schools to attend Beacon for a year before leaving Beacon and each other for different independent day and boarding schools.
When I think about that simple premise — that a group of 13 and 14 year olds will leave their schools to attend not one but two brand new schools in a condensed period of time — I am struck by how brave these young people are to take on so much risk and discomfort in the pursuit of education. I am also struck by how disorienting it must be for them to have to navigate new curricula, new pedagogies, and perhaps as important, new school cultures.
During the symposium, Beacon students and alumni — all students of color, some first generation high schoolers — shared their experiences of leaving Beacon for the world of independent schools. Their stories brimmed with challenging and complex issues centered around race and class. One student at my table explained how when her financial aid package changed as a result of a new school policy, she and her family felt tremendous pressure to find enough money to pay the balance. “I don’t know how my mother found that money, but she did. To this day she won’t tell me how she did it.” Another student described feeling excluded when wealthier peers went out for lunch or purchased, without a moment’s pause, a sweatshirt or jacket with their school logo.
Economics were in fact the focus of the afternoon session, titled “Effective Academic and Financial Policies for Low-Income Families.” In addition to working through case studies concerning some of the academic and financial policies impacting students from diverse backgrounds, symposium attendees were given a “blind spot checker,” a list of things that schools can and should do to avoid socio-economic bias, discrimination, and exclusion their daily practices. The list ranged from the classroom (e.g., providing cost-free test preparation and tutoring) to the hallways (e.g., offering funds for class rings or other “symbolic artifacts” important to the student body).
Inclusivity. Opportunity. Support. Although much progress has been made by independent schools to diversify and enrich their student bodies, the experiences of Beacon students make clear that more work needs to be done to smooth the road where these students tread. To be certain, there were inspiring stories shared throughout the day, too — to a person, Beacon graduates were appreciative of their opportunities and felt that they had made, and were continuing to make, the absolute most of them.