This issue, the International Examiner explores programs and initiatives serving families and students in Washington State. Editor Nhien Nguyen takes a look at Overlake School’s diversity outreach, the state’s GET (Guaranteed Education Tuition) and Seattle University College of Nursing’s new lab and scholarship program.

BY NHIEN NGUYEN
Examiner Staff

For the past 20 years, many independent schools across the nation have strived to address the issues of equity and justice — by diversifying their institutions on every level, from the student body, to the faculty, and on up to the administration and board.

But, private schools are woefully far from reaching their ideals to be racially diverse institutions. In an article from this summer’s issue of Independent School magazine, Dennis Bisgaard associate director at Shady Hill School (Massachusetts) wrote, “ … [W]e still have a hard time wrapping our minds tightly, and without reservation, around equity and justice. Our schools continue to embrace diversity … Still, we have yet to realize our dream of the ideal, and we don’t know how to get there.”

Student populations at college prep schools are slowly reflecting the multicultural landscape of society. Results from a National Center for Education Statistics survey show a small growth in private schools’ population of Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and African American students.

With growing popularity for Puget Sound parents to seek private education for their children, the U.S. Census Survey showed that nearly a third of 1st through 12th graders attend private schools in Seattle alone, according to a report in The Seattle Times. But how much effort have these local schools put in to attract students of different races and economic backgrounds?

At Overlake School, an independent college preparatory school serving grades five through 12 in Redmond, diversity enrollment has increased from 15 percent in 1997-98 to 25 percent in 2005-2006. The Asian population in particular has nearly doubled in the past ten years.

The school’s shift in demographics can be attributed to Overlake School’s headmaster for the past 11 years, Francisco Grijalva. As one of the few head of schools who is a person of color -— his father is Mexican and his mother is half-Filipino and half-Spanish — Grijalva has ensured that diversity is part of their mission statement.

Grijalva, whose first languages were Spanish and Tagalog, spent his early years in the Philippines. Growing up in a multiracial environment solidified his belief that schools cannot adequately prepare their students for the future without having them interact with all sorts of people. Diversity at Overlake includes sexual orientation (they have a gay/straight alliance), economic and religious.

As a school that not only preps students for college, but also for life, Grijalva says that Overlake has to prepare students to live in a multicultural setting, which is where they will likely work as adults.

“It’s important for kids to have that [multicultural] contact with their peers and faculty,” says Grijalva, who notes that 10 percent of the faculty members are people of color.

A multicultural education, Grijalva believes, goes beyond studying about other cultures in a classroom. The school pushes students “to examine the dynamics of diversity from a global perspective” so that they can become responsible citizens “dedicated to social justice and community service,” according to their brochure. This spring, Overlake students and faculty will take a field trip to Cambodia, where they will visit a sister school they helped build two years ago.

But Grijalva is not unrealistic when it comes to the challenges of diversifying independent schools. He knows that one of the major obstacles to achieving diversity is the staggering price of attendance. At Overlake School, for example, tuition is almost $20,000 a year — a cost that is more than most traditional middle-class families can afford.

To help diversify the students’ socio-economic backgrounds, Overlake School has recently raised its commitment to meet the needs of more families. The school spends about 8 percent of their $10 million budget on financial aid. Of the 480-plus students, about 15 percent receive financial aid, where the average aid package is $9,000.

At Overlake School, about half of those families on financial aid earn below $60,000 a year, and 72 percent are below $85,000 a year.

Some parents have sacrificed a lot for their kids to be here, says Grijalva.

But what parents wouldn’t want to make sacrifices for their children to attend a school like Overlake? The average class size is 13, the student to teacher ratio is 9 to 1, the student admission to college rate is 100 percent and the facilities are state of the art — including their very own climbing wall.

Diversity Director Mark Manuel, who came to Overlake School as a former youth development coordinator at Atlantic Street Center, is well aware of the advantages of a private education. That’s why he wants to work hard as diversity director to spread the word about the financial aid opportunities at Overlake that people of various backgrounds may not know about.

Manuel, who is Filipino, has many responsibilities at Overlake, including outreach to diverse communities, advising on multicultural curriculum, and arranging diversity training for faculty and staff. He also leads about 25 students in the school’s Diversity Club.

The diversity director has been a position at Overlake for the past four years. Grijalva says that the director, both externally and internally, welcomes students of color to the campus and helps make sure the climate and curriculum is responsive to students of color. Like other schools, there have been instances at Overlake School where kids have not been sensitive to others. As headmaster, he wants the school to have its antennae up and know how to react when these instances happen.

As more and more independent schools have recognized the importance of reaching out to underserved communities, the number of diversity directors and outreach specialists has grown to where at least a quarter of independent schools in the region have such positions. Manuel notes that next spring, Overlake School will host a diversity leadership conference for the region.
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