Wendy Van Amson is the co-founder of the Independent Schools Diversity Network (“ISDN”), an alliance of parents and educators dedicated to facilitating diversity efforts within the New York City independent school community. Wendy and her co-founder Esther Hatch formed ISDN in 2003. Wendy and her husband have three children: a daughter who is a college sophomore, a daughter who is a senior in high school, and a son who is a high school sophomore. All three children have attended independent schools since kindergarten. Wendy sat down with Ground Control Parenting to talk about ISDN and her experiences as a parent in the independent school system.
GCP: What experiences led you to create the Independent Schools Diversity Network?
WVA: Having three children at three different New York City private schools, I joined the parent diversity committee in all three schools, believing that doing the same volunteer job in all schools would be simpler—but it wasn’t. These experiences led me to form the Diversity Leadership Council, with representatives from many of the independent schools on Manhattan’s Upper East and West side, in an effort to build a network of schools that could work together on diversity issues. I met Esther Hatch when we sat together on a diversity panel for the New York City chapter of the National Association of Independent Schools. Esther had been doing the same kind of coalition building with downtown independent schools, and we decided to join forces and work together. The Independent Schools Diversity Network was formed in 2003.
GCP: What is ISDN’s mission and what does it do to carry out that mission?
WVA: ISDN is a coalition of parents and educators interested in furthering diversity initiatives in New York City independent schools. We provide educational forums for parents and educators, and organize affinity group activities, including single sex group activities for boys and girls of color in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades, and an annual 7th and 8th grade Diversity dance. The Diversity Dance, which is open to all, drew 300 students from 32 schools in the New York City area this year. We started this dance 8 years ago to give young people from a variety of schools the chance to meet one another before high school began. This year we inaugurated a “Mommy, Daddy and Me” program for parents and children in kindergarten, first and second grades.
In order to address the achievement gap among children of color, last spring ISDN launched “On Track”, a pilot program on Saturday mornings for 5th through 8th graders focused on developing leadership skills and self-esteem. This fall we added two additional classes, Writing/Study Skills and Math. It is working out quite well–the feedback on this program has been great.
GCP: What kind of help has ISDN found that parents of color in independent schools need?
WVA: We have found that parents need a support group, a place where parents from a variety of independent schools can talk together honestly, openly and safely about their children and their children’s schools, and we provide this for them. We encourage parents not to suffer in silence, and to understand that others share their issues. Issues from “How could this school tell me that my brilliant son Johnny is struggling?” to “What do I do with a racially insensitive teacher, classmate, or parent?” come up frequently, and this is the place to talk about them.
As importantly, we empower parents to become better and more involved participants in their school community. We have heard so many parents say, “I want my child to be a part of that school, but I don’t want to be a part of that community”. This kind of thinking is not in their child’s best interest. We help them figure out how to embrace the school community and engage in the academic and social interaction that is an important part of their children’s lives at school. At least one parent has to do this in each family.
GCP: How can parents become involved with ISDN?
WVA: If parents live in the New York City area, we would love to have them join us, and they can contact me for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are currently rebuilding our website, www.isdnnyc.org, and it should be up in its new and improved form shortly. We would love to see ISDN become a franchised operation across the nation. We can’t go into every community and create an ISDN for them, but we can guide parents through the process of figuring out what to do and how to do it. We are not set up to do this yet, but it is in our master plan. Any parents interested in this concept should contact me as well.
GCP: How would you advise parents to proceed if they want to create a diversity committee in their children’s school?
WVA: There is no quick and simple formula for creating a committee. So much depends upon the institution, the involvement of the administration, and the interest level of the parent body, faculty and administration.
However, here are a few general steps to get started:
- Identify who is interested. All it takes is two interested people to start.
- Write a description of what you want to accomplish.
- Identify whom your targeted audience will be: Will it be open to all families or specifically to families of color? Will membership be limited to specific grades?
- Solicit the support of your division director for permission to meet within the school. If this is not possible, you can plan a meeting outside of the school (e.g., local restaurant, at someone’s home).
- Identify a date, time and location to meet. Consider what is the best day and time to reach your target audience (e.g., morning, evening or a Saturday meeting)
- Develop and distribute a flyer to advertise the meeting. Begin advertising the event at least one month in advance to your targeted audience via flyers, emails, school newsletter, phone calls or word of mouth.
- Fundamental issues to discuss at first meeting: What are the needs of your attendees? What are they interested in doing or achieving together? Will this group be solely for parents or will it include student activities? What will be the time & frequency of the meetings? Who will volunteer to do what?
Wendy had more insights to share, which we will feature in future posts. She and ISDN are a great example of what parents can do to make a difference for our sons and daughters in independent schools.