Private schools seek diversity Cost, image have deterred minorities


In Jamal Booker's eighth-grade class of 28 children at the Key School in Annapolis, only two other students are black. Had he attended Annapolis Middle School, where 56 percent of the students are minorities, his class would certainly have been more racially diverse.

Yet Jamal has thrived at the private school.

"Financially it's a hardship, but we think it's worth it," said Jack Booker, Jamal's father. "Academically he's done quite well because of the class size. He's become one of the leaders, instead of one of the followers."

Nonetheless, the image of halls filled with the sons and daughters of society's elite, mostly white families hounds the county's private, independent schools.

"Private schools are not just for the elite," insisted Malcolm Kelly, director of development for the Key School. "We're seeking representatives of all walks of life, and different ethnic and financial backgrounds. We know we need to have many more black students. We're trying to build a network and we're trying to be up front about it. We'll try to give financial help to anyone who qualifies."

At the Key School, about 9 percent of its students, 45 of 511, are minorities.

The school is striving for 15 percent minority enrollment. Faculty, staff and parents will meet tomorrow to discuss how to better provide for the needs of minority students and how to recruit more.

Over at the Severn School in Severna Park, the minority population has increased steadily over the past nine years: of the school's 445 students, 12.3 percent are minorities, including African-American, Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

Headmaster Edson P. Sheppard Jr., however, says the culturally elite image persists.

"Many people are going to look upon private schools as the home of the privileged," he said. "Increasing minority enrollment is not a new movement, it's an ongoing movement."

Why do so few minority families enroll their children in the county's private, independent schools?

"Black families didn't know anything about the schools, and hence they weren't interested," said Fran Minges, director of development for the Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust, a Baltimore-based consortium of 19 area independent schools created to attract black students and provide financial aid if they need it. Key and Severn are the only two private county schools that belong to the organization.

Ms. Minges said the schools in the consortium have minority enrollments ranging from 3 percent to 14 percent, and are aiming for 15 percent minority enrollment -- which would mirror the percentage of minorities in Anne Arundel County's current population, according to U.S. Census figures.

Census statistics show the black population of the county has risen from 11.6 percent, or 42,860, in 1980 to 11.9 percent, or 50,525, in 1990.

"We have been putting lots of energy into minority enrollment," said Rebecca Randolph, co-founder of the Indian Creek School in Crownsville. "We recognize that parents make an enormous ** investment when they entrust a student to a predominantly white school."

She said part of the reason Indian Creek has a mere 27 minority students out of 415 is that the school is only 20 years old.

"We've been evolving, but our goal has always been cultural diversity," Ms. Randolph said.

The school has been more successful at the elementary level. In some classes, the minority enrollment is as high as 25 percent.

"We believe that by taking minorities in while the students are young and innocent, that it will all be very natural," said Ms. Randolph. "When children are three and four, they don't even understand what a minority is, and they certainly don't see it in a derogatory way."

For other schools, like the Gibson Island Country School on Windmill Point, where there are 85 students and a minority enrollment of just 3 or 4 percent, the problem is simply geographic.

"We are in a small community at the end of a peninsula," said John Hewitt, the school's headmaster. "We have very little diversity. . . . It's just the nature of the community. . . . the battle is to get people to travel 20 minutes or a half hour from where they may be living to bring their child to school. We have to say 'Please, come look at us. We are very interested in diversifying.' "

Another reason some minority parents may shy away from private schools is tuition, said Mr. Booker, whose son has attended the Key School for four years.

"You have a tendency to say you can't afford it," he said. "But we sat down and talked about it as a family."

For families that truly cannot afford it, private schools may still be an option through the Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust and some of the financial-aid programs available at the schools.

"My advice to minority parents would be to research the school. Don't make a snap decision or uninformed decision. Talk with your child," Mr. Booker said.

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