Is Private School “America’s Promise?”

Is Private School “America’s Promise?”

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

I’m only about one year late on this, but I just watched the documentary American Promise last night. (Thank you, Netflix!). While I enjoyed watching the film immensely, I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth. For those of you who haven’t heard about this powerful documentary, in a nutshell, a Black couple decided to film their son’s education from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Think of it as one long, endless reality show, but with a point. What that point was exactly, I’m not sure.

I don’t know anything about the filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michéle Stephenson, except what’s presented in the film, and what’s presented is that they made the decision to send their son Idris to one of Manhattan’s most prestigious private schools in Manhattan, The Dalton School. Idris’ best friend Seun, also Black, was also accepted to Dalton and so the film begins as the two youngsters embark on an elite private school education. I don’t know what inspired Brewster and Stephenson to turn a camera on their son and his friend, but it was a fascinating journey to watch. Why? Because real life is fascinating, especially when you can condense 13 years into two hours. Check the trailer:

So, yes this film was riveting. I laughed, I cried, I stayed up way past my bedtime to see what was going to happen to these two Black boys dropped into a mostly White, extremely wealthy environment. And what happened was, both boys failed to thrive at Dalton. And while Seun’s parents ultimately chose to take him out of Dalton and place him in an Afrocentric public school, Idris’ parents – Brewster and Stephenson – kept him there and all I could think was, WHY? It looked to me like Idris was having a miserable time at school once he got past the fifth grade and the academics started getting really hard. And his parents seemed miserable too, trying to keep up with their son’s homework and schedule, always pushing him to do better and always worrying that perhaps Idris was being unfairly evaluated because of his race. I kept waiting for them to have their V8 moment and realize that they were all killing themselves for a prize that’s not guaranteed.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the film, we find out that Idris was not accepted into any of the prestigious colleges he applied to. It was a huge disappointment to his parents and us, the viewing public who bought into the idea that all of the sacrifices Brewster and Stephenson were making and Idris was enduring, would be worth a golden ticket to Stanford. But it wasn’t. And you have to wonder, at least I wonder, was it all worth it? Personally, I don’t think so. I think Idris could have gone to a less prestigious, less White school, gotten a great education, perhaps enjoyed his childhood a little more, felt less alienated as a Black person and still gotten into a good university.

So, I’m left wondering when private school at an elitist institution became America’s promise? Why are parents, of any race or ethnicity, willing to sacrifice so much to send their children to institutions of such academic rigor and soul-crushing workloads? What’s the trophy they’re hoping to collect? I wonder if people spent half the amount of time and money they spend on private school tuition and all of its associated extras on supporting public education, community institutions and simply spending quality time with their children, where we’d be as a country? Personally, I just pulled my two older boys out of private school. Not only is my bank account a thousand times happier, but my boys are too as they have a far more diverse student body to be a part of, more eclectic courses to choose from and quite frankly, a more realistic perspective of the current state of world affairs. And I’m confident both of my boys will be going to top-ranked colleges when they graduate because the academics are also really rigorous. And if they don’t, they’ll go to a second-tier rated college and still be fine.

Check back in four years and I’ll let you know how things worked out for son #1. Sadly, I don’t have a camera charting his progress.

So, dear readers. Have any of you seen American Promise? What did you think? I would really love to hear other people’s opinions.

Peace!

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2 thoughts on “Is Private School “America’s Promise?”

  1. Jane

    Good post. I am impressed you accept that your kids will do fine in a 2nd tier school. Intellectual curiosity and a career arising from that comes, I think, mostly from family nurturing and maybe a curiosity gene.
    My brothers and I went to nearly all white high schools. Two of us went to hbc’s and one to a junior college. One brother became a national figure and the other two, me included, had good lives but nothing spectacular.
    I’m telling you all this to say that people can be successful with both family nurturing and a good, not necessarily excellent, eduction. Although I do think I had an excellent education at my hbc.
    One of my kids went to a 7 sisters, one went to a CA state school and one to an HBC. 7 sisters = artist and art teacher; CA state school = nurse practicioner and Morehouse = lawyer (my husband and I are lawyers).
    Intellectual interest comes from the family and possibly a curiosity gene.

    1. Ms. Meltingpot

      Jane,
      Thanks for the lengthy comment. I appreciate you sharing. And I agree that to a great extent how well our kids do depends on something intrinsic in their character and the support they receive from family that they can do whatever they set their minds to. At the end of the day, kids can go to AMAZING schools and end up with a “normal” life. But the real issue is how do you define success? I think making a good living doing something you love is the epitome of success and an Ivy league school can’t guarantee that.

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