Town Crier September 2003
Town Crier Newspaper
Diversity enriches and challenges our schools.
Our chalkdust-covered neighbours to the south have embraced the concept of diversity in the classroom with the fervour of a wild-eyed prospector discovering his first nugget of gold. We Canadian educators, as usual, have taken a few more years to learn how to pan, but are now beginning to recognize the advantages – and potential challenges – of engineered, designed diversity in the classroom. (Those of us north of the 49th prefer the multi-syllabic term, multicultural, eh; but diversity in the classroom, especially with regard to independent schools, is not just culturally based.)
There are many advantages to broad cultural and socio-economic diversity in independent schools. Stereotypically – and critically – independent schools are seen as terribly homogeneous environments with regard to student population, parent professions, teachers, etc. As with many stereotypes, however, the reality is quite different. By and large, most independent schools are as wonderfully, culturally mixed as local, non-independent schools. (Public schools are only as culturally mixed as the neighbourhoods they draw upon – which may be quite uniform – whereas independent schools, especially boarding schools, have an opportunity to draw upon a wider population.) There is no doubt that Canadian teachers in every jurisdiction recognize that multicultural diversity in student, staff and teacher population provides a richness of experience in the classroom like few other factors. The opportunities for the collision of ideas and ideologies within a safe learning environment abound when people with different backgrounds and beliefs come together to learn. Students’ imaginations are fired and wrought when their previously held beliefs are challenged appropriately within a classroom setting. When a master teacher enters the classroom, she can utilize the diversity of the students as a resource with the same facility as utilizing a computer or a textbook – to the same end: understanding.
However, independent schools face an additional challenge when aspiring for diversity. Most independent schools have two filters students and parents must pass through: one is economic, and the other is aptitude. Independent schooling is not inexpensive; consequently, not everyone has the means to send their child to such a school. While many independent schools have bursary and scholarship programmes – some very generous – the economic challenges can deter parents from even investigating the possibility of financial aid. (Parents should also look closely at the financial aid figures. If a school states in its literature that a sizeable percentage of its students are on financial aid, especially in Canada, they should read the fine print. If there is a cap on the aid at a nominal amount, for example, then parents are still faced with an economic dilemma.) Independent schools can often struggle with economic diversity. The good news is that many independent schools are increasing their financial aid packages to enable all students, regardless of their economic background, to enroll. There is still some work to be done here, however.
The second filter, student aptitude, is a political and educational morass. Most independent schools have admissions policies and procedures that students and parents must follow. Tests are administered and interviews are undertaken. Eventually, there is a conscious choice made by parents, students and schools. There is an agreement amongst all concerned that there is an appropriate fit of philosophy, aptitude, etc. Because there are often scholastic criteria for admissions (and an independent school that professes to prospective parents to be all things to all students is, at best, disingenuous), the diversity of students with respect to ability is, for the most part, narrower. Despite the testing and interviewing, however, the admissions process is not as much of a science as the admissions directors would like us to believe. In every independent school class there is certainly a diversity of ability, but the band of difference is not as broad as in public schools.
Diversity as a means of enriching the educational experience is a laudable goal. Different viewpoints expressed respectfully enable students’ minds and imaginations to grow. But there are many challenges in embracing full diversity in an authentic way. Independent schools will face and overcome these challenges, however, sometimes through creative means such as far-ranging international exchanges and intensive community service. At the heart of this matter called diversity is the fostering of the intellectual, social and spiritual well-being of our students. These overarching goals are ones both independent and public school educators world-wide will always share.