Diversity and School Culture

George P. Davison, Head of School
Every several years Grace Church School develops a new Long-Range Strategic plan.
The last plan, adopted in 2006 set in motion many of the changes we have seen in the life of the school these last few years, including the creation of the High School Division.
The era preceding 2006 was characterized by other big changes: a change in our corporate structure; independence from the church;  the purchase and renovation of the school buildings; and the creation of a significant endowment.  No one can accurately predict the future, but if I were to make my best guess, I would see the next decade as focused less on governance or physical structure, but on human structures, where the school strengthens itself by affirming its mission in the context of its current shape and current needs.
A group of more than 60 trustees, parents and faculty is exploring different elements of school life by investigating trends in the  broader society, benchmarking against what other schools are doing, and reflecting on the mission of the school.  The hope is to have the plan ready for public consumption in the spring. However, something very interesting is going on. Questions are emanating from within the working groups that on the surface might seem to be contradictory.  Can we create: a diverse Episcopal school, an elite and excellent inclusive school, a school that fosters the humanities and STEM in the context of a global vision, an affordable independent school and an innovative traditional education?
I will leave it to the committee to come up with final answers, but as they work, I want to go back in time to the beginning of GCS in its current form and assert that these are not new questions, but rather ones we have been working through in the context of different eras at GCS and the world of education in general. In 1952, E. Alison Grant, the founding headmaster of the co-ed day school version of GCS, wrote:
The existence of Grace Church School represents a three-fold experiment. First, it is an attempt to see whether or not an Episcopal school can be conducted in accord with the faith and practice of the Church, on an unsegregated basis, and with admission open to all faiths. Secondly, it is an attempt to determine whether or not funds can be secured in amount large enough to keep open the doors to children whose families cannot pay high fees. Thirdly, it is an attempt to demonstrate that the first two aims can be vigorously pursued and the means still found to achieve and maintain those standards of curriculum and program held in the highest esteem in this community.
You can see from his assertion, which uses language from the period that the issues we are currently grappling with existed at the founding of the school. Grant called it an experiment. I think that 62 years later we can safely say we are past the experimental stage, however, I do not think we can say that we have actually settled any of the questions. What this suggests to me is that the founders of this school set us on a journey that presents additional questions with each found answer.  The responsibility of each generation has been to work toward answers to each next set of questions in the context of the three basic issues Grant identifies: inclusion and diversity in the context of an Episcopal School; accessibility and affordability, and excellence as an academic institution.
            Can you have a diverse and inclusive school that draws its inspiration from a mainline Protestant sect such as the Episcopal Church? When Grant wrote in the 1950’s, the Episcopal Church and Episcopal schools were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. GCS enrolled its first African-American student in 1948 before the U.S. Army desegregated. It was a co-ed school when most traditional schools were single sex. The Episcopal Church began ordaining women to the clergy in the 1970’s. The ordination of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in 2003 signaled the position of the Episcopal Church as accepting of different sexual orientations as a normal part of church life.  The school is now, and has been, a place for families of all faiths or none at all.
It is important to remember that diversity is not the same as inclusion and that there are powerful forces beyond the reach of the school that make inclusion difficult.  In the face of that difficulty, we have created programs and events like the Visibility Project, the annual Diversity Dinner, and the groups CASA (Cultural Awareness Students’ Association) and GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance).  Each is a good step, though none is enough. Until all of our students feel included in the community, we will not have succeeded. We will continue to search for solutions, which, happily, is a process firmly anchored in the culture of our community from the beginning.  
Can an independent school be both affordable and accessible? This second question is closely linked to the diversity and inclusion question. We cannot possibly prepare students for the future if they live in an economically segregated world any more than a racially or gender segregated one.  We have been at the forefront of this effort for decades, but one could assert we have lost ground as our neighborhood has become less economically diverse. Adding the High School has helped us in the goal of economic diversity as older students can travel greater distances, expanding our geographic boundaries. Nevertheless, independent schools may be “not for profit” but they are “not for loss” either, and we have to find a way to be financially sustainable and accessible at the same time. The Scholarship Benefit Auction gives us a huge leg up on other schools because for each of the past 28 years, we have been adding substantially to financial aid endowment. Generous donors have created separate funds that support access to tutoring, Grace International Exchange and more.  There is much more to be done here too, and we are probably the right people to be thinking of how to build a new paradigm.

Finally, how do you define an excellent, and I would say elite, educational institution, that seeks to include a diverse population, which by definition means a diverse group of learners? This question must be taken in the context of a world that judges schools and students against fairly rigid and outdated standards, but gets at what I think is the hidden strength of this school. We are solution oriented and not tied to a conventional views.
Historically, GCS faculty have seen their job as facilitating the success of their students. That is not true everywhere. There are schools where the faculty feel it is their responsibility to protect standards. We see our responsibility as propelling our students over hurdles, so they can set new standards. We do not reject excellence in terms of mastering traditional outcomes; we just think you can go further if you think deeper.
This is where innovative traditional school is the mantle we seek across all aspects of the life of the school.  We have a willingness to look at what the students really need: a smarter schedule; what will prepare them for the world they will work in, such as project-based learning like Independent Study in the High School or the Discovery Museum in second grade or robotics in the Middle School; what will prepare them for life as global citizens, like the Grace International Exchange program. If our faculty, parents, and alumni continue to seek a smarter, solution-oriented school, then we will continue to meet the challenges articulated by Dr. Grant in 1952.