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Learning to diversify

Private schools in the L.A. area, once enclaves of the rich and white, are slowly changing.

December 11, 2006|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Each morning, an hourlong bus ride transports Maria Cortez from her home in a working-class neighborhood of North Hollywood to her second home on the lushly landscaped Brentwood campus of the Archer School for Girls, where she is a senior.

In North Hollywood, she lives in small apartment near busy Burbank Boulevard and shares one of two bedrooms with her 9-year-old brother. In Brentwood, she hangs out with the privileged daughters of celebrities and business moguls in a neighborhood of expansive lawns and expensive cars.

When she started at Archer in seventh grade, Maria was one of the first Latina students. Now 18, she sees a few more faces that resemble her own.

Despite their reputations as elitist enclaves of rich white kids, some independent schools, including Archer, are increasingly reaching out to girls like Maria as they attempt to transform their student bodies to reflect the world outside their doors.

Nationally, students of color made up 21% of all independent school students in 2005-06, up from 18% in 2000-01. At Archer, they make up 24% -- 120 of its 500 students. About 20% of students at the school -- where tuition tops $25,500 this year -- receive financial aid.

But widespread change at independent schools remains elusive. Many schools talk about diversity but their financial commitment to it varies.

Because they are private institutions, they are under no government pressure to integrate, said Stephan Reeves, president of Montage Diversity Consultants, a Pennsylvania firm created by private school graduates of color who are helping independent schools reach their diversity goals.

"Independent schools are set up with trustee boards that wield decision-making and financial power and make it difficult to effect institutional change very quickly," said Reeves. "I think many schools want to make these decisions, but it's a slow process. When they start allocating real funds and not just a few hundred dollars to go to a recruiting fair, then we'll see some real changes."

Most private schools recruit minority students through word of mouth; outside consultants; national nonprofits, including A Better Chance and the I Have a Dream Foundation; and the National Assn. of Independent Schools, whose diversity team sponsors conferences and workshops.

"It's important, if we're going to provide education and balance to students' lives, that we give them a racially diverse experience on campus that reflects the world they're going to live in," said Roger Weaver, headmaster at Crossroads School in Santa Monica.

But many schools' representatives say they find it hard to overcome stereotypes or geographic isolation to attract minorities. At St. Matthew's Parish School, an Episcopal day school of 325 students in Pacific Palisades, the share of minority students rose to 18% from 10% a few years ago, but not without a host of challenges, acknowledged head of school Les Frost.

"In many respects, we're a neighborhood school, which is a very nice thing to be, but when it comes to ethnic and racial diversity, it's a huge challenge," noted Frost.

'A second home'

When the Archer School opened 10 years ago, it was especially hard to recruit Latinas, whose families frequently choose public schools or lower-cost church-affiliated schools. Maria transferred from a small North Hollywood Christian school with 75 students.

Administrators are acutely aware of the girls' broad spectrum of backgrounds. The school requires most students to take Archer school buses that travel to and from the Sunset Boulevard campus, in part so that girls aren't confronted with "the new BMW someone got for their 16th birthday," said Arlene Hogan, head of school.

Still, some of Maria's first experiences were painful. The seventh grade girls who whipped out $100 bills as readily as sticks of gum made her angry.

Now some of those same girls are her best friends. She sleeps over at their mansions and they reciprocate in the apartment she shares with her mother, father and younger brother.

"This feels like a second home to me now," she said, sitting in the school's garden courtyard on a recent chilly morning.

Maria is waiting to hear whether she's been accepted at UCLA, Loyola Marymount, UC Berkeley and several other colleges.

"It hasn't been easy," she said. "I struggled a lot. But it feels good to be here and feel safe."

The school recently received a $5-million anonymous pledge for financial aid, which it has committed to match and plans to use to increase opportunities for girls from diverse backgrounds, Hogan said.

'Learn to mingle'

The Cate School, a college prep boarding school in Carpinteria with tuition at more than $36,000, provides financial aid to low-income families but also to those who make as much as $200,000 for whom boarding school would otherwise be a stretch.

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