Independent schools, as a whole, are entities that signal an in-group and out-group divide. They are built to select. They are built for competition. But when we participated in the Institutional Climate and Inclusion Assessment (ICIA), we found that at Brewster, the numbers tell a different story. Numbers tell us that, indeed, Brewster is different—and different, in this particular case, is something truly great to be.
In the spring of 2018, Brewster Academy joined a cohort of schools, both public and private, in a study on the status of diversity and inclusion work in our school environments. For this Brewster-wide study, we conducted an intensive survey run by the research firm Enquiry Evaluation. We surveyed every student in the school with a variety of statements, to which students responded on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = strongly disagree / 5 = strongly agree). Some of the statements were
- Teachers at my school treat students of my gender/gender expression fairly
- Teachers at my school treat students of my sexual orientation fairly
- The curriculum/lessons taught in my classes adequately reflect my racial/ethnic heritage, identity, or background.
- I think some teachers think I’m not as smart as I am because of my racial/ethnic or cultural background.
- I sometimes feel invisible among the student body.
- I have to change who I am to have friends at this school.
When Craig Gemmell asked what I thought about assessing school climate as a way to figure out the baseline in my first year in the newly created position of Director of Equity and Inclusion, I was both excited and apprehensive. First, trying to assess equity and inclusion with numbers and data points is an interesting and even daunting concept. But partnering with Enquiry Evaluation cleared the path for us to accurately gauge intangibles like feelings, impressions, and emotions.
We moved forward with the process, and in early February, the head researcher asked for a quick phone call before the results were delivered. The researcher had never heard of Brewster Academy, and wanted context to understand some of the results she was seeing come out of our school in this little corner of New Hampshire. Immediately my “Spidey sense” was triggered. Were we about to hear some terrible truths about the school? Were we not the school we thought we were, or trying to become?
Turns out, we are doing quite a few things right.
The researcher’s letter came through the next day: “There is much to admire at Brewster Academy, as many of the survey statistics demonstrate. While the ICIA data are primarily intended to uncover disparities in educational experience across core identity groups, it is, nevertheless, worth acknowledging that the findings speak to a school climate that is, above all, welcoming, caring, and committed to equity and inclusivity.”
Reading this, I felt a surge of pride for our school and how far it has come. I remember distinctly the day that my husband told me, almost 11 years ago this spring, that he was interested in pursuing a Director of Athletics position at Brewster Academy. Google told me everything I needed to know: “Are you aware that this is in central New Hampshire?” Central New Hampshire. Wolfeboro. 95% white, and a high percentage of wealth. It was, after all, the Oldest Summer Resort in America. No McDonald’s, no chains at all save for a Rite Aid Pharmacy and a Dunkin’ Donuts that had the town in uproar when it moved in. As a person of color and a former student of an independent school, I was incredibly wary of how being at this school would impact me and my sense of identity.
Brewster has made huge strides: In the last decade, we have an established position for Equity and Inclusion and strong support for it at the administrative level. We have committed support for international students in the form of a Director of International Student Programs, a pre-orientation program for students to get a “jump start” on adjusting to life and culture at Brewster, and a Lunar New Year celebration that rivals prom. There are frequent cultural food nights, cooking classes, a language lab, a United Nations club where students can introduce and celebrate their cultures with peers, and many more inclusive practices. A rainbow flag hangs in the dining hall to let our LGBTQIA+ students know that this is a space for them. There are gender neutral bathrooms and conversations on inclusive language, open spaces for GSA+ and Allies to meet and mingle, and our English curriculum features texts from writers in the LGBTQIA+ community. We acknowledge and discuss diversity in all its forms: not just race, gender, and sexual expression, but body type, physical ability, religion, and so much more, knowing that our differences make us stronger. Intentional discussions in our social emotional learning curriculum center on cultural competency, inclusion, and identity for all of our students, no matter what their skin color, and open forums and conference opportunities bring together students of color in affinity groups to help them feel supported, included, and most importantly, seen.
Our openness to diversity lies in our roots. In 1886, John Brewster established Brewster Free Academy under the condition that “No restriction shall be placed upon any person desiring to attend and receive instruction from said school or academy on account of his or her age, sex, or color, provided only he or she is of good moral character.” He set the stage for the Brewster Model that would come 125 years later; the model works to include all levels of ability in one classroom so no one feels ostracized.
Today, so many years after John Brewster’s initial vision, faculty engage in professional development committed to cultural competency and moving the needle on our own sense of identity and place in the world. We want our students to feel comfortable in their own skin, and to know that they don’t have to leave parts of themselves at the door before they walk in—we go to great lengths to make sure they can see themselves in positive images within the curriculum and thereby connect to what they are learning. It’s part of the culture of the school that we nurture “diverse thinkers” in every sense of the word.
In “The Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison writes, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” That is our hope for Brewster students. We just want them to discover who they are and feel free. And we hope that when they do, they’ll soar.
Melissa Lawlor, shown above (lower left) with Brewster students in a happy selfie, is a member of the English and history faculty and coaches Girls' Varsity Lacrosse. She joined Brewster in 2010 and was appointed the Director of Equity and Inclusion Programs in 2018.
Note: Stay tuned for a summary of the full ICIA survey results, coming later this year.
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