He recalls feeling stunned when some of his classmates, with whom he had spent the last four years at the school, asked him if he planned to go along.
“How do I get you to understand that going to the Bahamas is unimaginable for my family?” he said in a recent interview. “My family has never taken a vacation.”
It was a moment of disconnection, a common theme in conversations with minority students who have attended the city’s top-drawer private schools.
There is no doubt that New York City’s most prestigious private schools have made great strides in diversifying their student bodies. In classrooms where, years ago, there might have been one or two brown faces, today close to one-third of the students are of a minority. During the 2011-12 school year, 29.8 percent of children at the city’s private schools were minority students, including African-American, Hispanic and Asian children, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, up from 21.4 percent a decade ago. (Nationally, the figure was 26.6 percent for the same period, up from 18.5 percent 10 years before.)
But schools’ efforts to attract minority students haven’t always been matched by efforts to truly make their experience one of inclusion, students and school administrators say. Pervading their experience, the students say, is the gulf between those with seemingly endless wealth and resources and those whose families are struggling, a divide often reflected by race.
Schools have aggressively recruited minority families that pay all costs in full, to break the perception that they are always the ones receiving financial aid. But a connection persists. At the Calhoun School, also on the Upper West Side, 32 percent of the student body is made up of minority children, and 70 percent of them receive some form of financial aid (a figure that has decreased markedly in recent years). Spending on financial aid at the school grew to $3.6 million last year from $1.7 million a decade ago. (It now represents 14.8 percent of total expenses, up from 14.1 percent over that same period.)
At Trinity, where 37 percent of students are from a minority group, financial aid spending ran to $5.7 million last year, up from $2.7 million 10 years ago (13 percent of expenses, up from 11 percent). Minority students represent 38 percent of the student body at the Dalton School, on the Upper East Side, where financial aid totaled $7.8 million last year, up from $3.9 million a decade earlier (13 percent of expenses, up from 12 percent).
David Addams, the executive director of the Oliver Scholars Program, which recruits low- and middle-income African-American and Latino students and helps guide them through private schools, says the report card is mixed. “These schools have gotten better at providing opportunities for X number of kids, but once there, how well does the school community embrace them and support them in succeeding as well as any other member of the community?” he asked.
The schools point to efforts to hire diversity directors, create forums for discussion about race and privilege, and design mentoring programs to help students find connections. But several new film projects at some of these schools cast a bright light on the sometimes fraught intersection of race and class, and how the two play out in some New York City independent schools.
The film projects at Dalton, Calhoun and Trinity are independent of one another and are at different stages of completion. The Trinity film, “Allowed to Attend,” in which Mr. Alleyne appears, was made by Kevin D. Ramsey, the school’s director of communications, and has been shown at the school. At Dalton, the filmmaker parents of an African-American student tracked their son and a friend through their years at the school and are preparing their documentary for broadcast on public television next year. Calhoun is just embarking on its project. But footage from the films and interviews with students and administrators involved with them reveal that initiatives to diversify some of the most elite schools have proved more challenging than glossy brochures and perfectly balanced multiracial imagery on Web sites might indicate.
Students report feeling estranged, studying among peers who often lack any awareness about their socioeconomic status and the differences it entails. They describe a racism that materializes not in insults, but more often in polite indifference, silence and segregation. Albert, an Asian-American boy in “Allowed to Attend,” says: “You can do a lot of psychological damage to people by ignoring them for an extended period of time. For, like, four years.”
DJ BANTON had never fit in at her neighborhood school in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Children there called her an Oreo — black on the outside, white on the inside — because of the way she talked, and because she got good grades. So when she was accepted at Trinity for the seventh grade through the Prep for Prep program, she hoped she would find children like herself, students who liked to study and listen to Top 40 songs and watch anime. She craved new friendships and deep connections, perhaps the only surefire inoculation against the perpetual loneliness of adolescence.
Those hopes didn’t pan out, at least not for many years. “I left one school where I felt I didn’t belong and went to one where I thought I would belong, and realized I didn’t belong in ways I couldn’t surmount,” Ms. Banton, who appears in “Allowed to Attend,” said in an interview. In elementary school, she said, she could pretend to be “blacker” — change the way she talked, pretend to like music that she didn’t. But at Trinity, “the differences were in money and in the way I was raised,” she said. “I had never been to camp, and I couldn’t change or control that.”
Many of the themes explored are common to any adolescence: where to sit in the cafeteria, dating, parties, homework, tutors. But these issues also intersect with race, wealth and privilege. Minority students talk about feeling overwhelmed by the resources they are suddenly confronted with, and many feel forced to pick between their personal roots and the golden promise of a new peer group with greater wealth. They struggle to bridge the two worlds, and some grapple with guilt if they pull away from neighborhood friends. They describe feeling like a guest at someone’s house: you can stay and look, but you don’t belong.
“The only people who could relate to what I was feeling were minorities, or they were poor,” Ms. Banton, now studying at the University of Southern California, said. “It became linked in my mind — rich, white; minority, poor.”
The emotions are raw, even years later. When Katherine Tineo, who is Afro-Dominican, was accepted at Brown University, she remembers her classmates at Calhoun telling her that it was a result of affirmative action. She stood up in a school town hall meeting and explained, through tears, that she believed that she had been admitted on the merits of her application — her good grades and her efforts to create awareness about multiculturalism at Calhoun.
Recounting the experience seven years later, Ms. Tineo, now 25, broke down again. “To say I got into a school because of my color and not because of my efforts?” she asked, her voice cracking. “I didn’t come from similar places from them, so they thought I didn’t amount to the same thing.”
The project at Trinity was inspired by an earlier film, “The Prep School Negro,” a documentary completed in 2008 and re-edited in 2012 by André Robert Lee, which explores what it means to be poor and black in a wealthy, mostly white school. The film examines his experience at Germantown Friends, an elite day school in Philadelphia, and his attempts as an adult to understand his education and socialization. As a student, he received a “life-changing” education, he said, discovered new worlds and even found a white, upper-class “adoptive” family.
But as he gravitated to his new world, he slowly divorced himself from his poor, urban past, which included his mother, sister and friends. “I lost a major connection with my family, and I lost an understanding of what true intimacy and connection with people is,” he said.
Mr. Lee has spoken at more than 200 schools, and at a screening of the film at Trinity, Ms. Banton asked him to elaborate on how he had bridged the gap between old and new friends. She was struggling with the same issue; her best friend, one she used to play with nearly every day in Flatbush, now seemed distant and angry. “You wonder, ‘Is it my fault for changing or her fault for not?’ ” Ms. Banton said.
Conversations with Ms. Banton about “The Prep School Negro” prompted Mr. Ramsey to make “Allowed to Attend,” which was filmed during the last three weeks of school in 2011 and includes four other minority students, their families and friends. (The entire senior class was given the chance to participate in the film.) The administration gave Mr. Ramsey permission to produce the film, and the students in it approved the final version; Ms. Banton also made a copy available to The New York Times.
Trinity’s upper-school head, Jessica Bagby, said she cried when she watched the film. “They were so brave in telling their story; they were so courageous,” she said. “But I was heartbroken that their experience was what it was.”
That experience included the different places where students congregated, with the white, popular students hanging out in the “swamp,” or student lounge, and the minority children taking over the red staircase. It involved a divide between those with weekend houses and limitless lunch budgets and students like DJ, who could not afford to spend $8 a day at the diner. And it included a teacher mixing up black girls who look nothing alike. One young woman, Cece, explains in the film that she could not feel pretty when the standard of beauty — white, skinny, tall — was something she could never be.
“It’s hard for me to get a guy to pay attention to me in a predominantly white school, because I’m black, and that’s miserable,” Cece says. “From September to June, there’s not a day that I feel pretty.”
The Dalton film, “American Promise,” is a 12-year project undertaken by Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, two Brooklyn filmmakers, whose son, Idris Brewster, started at Dalton in kindergarten along with his best friend, Oluwaseun Summers, who goes by the name Seun. Idris graduated in June and now attends Occidental College in Los Angeles; Seun left after eighth grade, after years of academic and social struggle. He graduated from Benjamin Banneker Academy, a predominantly African-American high school in Brooklyn, and attends the State University of New York at Fredonia.
Idris Brewster has fond memories of Dalton. He hated middle school, but enjoyed high school. He made wonderful friends, and said Dalton’s mentoring program helped him connect to other African-American boys at the school. The school provided him the support he needed and the opportunity to branch out. “I met different kinds of people than I would have met at a public school, or in my neighborhood,” he said, equating his education to living in a different culture for 12 years.
But his close friends were all African-American, and racial divides were pervasive. “We’re excluded from the whites,” he said, describing the cafeteria as “whites on one side and blacks on the other.” He did not assign blame to Dalton, and said that much of the issue was simply economic. Most of the black students were not wealthy, he said, so “they have less in common with the whites, who are extremely rich.”
Seun’s mother, Stacey Summers, recalls feeling elated when he got into Dalton. She was happy to take part in the film. “I wanted to chronicle his journey because it would be filled with success, and it would be rosy, rosy, rosy,” she said. “I was naïve.”
“You are thinking going in that all the children are bright and capable,” she added. “The longer you are in the system, you realize what children and parents have to endure to keep up with that level.” Many families paid for expensive private tutors, and other support for their children that she could not afford.
Seun struggled academically and socially. Play dates were difficult. Parents could not, or would not, come to their Brooklyn neighborhood. Some who declined to visit the borough offered to have Seun to their homes, but his mother felt she was imposing. “He never had a friend come to Brooklyn,” she said. She felt like an outsider.
Ms. Stephenson and Mr. Brewster had to get permission every year from Dalton’s board to film in the school, according to a former trustee. They hope that “American Promise,” scheduled to be broadcast on public television in 2013, and the book that accompanies it will be constructive in addressing the issue they say is paramount: the achievement gap between African-American boys and their white counterparts.
“This is not about what Dalton didn’t do for us, or what white people didn’t do for us; it’s about what are the needs of these boys and how can we provide it,” Mr. Brewster said. The conversations in the documentaries, and interviews with the participants, suggest that talk of a postracial society is just that. “As soon as someone says ‘postracial,’ I say, ‘Who was at the last dinner party and who came to the wedding?’ That one friend doesn’t count,” Mr. Lee, the “Prep School Negro” filmmaker, said.
STEVEN J. NELSON, the head of Calhoun, said that there were certain inevitable realities for minority families at the school: At some point, one parent will be mistaken for a nanny or a service worker. African-American boys will be frisked by the police, or followed inside a store.
“Students, and these are nice kids, too easily assume ‘I’m a white kid in this nice Upper West Side school, and that kid is a brown kid in this nice Upper West Side school; my understanding of us can stop there,’ ” he said. Conversations have to move beyond the surface, he said.
To help that process along, Calhoun recently won $243,063 from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to produce a film and develop a curriculum and a Web site. The film will be created by Point Made Films, which produced “The Prep School Negro.”
Clayton Wortmann, a former Trinity student who participated in that school’s documentary, agreed it was important to start a conversation. “The level of silence is astounding,” he said in an interview. “Everyone is too nice to talk about it.”
He said the film reminded him of the essay “Consider the Lobster,” by David Foster Wallace. “Do you think about these things? Do you think about how little you think about these things?” he said, paraphrasing the essay, which is about the cruelty of killing and eating the crustaceans. “That’s what the film will do. It will get people to think about how little they think about it.”