Feature: ND and LD expand diversity


Hanna Hornfeld

One day in the Nursery Division (ND), Mekhala Mantravadi’s (11) grandmother, who always wears a sari — a traditional South Asian garment — came to school to pick her up. “I thought all the kids were looking at her through the door, and I was shooing my grandmother away, [saying] ‘Why are you here? You should have worn something different,’” Mantravadi said.
As one of three South Asian students in her grade in the Lower Division (LD), Mekhala Mantravadi (11) inadvertently suppressed her identity as an Indian-American to fit in with the other students, she said. She tried to emulate her peers by wearing leggings instead of dresses or skirts and taking out her braids on the bus in the morning.
In the 2010-2011 school year, 27% of LD students and 28% of ND students self-identified as people of color (POC). This year, 46% of LD students and 42% of ND students identify as POC. Beyond this growth, which is largely the result of outreach by the admissions office, the divisions have been working to deepen discussions of diversity and equity in their curricula this year. Hopefully, these changes will allow all students to feel represented while broadening their understanding of identity, Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) Ronald Taylor said.
Children whose identities are not affirmed by their environments may develop negative perceptions of self, Taylor said. Growing up, Taylor experienced this phenomenon as one of two Black boys in the honors program at his school, he said. Especially in English and history classes, the curriculum and teachers centered around experiences and perspectives that Taylor could not relate to, which felt isolating to him. Eventually, the lack of classmates he could relate to led Taylor to question whether he belonged in those classes.
“As I got older I learned that it wasn’t because Black boys weren’t smart, it was because a school wasn’t doing what it needed to do,” he said. “I went into teaching because I was so disgusted with the apathy that I saw in my own education, with the lack of care. No child should feel like they aren’t worthy of a space.”
According to a January 2019 study by psychologist Danielle Perszyk, children can develop implicit and explicit biases by the age of four. In the study, children exhibited the strongest negative responses to Black boys and most positive responses to white children.
Aside from influencing social interactions, studies have found that students who attend more culturally heterogeneous schools generally perform better academically and professionally due to the diversity of ideas and opinions they’ve been exposed to, Taylor said. People can approach problems from more creative angles if they were surrounded by people with varying experiences during the formative years of their lives. “As the Lower Division continually diversifies under the great leadership of Mrs. Neuwirth, what’s going to naturally happen is all students are going to have more opportunities to be exposed to difference,” he said. “That’s helpful because if you spent your entire life only around people from the same walk of life, you’re not going to be thinking about other cultures and experiences.”
Because Kate Bown (12) was surrounded almost solely in the LD by people who had had similar experiences to her, she never had to reassess her view of the world, she said. “It was a lot of confirmation bias — everything sort of just reassures what you already know instead of challenging that attitude,” she said. “That’s something that has shaped me and something that I am continuously now trying to undo.”
Bown believes this constant validation of her identity gave her an advantage over students who may not have felt like they belonged. Because Bown has never felt unwelcome or isolated in the classroom, she has always been comfortable to confidently contribute her ideas in class and meet with teachers.
As the LD and the school as a whole grow more diverse, it needs to ensure that students of color and students on financial aid are cared for as well, Taylor said. “We don’t want to put a student of color in a school where they might have more unproductive experiences.”
Small acts of affirmation can change the way a student experiences an environment, Mantravadi said. When she was in third grade, one of her classmates told her she admired her grandmother and liked her sari. Mantravadi, who had spent a long time worrying that her classmates judged the way her grandmother dressed, saw her grandmother differently after that interaction. “I’m proud of the way my grandma wears a sari [now],” she said. “She did look beautiful, and she shouldn’t change for anyone. It’s this false perception of people judging you, but you’re the one who’s really judging yourself.”
Although Mantravadi now attributes her experiences to feelings of racial and cultural alienation, at the time, she did not see herself as different from her white peers — she had subconsciously suppressed her identity to the point where she was denying her ethnicity. Because Indian Americans are seen as a model minority — a minority group stereotyped and idealized to be more successful than other groups — Mantravadi never saw a problem with having few or no people who looked like her in a particular space. “I got used to there not being a lot of Indians or Bangladeshis or Pakistanis anywhere I was,” she said.
Unlike Mantravadi, when Elyse Gay (12) was in the LD, she was more conscious of being one of five Black students in her grade — two of whom were her triplets. Until a large group of new students joined in the Middle Division (MD), Gay had a difficult time finding a community of peers with whom she could identify racially. Black students were able to understand Gay’s culture and experiences more deeply than the rest of her peers could, she said.
Jiyon Chatterjee (10) said his grade started growing more diverse in the fourth grade. That year, he was one of nine new students, most of whom were people of color. Coming from the British International School of New York, Chatterjee noticed that his new classmates were less ethnically diverse than he was used to, but he wasn’t particularly bothered by this change. He still had other South Asian students to talk to about his cultural identity, and race was not a major issue on his or his peers’ minds, he said.
“I had a bit of an accent, because I was from Britain, but no one really made any big deal about it,” he said. “When we’re younger, I don’t want to say we don’t see race, but we find it [easier] to have diversity, to have diverse opinions, diverse friends.”
In Avery Lin (11)’s experience, young children are less aware of racial or cultural differences and form friendships based on personality. “When you’re little, your own ideas aren’t necessarily so cemented, so, in this way, you have less prejudices and have been exposed to less conditioning that might otherwise make those friendships more difficult or less natural to form,” she said. “At the same time, I do think that little kids probably subconsciously gravitate towards those with similar experiences or ideas.”
When Lin, who identifies as Asian, was in the LD, she did not notice significant racial homogeneity and found that her friend group was racially diverse. Looking back, however, she noticed that there was a lack of socioeconomic diversity — the majority of students’ families were upper or upper-middle class, she said.
Although she was not aware of issues surrounding socioeconomic status as a young child, Lin said this homogeneity may have had a subconscious effect on herself and some of her classmates. “Not having exposure to a diverse community in school can put young kids in a bubble where they don’t realize that the people at school aren’t a reflection of real life,” she said. Because the LD curriculum did not spend much time discussing race and class, Lin spent barely any time thinking about those topics.
Mantravadi, however, was hyperaware of the socioeconomic differences between her family and those of her peers, especially when she was in fifth grade and her father lost his job. At the time, Mantravadi’s parents could not afford to send her to the school but did so anyway because they wanted to invest in her education. Mantravadi felt comfortable talking to her friends about her families’ financial situation, but these conversations did not eliminate the stress that she felt, she said. “That was my constant worry: that my parents would one day be like ‘Hey, we can’t afford to send you to Horace Mann anymore.’”
As a result, Mantravadi was always self-conscious about not having clothes from name-brands — such as Lester’s and Lululemon — like other girls in her grade, she said. “I would cry to my mom, who wanted me to wear froggy t-shirts to school, asking, ‘Can I please go to Lester’s?’” she said. “And there was no Lester’s near my house, and to get Lululemon leggings was a hundred dollars.”
Although 13% of LD families, 14% of MD families, and 19% of Upper Division (UD) families currently receive financial aid, only 5% of ND families are on aid. These percentages have remained fairly constant over the past ten years, Director of Institutional Research and Enrollment Management Lisa Moreira wrote.
“Every single year we have more applicants requesting aid than we are able to accommodate,” Director of Admissions Jason Caldwell said. “While we do a good job as a school, it is always hard that we can’t provide aid to more people.”
Tuition is the same for all grades — $55,200 a year — except for the part-time Threes program, which costs $39,636 per year. The ND has a smaller percentage of families on financial aid in part because not as many families choose to invest that much money into education so early on, Caldwell said. Families on financial aid still have to pay what they can afford to, and for many, it is easier to wrap their heads around spending money on kindergarten or sixth grade than nursery school.
In addition, it is easier for families from Westchester, the Bronx, and New Jersey to access the LD, MD, and UD campuses in Riverdale than the ND building in Manhattan. Although families on aid come from all over, the increase in socioeconomic diversity in the LD and MD is related to the increase in geographic diversity, Caldwell said.
Overall, the admissions office receives more applications from racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and geographically diverse applicants for older grades, which contributes to the increase in financial aid awards in those grades, Moreira wrote. The applicant pool for the MD and UD is also more diverse because the school works with several organizations to identify applicants of color for those divisions, Caldwell said.
To identify applicants of color for kindergarten and first grade, the school has a partnership with Early Steps, an organization that aims to enroll children of color in independent schools by helping them through the admissions process and financial aid applications if they need them, Caldwell said. In any given year, roughly 10% of the incoming kindergarten class will come from Early Steps.
However, the admissions office does not use quotas to match the diversity of the applicant pool to that of admitted students — they admit students based on how well they would fit at the school, Moreira wrote. 62% of students applying for admission to the Threes, PreK, and Kindergarten for the 2020-2021 school year self-identified as POC, and 53% of new students in those grades identify as POC, Moreira wrote. Last year, those numbers for the overall applicant pool were 64% and 60%, respectively.
Although the student body grows more diverse over time, Bown has observed that the predominantly white environment of the younger grades can have a lasting impact on some people, including herself, she said. Going into middle school, Bown’s friends were all white, and most of them lived in the same neighborhood. She made friendships with students of color in her advisory, but it wasn’t until high school that she became extremely close with people of color. If Bown’s grade had been more diverse earlier on, it would have been much easier for her to form friendships with people different from herself. Instead, she spent much of middle school afraid to step out of her comfort zone, she said.
When children are young, their friend groups are essentially defined by who they have classes with at school, Daniel Pustilnik (9) said. Because he had no way of meeting new people in clubs or on sports teams, Pustilnik almost solely interacted with his school friends, most of whom were white or Asian. Once large numbers of Black and Latinx students joined Pustilnik’s grade in the MD, his friend group grew much more diverse.
Although the racial makeup of Pustilnik’s grade in the LD did not influence his future friendships, he cannot tell if it impacted him in any other way because he was not actively thinking about race at the time, he said.
Gay has noticed the influence of the LD student body’s racial makeup in the ways that she and her younger sister made friends in the MD, she said. Gay’s sister, who is currently in sixth grade, had a much more racially diverse grade in the LD than Gay did. Her sister was able to get to know new people in the MD much more quickly than Gay did in part because it was easier for her to connect with and understand other people after having been exposed to more cultures and ideas, Gay said.
Beyond learning from other students, LD students can be introduced to diverse cultures through their classes and school events, Mantravadi said. Mantravadi felt affirmed when her teachers talked about Diwali in a lesson about different festivals of lights, such as Hanukkah, Diwali, and Kwanzaa. She also remembers a multicultural food day, when students would bring foods from their respective cultures to school, explain the foods’ history to their classmates, and eat together.
Although Mantravadi enjoyed both events, she still wishes the LD had done more to expose students to diverse cultures. For example, at the food day, much of the “diverse” food — including what Mantravadi brought — was left untouched, she said. Mantravadi would not have expected young kids to choose food they were unfamiliar with. To make everybody feel included, the event should have been set up so that all students were given a little bit of each person’s food — that way, no student would be left with large amounts of unwanted food they had brought in, she said. “I know it’s a small event, but the fact that everyone is able to take part in it makes your culture valued.”
Outside of Black History Month, Gay does not recall having many conversations about race in the classroom. She wishes the school had taken time to explain cultures and history in depth for each heritage month, instead of simply acknowledging Native American Heritage Month and leaving it at that, she said.
Similarly, in the LD, Pustilnik had never had a serious conversation about racial injustice. Although it can be difficult to talk about such intense topics with young kids, Pustilnik would have benefitted from spending more class time on those issues because he would have been more deeply aware of their importance from an earlier age, he said.
In addition to history class, LD students should take courses about race and identity, similar to sixth and eleventh grade Seminar on Identity, Emmi Zeitler (11) said. “It’s always important, no matter how old you are, to hear about people’s experiences,” she said. “It would have been beneficial in lower school to have taken a course like that. It’s important that we’re all educated on how we can make everyone feel welcome and included, and that’s something we should be taught regardless of our age, regardless of the division.”
ICIE appointed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) chairs to each division this year with the goal of identifying and implementing the necessary changes to make each of their respective divisions more equitable, Taylor said. The ND and LD have been working closely with Yale’s RULER program for social emotional development, and this year, they are formally introducing naming anti-bias as a part of that work, LD DEI Chair Gina D’Amico said. By engaging students in conversations about identity, racial literacy, and social justice, the school hopes to truly incorporate anti-bias into the fabric of the curriculum, as opposed to treating it as something separate and occasional.
Mantravadi is a member of the Student Ambassador program, and as a panelist at a ND open house in September, she was pleasantly surprised to learn that the ND and LD have taken many initiatives to improve cultural awareness and teach students vocabulary to talk about race, gender, and sexuality. “Seeing now that they’re implementing awareness — even among kindergarteners — is incredible,” she said.
One of the ICIE and DEI chairs’ biggest projects of the year has been reexamining curricula so that students do not only learn about negative aspects of their racial history, Taylor said. “When we cover African American history, it’s always enslavement; when we cover Latinx history, it’s always about colonization,” he said. “But the reality is that despite enslavement, there is so much that African diaspora have contributed to this world. We’re going to acknowledge the things that happened, but there is much more that we should be centering.”
The ND, LD, and MD history departments all adapted a racial literacy curriculum called Pollyanna this year. In August, ND and LD faculty members participated in a two-week training session to learn about the curriculum.
Pollyanna was created by independent educators to teach students to think about race and identity, Taylor said. Sociologists Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin found that children can develop biases based on race and ethnicity by the time they are three years old. “While children may experience race in unique ways, it is clear that most, if not all, of our children are already operating in a racialized world before they even learn to read,” the Pollyanna website states. “Such studies support the importance of developing our children’s racial literacy skills and exposure to positive portrayals of a diverse range of people — across race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. — as young as possible.”
The Pollyanna curriculum varies from grade to grade. ND students already learn about skin tone through a self-portrait project where they look in mirrors and use different media to draw and paint themselves. The Pollyanna curriculum will help them to dive deeper into this work, Head of ND Marinés Arroyo wrote. Teachers now spend lessons on colors in the world as a whole, which helps set up a stronger foundation for conversations about skin color, she wrote.
To do this work, ND students have read Karma Wilson’s Bear See Colors, Leo Lionni’s A Color of His Own, and Roseanne Thong’s Red is a Dragon and discussed colors that remind them of people, places, and things they love, according to a newsletter sent out by Threes teacher Ditjona DiMaio. “When children share their experiences, they begin to understand that our physical world is full of colors,” DiMaio wrote. “As a collective, we find similarities and differences in our daily lives but also construct an understanding that colors shape one’s culture, identities, and celebrate our uniqueness.”
In older grades, the Pollyanna history curriculum looks at complex topics more closely. Fourth grade history classes have introduced a unit called “The Development of Culture and Civilization — How Geography Gave Some Populations a Head Start (Dispelling Myths of Racial Superiority).” Fifth grade classes discuss the persecution, resistance, and contributions of immigrants and enslaved people in the United States.
Fourth grade teacher Mary Jean Hughes said that Pollyanna has made class discussions richer and more nuanced. “Any time you add depth to academic material, you improve the quality of the discussion, and it automatically becomes more exciting because it is no longer one-dimensional,” she said. “Students of all ages want to question, think, and be presented with as many perspectives as possible.”
Hughes hopes that all divisions continue to enhance their history curricula over time to help students truly understand the complex and flawed nature of history. “After living through 2020, it is becoming clear that many people in our country have not been taught the basics about their own government or how to be more discerning about the information that they consume,” she said.
Besides implementing the Pollyanna curriculum, the ND is working to provide students with toys and books that are reflective of diverse ethnicities, cultures, and family structures, Arroyo wrote. They thoughtfully curate their collection of library books to include authors and illustrators of color. “We carefully evaluate the photographs, drawings, and content using an equity lens and intentionally search for literature that will support our commitment to anti-bias work.”
This year, the ICIE office is growing the Students Together Empowering People of Color Successfully (STEPS) Program — in which UD students of color are partnered with MD students of color to mentor — to include students in the third through fifth grades. They had originally planned to do this in March of last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the program’s expansion. Much like the MD STEPS program, the LD program will resemble an intentionally planned affinity group, Taylor said. “We want students of color to connect and see each other, because depending on the classroom, you might be in a class with a few other students of color, or it might just be you.”
All of the new initiatives will build appreciation among students for the diverse world around them, D’Amico said. “Little kids look for similarities: you like to read, I like to read, we can be friends,” she said. “One goal is to help foster a way of thinking where differences are valued too.”
Fourth Grade Language Arts teacher Nimrita Daswani has not been directly involved with Pollyanna, as she does not teach history, but she has still seen changes in the school’s culture and in herself this year. Daswani regrets not taking significant time to discuss Black Lives Matter with her students in June last year, she said. This year, following a moment of silence for Breonna Taylor in a morning announcement, she made a point to have an in-depth conversation with her students about racism and police brutality.
“I think we’re more open to having these conversations and leaning into the discomfort,” Daswani said. “[Young kids] need to be aware. In order for change to happen, as long as we’re using the right kinds of words and making them feel comfortable in the classroom to have these kinds of discussions, it will benefit them in the long run. These children I teach, they’re our future.”