Shavout Begins at Sunset
From its origins as a neighborhood school founded in 1965, Saint Ann’s School has evolved and grown in myriad ways. Defining itself as a school for gifted children, and founded at a moment when Brooklyn Heights and the neighborhoods immediately proximate to it were more socio-economically and racially diverse than they are today, in our first several decades, student diversity in various forms was less a function of deliberate policy than circumstance. Through much of its history Saint Ann’s was not systematically committed to diversity and equity as a matter of institutional practice and priority, and other aspects of identity were similarly de-emphasized in our focus on individual students and teachers as vessels of possibility. However, from our earliest years we aspired to reflect the heterogeneity of New York City, and that aspiration became over time a crucial foundation for the work we undertake in the present.
Eventually we entered into partnerships to further the work of making Saint Ann’s a more diverse and inclusive school. Working with partners such as Early Steps, Prep for Prep, the TEAK Fellowship, and the Oliver Scholars, Saint Ann’s sought out talented students from across New York City who would thrive in our unique educational program.
Over the past decade Saint Ann’s has focused its efforts to become a more equitable school on four main areas: hiring, where we have sought to ensure that every new teacher or administrator is drawn from a pool of diverse candidates, and have made racial diversity an important consideration in each search; admissions, where we have taken multiple steps to ensure that our applicant pool and our accepted students reflect the racial and socio-eonomic diversity of the city around us; curriculum, where we have brought voices, topics, texts, and viewpoints that were previously absent into our classrooms; and school culture, where we have sought to increase awareness and fluency, so that when issues related to identity come up, the discourse is vibrant and affirming. Additionally, we have examined many aspects of what we do with an equity lens. We have deliberately moved from a posture of color-blindness to one that recognizes the unbounded potential of each individual student and embraces each individual’s identity and belonging as a full and equal member of the school community. Some of these efforts have resulted in concrete changes in practice and/or policy aimed towards reducing disparate impact or experiences for our students or employees.
In the academic year 2016-2017, the school created the position of Director of Diversity and Institutional Equity. This senior administrator reports directly to the head of school and oversees all efforts related to diversity, inclusion, and institutional equity.
Diversity is a feature of groups, communities and populations. Individuals cannot and should not be described as having or representing diversity, which would imply that some individuals embody diversity and others lack it. To describe diversity in such a way serves to reinscribe hegemonic status to some individuals because of their belonging (or perceived belonging) to certain groups. While the philosophical principles that undergird the work of diversity and equity at Saint Ann’s deviate from these inherited problematic notions, striving towards a more equitable school must include contending with the historical legacy of precisely those dynamics that have dehumanized certain individuals, groups, or populations. This has happened most saliently in the United States around the construct of race. Therefore, the work of creating a more equitable school focuses on race and racism, while incorporating many other aspects of identity and other sociopolitical factors that have historically been axes of disparity, inequity, or injustice. This is what is often meant by intersectional practice, and it is a feature of the work as we approach it at Saint Ann’s. Having an intersectional lens, however, does not mean a flattening of all experience as equivalent, as that has the potential to minimize actual disparate impact. (Indeed, highlighting disparate impact was an original feature of intersectional oppression analysis in legal/critical race theory.)
It is this conflation of theory, knowledge, and practice that undergirds our work at Saint Ann’s. One feature of our approach is the understanding of the processes and dynamics of organizational/institutional change and innovation. Another is an understanding of the difference between the symbolic and the actual: what may be satisfying in the now may not actually lead to a sustainable change in practice or lived experience. Yet symbols and markers, even if superficial, can be very meaningful to all of us; for instance, the very existence of an administrative position charged with overseeing these efforts communicates institutional priorities and values, even though the work of becoming a more equitable institution cannot rest solely on what one individual administrator does. Our approach also incorporates an understanding of child, adolescent, and adult development vis-à-vis identity and sociopolitical life in the context of New York City and the U.S., as well as multiple–and sometimes conflicting–moral and ethical ideologies.
At its core, creating a more equitable school is ultimately about examining or changing everything in it. That process is, by definition, ground-breaking and usually very slow–but ultimately deeply meaningful and joyful.