Ford: Don’t forget the prep schools

It’s hard to turn down Teach for America. If you try — as one of my friends recently did when she was given an assignment for which she felt unqualified and unprepared — the comeback is simple and effective: But don’t you want to help the kids? Tough to argue with that, particularly when you’ve just spent hours in interviews explaining you do. But although TFA has cornered the market on compassionate Yalies interested in eliminating educational inequality, it isn’t the only game in town. Contrary to the claims of my friend’s interviewer, there are other effective ways of reaching disadvantaged students, and in a realm of secondary education often ignored by outreach and teaching-inclined Yalies: prep schools.

At first glance, teaching at a top-tier private secondary school seems antithetical to the mission of improving educational access to underprivileged students. After all, prep schools like Andover and Exeter once served as feeder programs for their Ivy League counterparts, Yale and Harvard, which at the time were as homogenous as they come: all-white, all-male and all-upper class. Those manicured lawns were a far cry from the rural and inner city public schools that attract TFA candidates today.

But times change, and the myth that wealthy prep schools still cater to the same crowd they did in 1950 is well past its prime. More than ever, these schools are proving our most potent weapon in the war against educational inequality, and have the resources to provide teaching of matchless quality to low-income students from backgrounds comparable to those targeted by TFA.

Consider this: in 2008, Andover’s endowment stood at roughly $790 million, enough to enable the same type of need-blind admissions policy practiced at Yale. In other words, Andover will support 100 percent of any family’s demonstrated financial need, and does not take a student’s ability to pay tuition into account during the admissions process. This is an extraordinary commitment for a high school to make, and one that is utilized by 45 percent of the student body.

It’s not alone. Other schools such as Groton, St. Paul’s and Lawrenceville have similarly generous financial aid. Exeter’s endowment reached $1 billion in 2007 (that’s $1 million per student), spurring a financial aid initiative that now provides full tuition for any accepted student whose family makes under $75,000 per year and partial tuition for those making under $200,000. That covers about 95 percent of the country. Sound familiar? Yale’s financial aid package tops out at the same ceiling. Choate Rosemary Hall, located 20 minutes from New Haven, awards an average scholarship of $35,600 a year to 30 percent of its boarders — $200 more than the average financial aid package at Yale, to which it has sent 34 students since 2006.

For inner-city students — a demographic TFA excels in supporting — who are uncomfortable leaving for boarding school, there are independent day schools with comparable resources in most major cities. Horace Mann, in New York City, allocates $7.5 million to its need-blind program; Los Angeles’ Harvard-Westlake sets aside $6.7 million and provides an average of $20,000 a year to 20 percent of its student body.

Most importantly, they get the word out. Like universities, top-tier prep schools deploy a team of admissions officers to scour the country for brilliant, hard-working students from disadvantaged backgrounds and make their opportunities known. The result is unprecedented access to an elite education, and student bodies that rival Yale’s in socioeconomic diversity. As a teacher at a prep school, you’re just as likely to share the classroom with students who will be first-generation college students as you are those who will be fourth-generation Ivy Leaguers.

So by all means, if you aspire to teach, apply to Teach for America — but don’t overlook the many private secondary schools with the resources and commitment to educate beyond the suburbs. You might not feel like you’re roughing it to quite the same extent, but make no mistake: you’ll have an immense impact on the lives of talented, underprivileged students who have just been given a very new, very exciting future. They’re there, and the moral imperative of teaching them championed by TFA is just as applicable.

Riley Scripps Ford is a senior in Saybrook College.

Comments

  • River Tam

    Except that if the kid has already made it to Exeter or Andover, they’re probably academic superstars rather than a risk of failing the 9th grade.

  • Preposterous

    Thanks Riley, for your very thoughtful piece.

    While it is true that some independent schools–particularly those that are older, larger, and well known–are very selective, many are much less so; not every “prep school kid” is an academic superstar. Furthermore, most independent schools are very committed to making enrollment affordable to a broad range of students, creating diverse communities that have their own challenges as well as their own missions; independent schools are emphatically not all alike in culture, size, aims, and community.

    If I were a senior or junior at a highly selective college looking at TFA–a worthy enterprise, but increasingly competitive–I might also consider hedging my bet by looking also into the world of independent school teaching. The National Association of Independent Schools has an excellent Career Center on its website (www.nais.org), listing openings and also resources for job-seekers. I might also recommend THE INTENTIONAL TEACHER: FORGING A GREAT CAREER IN THE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL CLASSROOM (Avocus, 2009) as an overview not just of how get hired but also how to do the work. Since Yale seems to be stepping away from any kind of teacher preparation, Yalies considering teaching are going to be thrown upon their own resources, and NAIS is a pretty good one.

    Truth in advertising: I’m third-generation both from Yale (’72) and in independent school teaching. It’s a great way to make a living, and believe me, you can make a difference in students’ lives whether you’re teaching superstars at some august super-selective boarding school or working with learning-disabled or culturally disadvantaged kids at a small place that reflects the gloriously idealistic dream of founders and colleagues who just want to help kids for whom other systems have not worked out so well.

    Plus, independent schools run from Pre-Kindergarten through post-Grade 12 and come in all shapes and flavors–single-sex, coed, faith-based, day, boarding, elementary, middle school, secondary–you name it. So check out http://www.nais.org and click on “Career Center.”

  • Yale12

    Schools like Andover and Exeter have extremely high admissions standards. Once you get accepted to one of these prep schools you are no longer a “disadvantaged” or “underprivileged” student — you have been given enormous advantages and privileges (an education that prepares you for a prep school education, a teacher or parent who cares enough to tell you to apply) that most truly disadvantaged students do not eve receive. Teaching at prep schools is certainly helping many students, but don’t fool yourself into thinking prep school students are really “disadvantaged” or “underprivileged.” I come from a poor background, but now that I’m at Yale, I would never call myself “underprivileged,” and I wouldn’t expect my Yale professors to think of themselves as having an impact on the life of a “disadvantaged” student by teaching me, either.

  • DC10abc

    TFA is about changing the system from within so that all children have access to an excellent education. Any aspiring teacher who truly espouses this vision will not find teaching at an independent school a meaningful alternative to working in a public school.

    In addition, I believe that the author of this piece has exaggerated the level of socioeconomic diversity at prep schools. I can speak only from my own experience, but the breadth of life experiences of the relatively disadvantaged students at my NYC prep school was leaps and bounds beyond the life experience of even the most well-off among the public school students I teach now. The infuriating piece of all this is that I can list five to ten students of the 75 I teach who are intellectually absolutely capable, no question, of competing with kids at elite private schools. These kids, however, are simply too far behind (the curriculum for their state ensures this) to make it to these elite schools. Excellent teachers are all the more necessary in schools where the stakes are higher. This is not a matter of a teacher inspiring one or two disadvantaged students to achieve great things. This is a matter of excellent teachers (yes, there must be many) continuously exposing their students to new vocabulary and new ideas and constantly pushing their students simply so that they can catch up to their better-off peers nationwide.

    There is nothing wrong with teaching at a prep school, and it is certainly guaranteed to make a difference in the life of a child. There is a huge discrepancy, though, between TFA’s mission and vision and the justification you offer for teaching in private or independent schools.