When Race and Class Intersect with Learning: Little Things Matter 7 | Haiyun Lu | 7 Min Read

July 5, 2022

The first time I learned about proms in America was during the movie, “American Pie.”  My newly arrived Chinese brain couldn’t comprehend what I was watching.  My roommates were laughing up a storm, which irritated me even more.  In China, during preparation for the brutal college entrance exam, high school students were not even allowed to date, and that was written in the Student Handbook.  Watching a teenager practicing sex with an apple pie in the kitchen and worried he would be laughed at if he was still a virgin after prom was too ridiculous.  

Back then, I knew little about the significance of proms and other school-sponsored social events, and how much they could help teens to grow and learn to navigate through different social dynamics, develop important interpersonal skills, and foster a positive sense of self.

That realization was illustrated by the painful story a student of color shared with me recently, having attended a prestigious private school on the east coast.  K was a bright, talented student who received a full scholarship. Coming from a middle-class family, becoming a scholarship recipient at a prestigious private school, and receiving a top-notch education was like a dream come true.  She was cheerful, bubbly, grateful, and ambitious on the first day she arrived on the campus.  Unfortunately, that good feeling was rather evanescent.  Soon enough, she noticed how difficult it was for her to penetrate different friend groups, as more than half of her classmates had been attending since kindergarten or middle school.  In class, teachers often made references to a book or a project that students had done in middle school and assumed they all had that shared experience.  She felt bad for missing out and she was more worried if she revealed her deficiency, that she would be much “less of a student”.  Then, the amount of homework and the pace of the classes hit her hard.  In her previous school, as a superstar student, everything came easy.  She rarely had any work to do at home.  But in this distinguished private school, academic rigor was a virtue.  Suddenly she noticed that she was falling behind, juggling the homework load, and exhibiting poor time management. And she was not fitting in socially.

If that were not bad enough, being excluded from a homecoming after-party shattered her sense of self.  She has struggled with trust and anxiety ever since.

Unfortunately, for scholarship recipients in an esteemed private school, K’s experience was not an isolated incident.  Each year, throughout the nation, many private schools provide generous scholarships to diversify their student population.  On the surface, such a philanthropic act will upgrade a recipient’s educational career.  However, when race and class intersect with learning, prospects are not as simple or easy as it seems.

After having countless conversations with scholarship recipients and various adults from different schools, here are my findings as well as suggestions.

All scholarship recipients expressed a sense of gratitude for receiving an outstanding education at little or no cost.  Often, they speak highly of the advising program as a landing platform for them to be plugged in socially.  The uniform dress requirement in some schools took the pressure off what to wear, and also helped to develop a sense of belonging.  They have been mostly impressed by their teachers’ willingness to help and support.  

When I asked what they wished they knew prior to attending an independent school, four themes emerged from the empathy interview.  

  1. How rigorous an independent school’s curriculum is and how much time they need to study.  In their old schools, the curriculum was too easy, and they often did not have much homework to do.  Therefore, managing the homework load, and experiencing a much faster pace and more challenging curriculum can be overwhelming.
  2. How little teachers understand their academic background.  Many teachers make comments like, “You all read the book XX in middle school.”  Or teachers assign projects that involve various technology tools, and they assume everyone is proficient with that tool.  This assumption makes it difficult for the student to seek help, as they fear being viewed as “stupid” or “inadequate”. 
  3. How difficult it is to make friends as a new financial aid student.  One student shared that during his freshman year, he was fearful of the open seating at lunch. He looked around everywhere, but did not know where he could sit.  That kind of awkward and terrifying feeling stayed with him for several months.  Another student shared that due to the socio-economic gaps she had with many students there, she was not able to participate in many of the social functions, as everything costs money.  Simple things like going to a birthday party, hanging out on the weekend, and going out to dinner could only happen as a special treat, but for lots of wealthy students, it was a norm.  It prevented this student from making friends and fitting in. 
  4. As they were grateful to receive their financially-assisted education, they also wished they could take advantage of many offerings at the school.  A student shared that when it comes to participating in the robotics team tournament, or traveling on a domestic or international trip, they were often put into an impossible position if they were to enjoy any of these opportunities because their families could not afford the additional costs.  

From speaking with various teachers and admins in the building, there were four additional themes that stood out clearly.  

  1. On an individual level, every teacher/admin cares a great deal about each student’s success.  Every adult is willing to do their fair share and even go above and beyond to help students succeed. 
  2. Neither teachers nor admins have been trained adequately to recognize and deal effectively with scholarship recipients’ needs.  They have good intentions and wish they could better help them.  However, the situation is often left to teachers’ individual devices. The need for a coherent and systematic approach is urgent. 
  3. As a historically white, affluent school with years of traditions, the hiring practices, the referral system, and the current staff have all contributed to the great challenges of bringing in strong diverse candidates as new blood.  Even after people of color are hired to be on the faculty team, the turnover has been high due to a lack of community adjustment. 
  4. Speaking of fitting in socially and participating in various school-sponsored events and activities, if there is no specific financial assistance offered, the challenge will always remain.  Most private school tuition has been set in the aggregate for over a century, obfuscating the specific and sometimes unplanned needs disadvantaged students will face.  Rethinking the funding of financial aid students is a challenging job and if it is not dealt with diplomatically, it could easily backfire.  

Therefore, given both the available resources and realistic constraints, what can we do?  

 I believe there are still a lot of things that we can do for these students. 

  1. Organize a senior forum: What I wish I knew as a financial aid student of color when I was a freshman.  Invite graduating students to share their ups and downs during their four-year high school career.  They might use personal anecdotes, experiences, and stories to inform, educate, and inspire teachers and students.  
  2. Create a one-on-one mentoring program matching these students with alumni of color and/or upper school classmates. It is a quick and effective way to provide representation, role models, and mentorship in one service.  It does not require much financial investment.  It can foster a sense of connection and belonging for the students and fulfill the void that is caused by the lack of a diverse faculty body.  
  3. Implement collaborative adult learning opportunities for private school teachers to observe their feeder schools’ teaching and vice versa.  In this way, both sides understand the gaps in curriculum requirements, class structure, lesson delivery, as well as social norms.  
  4. Offer complementary summer transitional courses to prepare matriculating disadvantaged students for academic rigor and technology proficiency.
  5. Design coherent advising programs and set up a buddy system within the advising groups to plug these kids in socially.  
  6. Set up specific fundraising to cover the additional costs these families face.  

When race and class intersect with learning, challenging a conventional practice requires commitment, diplomacy, persistence, and optimism.  Since humans are psychologically as well as situationally conditioned, behavior changes are often driven by three driving forces: the rational side, the emotional side, and the environment in which the change is supposed to happen.  Any sustainable, long-lasting impactful changes do not come overnight.  In fact, I believe that the primary ingredient for progress is optimism. The unwavering belief that something can be better is what drives the human race forward.  Every single day we have a chance to make those around us, and ourselves, better. It all comes down to caring about people so much that we’re willing to get uncomfortable in order for us to grow.

You may also enjoy other articles written by Haiyun Lu for Intrepid Ed News.

Haiyun Lu

Haiyun Lu, a Chinese language teacher at the University School of Milwaukee (WI), is also a writer, blogger, trainer, curriculum designer, meditator, and Co-Founder at Ignite Chinese.

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