Fox and her husband connected to Dalton through Early Steps, a unique program in New York that works with youngsters prior to their kindergarten or first-grade years. All the other programs (see Resources below) target children in middle school or even high school. By then, it’s often too late, says Early Steps Executive Director Jacqueline Pelzer. Early Steps supports families of color through the school selection and application process; it also assists with school tours and financial aid applications, and positions children to be accepted into the city’s top independent schools.
What does Pelzer look for in the preschoolers she works with? Not necessarily precocious reading—though she has known youngsters who were reading at age 3—but she expects them to recognize the difference between numbers and letters, to speak in coherent sentences, to know basic colors, and “to be open to wonder.”
An Education-focused Lifestyle
Independent schools differ from other learning institutions in that they require a commitment from families—they don’t support the drop-off-your-child-at-the-school-door lifestyle. “You may have to restructure your life to make this a priority,” notes Fox. Timmons discloses that the families are being interviewed just as much as the students are, and that parents are seen as “a volunteer corps.”
But the education the students receive is worth it, says Pelzer, who says graduates of independent schools make up 25% to 30% of students in the Ivy League. Fox, who calls her son’s teachers “amazing,” has been pleased. “They’ve surpassed my expectations. They understand who my son is and discipline him gently, in a way that allows him to maintain his sense of self. There’s no ‘bad child’ ethos.”
Pelzer encourages families of color to explore the independent school option. “These schools are sincere about diversity,” she says. “I tell [the parents I work with] to suspend doubt while maintaining a healthy skepticism.”
Unfortunately, doubt is easy to come by. African-Americans make up only 6% of the roughly 588,000 students in schools that are members of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), a membership organization that is the national voice of independent schools; nonmember NAIS schools have even fewer—only 5% of 52,000 students are African-American. This stark imbalance leaves some Black parents uneasy. Concerned that their child will merely serve as someone else’s cultural experience, or that their children will develop only a tenuous connection to their own community give them pause.