The year was 1998—when Google was founded, impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton began, Lauryn Hill sang about “miseducation,” and Jay-Z rhymed about the “Hard Knock Life.” We were a young black family in Brooklyn trying to figure out how to get our four-year-old son the education he deserved—one that would help him evade the pitfalls and limitations that tripped up so many black boys. One that would allow him to fulfill his potential.
We lived in the Clinton Hill/Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, New York, before gentrification—back when the community was more racially and socioeconomically diverse and bustling with artists: writers, actors, visual artists, and filmmakers like us. We had purchased a fixer-upper across the street from what would have been our neighborhood elementary school. Unfortunately, it was the sort of public school that is all too common in New York and other big cities: no one who had any other options would ever send their child there. So we began to explore our options for Idris, our firstborn son, who was then three years old.
Both of us had grown up in low-income families. Joe is from South Central Los Angeles, and Michèle was born in Haiti (she is of Haitian and Panamanian descent). Michèle had attended predominately white public schools in Canada, where she had been teased for being different, called a nigger. She wanted Idris to attend a good public school, but one where he could have a multicultural experience and not be subjected to the racial isolation and teasing that she’d been through. Joe had gone to Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, which was public and predominately black and Asian. In college—at Stanford—he’d had to play catch-up academically. But at Stanford he was also exposed to exceptionally bright black students who arrived much better prepared than he was: He remembered a kid called Milwaukee, who could write an eighty-page term paper on the night before it was due, and another one who smoked weed but would still score highly on math exams. Joe envisioned Idris as Milwaukee meets math geek—preferably minus the marijuana.
Both Milwaukee and math geek had gotten a college preparatory, or prep school, education. Prep schools operate independently from local school systems and receive their funding from a combination of tuition and donations, primarily from alumni. They typically offer more rigorous academics and smaller class sizes—Forbes lists some as having student-to-teacher ratios as low as 5 to 1—than you’ll find in even the best public schools.1 Many cost around $15,000 per year, but the most prestigious private schools now fall in the $30,000– $35,000 range. If they are boarding schools, throw in another ten grand for your kid to live on campus. Needless to say, prep schools mostly educate the elite. For parents, the tuition is a steep investment, but the return for their kids is a superior education, a social network of elites, and average SAT scores north of 2000 on a 2400-point scale. Most prep school graduates go on to attend the top tier of colleges and universities.
That’s what we wanted for Idris. His test scores—in the top 3 percent—were high enough for a gifted and talented (G&T) program, but we were shocked to discover that New York City’s public G&T programs are almost exclusively composed of white and Asian, middle-class and affluent children. If we were going to put Idris in a predominately white, privileged environment, we figured we might as well go all the way and get the full range of benefits a prep school promised. Unfortunately, we didn’t have private-school money. Someone directed us to Early Steps, a program that helps families of color with grade school– aged children connect with prep schools. When we asked the woman from Early Steps what schools were offering financial aid, she said, “Your son is a Dalton boy.”
The Dalton School educates the children of New York City’s elite, from the scions of the city’s old-money families to the children of artists and others who have risen to the forefront of their fields. The school is also an academic powerhouse: Today, the average SAT score there is 2200 out of a possible 2400; the bottom half of the high school’s graduating class has higher SAT scores than the top twenty-five students in most other schools around the country.
Joe went on a Dalton School parents’ tour and came home insisting that Michèle visit right away. Michèle had been warned away from Dalton by a Jewish coworker who had gone there fifteen years earlier and had found it too elite and cliquish. But when Michèle went on the school tour, she was completely blown away by the school’s commitment to fostering children’s social and emotional growth, building self-esteem, and creating “passionate lifelong learners.” Babby Krentz, the headmistress (a fancy name for a principal), told us that Dalton was also newly committed to making its demographics match those of Manhattan itself, which is roughly 50 percent nonwhite. When the school admitted Idris and offered us great financial aid, there was no way that we could turn the opportunity down. We had Milwaukee, math geek, multicultural—and now money!
Idris was admitted to Dalton’s third class under this new diversity initiative. It appeared that almost 25 percent of his class consisted of African Americans, Caribbean blacks, Latinos, and/or children of Asian descent. And the icing on the cake? His friend, Oluwaseun (“Seun,” pronounced “shay-on”) Summers, had also gotten in. Seun’s parents, Tony and Stacey, were as excited and hopeful as we were.
Our sons would have an experience available only to a privileged few—one that we dreamed would allow this black boy to bypass racism and achieve his human potential. Since he would be somewhat of a pioneer, we were sure that our son would encounter racial prejudice, issues related to socioeconomic class, and other difference-related challenges. But we had overcome those issues, and Idris could too. We would help him. We promised.
From Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life, by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard, © 2014 by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard. Reprinted with permission from the author and Spiegel & Grau. www.randomhouse.com