Sunny Hostin

Mandatory Race Talks Roil Elite New York City School

Parents are divided over program at Ethical Culture Fieldston School

By Sophia Hollander for The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal | March 13, 2015 - A new program to weave conversations about race into the school day has polarized parents at the elite Ethical Culture Fieldston School.

The private school requires students in third through fifth grades to separate themselves into groups based on race—multiracial and general groups are also options—and engage in five facilitated 45-minute conversations throughout the semester.

Parents say the school is forcing children to make choices about their racial identity before they may be ready. They accuse the school of rolling out the program without adequate consultation or qualified staff.

The school “shouldn’t be separating little small children in third, fourth and fifth grade by how they look,” said parent Ben Hort, whose two sons are in the program.

The program at Ethical Culture Fieldston, which is spread across two campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, has sparked impassioned email chains, online petitions and calls and emails to administrators.

School trustees emailed parents in February urging them to “offer our educators your trust.” An online petition had more than 200 signatures by Friday evening. There are 724 students in the lower grades.

“The world is not doing a very good job at teaching the issues of racial differences and commonality of human experience,” said head of school Damian Fernandez. “We at our school believe that we can do it better.”

Parent Sunny Hostin said she is Puerto Rican, Jewish and black while her husband is half-European and half-Haitian. Her biggest concern is the program’s mandatory nature.

I think we have to question when is it appropriate to racially identify, the fluidity of racial identity and the role of schools in that, said Ms. Hostin, who has an 8-year old daughter in the program.

She questioned certain activities, such as when the teachers sang the hit song “All About That Bass” rewritten as “All about that Race.”

“I just thought, ‘What?’ ” she said.

She and other parents expressed concerns that some of the discussion leaders included the school nurse, an assistant to the head of the lower school and a transportation coordinator.

The school said the transportation coordinator was the former diversity coordinator for the Fieldston lower school and the school nurse co-chaired the parent diversity committee and that every leader had been trained.

Mandatory conversations during the day are a break from the traditional model at private schools, where so-called affinity groups are generally voluntary and held after school.

“We felt this was important enough reach everybody,” said George Burns, principal of the Fieldston lower school. “Nobody has ever asked why is your math program mandatory, why is the ballroom dancing program for fifth grade mandatory? They’re all really important parts of our program.”

Parent Jo Goldberger said, “The children, really at this age, they’re thinking about recess, but, boy, it’s on our minds because it’s like for a progressive school it seems to be very regressive steps.”

“I think it created an issue where the children never felt it before,” she said.

Ellen Haime, who identified as African-American, has two children at the school. Both have been in voluntary affinity groups, she said, but she preferred the mandatory model because it forced all families to acknowledge the issue of race. She has been taken aback by other parents’ responses, she said.

“What I’m sensing is real fear and real anxiety” about race, she said. “The way I see it is that the sentiments were always there but people didn’t have to own up to them.”

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