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


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.

"These people are going to be decision-makers, and they need to learn how to make those decisions with other people who don't look like them," says Marlene David, head of Bryn Mawr's upper school.

At Boys' Latin, Terry Howell was the lone black teacher for 14 years, until two others were hired in the past two years.

One of them is Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Class of 1986 and a Baltimore city councilman. A lawyer, he turned down a job with a law firm after the headmaster, Dr. M. Mercer Neale III, asked him to teach there.

Mitchell marvels at how the school has changed: "When I was here as a student, I never would have dreamed that Boys' Latin would ever have a gospel choir and a Multicultural Club."

In January, Mitchell will teach a new upper school elective: African-American history.

Lynette Brooks-Cunningham is another pioneer. The first black pupil at St. Paul's School for Girls when she enrolled in 1969, she is sending daughters Devin, a senior, and Micah, a 10th-grader, there.

After graduating in 1974, family responsibilities -- including marriage and three children -- kept Brooks-Cunningham from reaching her goals of completing college in four years and beginning a nursing career. But after attending college intermittently for years, she plans to graduate from Coppin State College and begin nursing school in the spring.

The West Baltimore resident has fond memories of St. Paul's: "I went on sleep-overs and most people went out of their way to be nice. I suppose my classmates sought out my friendship because I was so different from them.

"Because I had such a positive experience, I thought that was the place for [Devin and Micah] to go. It offers a better education than you can get in public school."

After-school activities reflect the growing diversity, too. Gospel choirs have formed at Bryn Mawr and St. Paul's School for Girls. Students from Boys' Latin and Roland Park have formed another gospel choir that sings at school events and churches.

Black students say the choirs, black awareness clubs and increasing presence of minority students and faculty make them feel more a part of their schools.

When Davida Moses went to Garrison Forest School four years ago, "There must have been about 12 blacks in the upper school. It was difficult. There was no one to talk to," says the African-American boarding student, who had attended a New York City public school that enrolled only blacks and Hispanics.

This year, Garrison Forest has 109 minority students, including 56 blacks, among its 547 students.

Still, minority students experience uncomfortable moments.

Last year, black athletes from Garrison Forest were called names with racial overtones during athletic events with other schools, says Davida.

And last spring's "yo-boy" party touched a nerve.

'Not meant to disparage'

Boys' Latin, Gilman and Roland Park Country held several meetings -- with some students bursting into tears -- to discuss the matter. The party's host, whose name Boys' Latin would not release, apologized to students and faculty members who were offended, Neale says.

The party, one in a series including disco and western themes, "was not meant to disparage African-Americans," Neale says. "What came out of this is an awareness -- a healthy one. I don't think anyone will do anything like this again."

Krishna Tripuraneini, a Gilman senior whose parents are doctors of East Indian origin, dismisses the party as the work of immature students. But John Park, a Gilman sophomore whose Korean-American parents own women's clothing stores downtown, laments that such racially tinged events still occur.

Park resents classmates who stereotype him as a straight-A student destined to become valedictorian of his class.

"I don't want people to assume that they know me based on the color of my skin."

Pub Date: 12/02/96

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