By Kendra James
On 2-3-14 I sat down to live tweet the television premier of the documentary
American Promise. The film follows two Black students, Idris and Seun, as the begin kindergarten at an elite college prep school in New York City and highlights the challenges and as they face along the way.
I haven’t seen it yet, despite hearing about it from almost every Black student I went to high school w/ over the past year.
(I’m and I attended for high school, so the film’s subject matter is one near and dear to my heart.)
Do you know if it’s streaming anywhere? I have no TV.
B/C I haven’t seen the film yet, I’m not sure exactly what this livetweet will yield. Consider this an open discussion when we begin!
American Promise follows students Idris and Seun as they begin Kindergarten at the Dalton School in NYC through high school.
Can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to have cameras following you around from the age of 5, espec. in such a stressful school enviro.
I was at a screening with Idris’ mom and they said it came out to only a couple hours per month.
31% of Dalton Students grad. to Ivy League universities. That track starts in kindergarden
Idris’ mother didn’t want to go to the Dalton interview at first, not wanting to put him in an environment with rich, ungrounded white kids.
But ultimately she wants him to be able to compete with his peers and thinks this is the best way to do it.
I’ll be livetweeting American Promise in 15 minutes. It’s been screening since Sundance 2013, but this is the 1st national broadcast.
Seun’s parents want him to be comfortable around white folks. “Even at this point I am not comfortable around white folks,” says his mother
“We hover at 25% kids of colour,” Dalton admissions.
“”Diversity is a big commitment of ours, but I won’t accept a kid if they cant handle the work,” Dalton Admissions
unless the parents are rich “”Diversity..big commitment. ..won’t accept a kid if they cant handle the work,” Dalton Admissions
It is so odd that ppl think diversity & talent is an either/or proposition. It is often both/and
What does handle the work mean? Didn’t give a donation?
Kids of colour as defined by admissions: Black, Latino, Caribbean, Asian.
“: Kids of colour as defined by admissions: Black, Latino, Caribbean, Asian.” … No (as usual)
. It took a whole meeting at one point when it came to putting separate checkboxes for “Black” and “African-American”.
. I work in IS admissions– if you’re NDN, unfortunately you’ve gotta check the “other” box.
(We can get more into independent school admissions later if y’all have specific questions.)
A few people asking about how money/donations plays into IS admissions. I’ll come back to that, I promise.
“I’ve been the only black child in the classroom,” Seun’s father. Talks about feeling singled out in history classes specifically.
god, i thought this was over.
“Idris is fine, he got into a little brouhaha.” At age 9, Idris is being suspended for suposedly hitting a student and lying about it.
(Honour codes at independent schools are wide spread and taken seriously.)
“They’ve decided that our son is a problem. He’s not a problem at home or in the community. He’s a problem at *Dalton*,” Idris’ father.
“At my basketball team, I get made fun of. They say, oh you talk like a white boy.” 9 year old Idris talking about his daily codeswitching.
Idris changes his voice when he’s with his basketball league, and says he talks “normal” at Dalton.
In seeing American Promise, I was reminded of how little it takes to care about people…
…and how, after only 2 hours with them, how deeply I cared about those two boys…
…and how, those boys are the boys on the corner and on the train, and how all too often we don’t connect the two.
Seun’s been diagnosed with dyslexia: something Dalton should have the resources to assist with.
Idris and Seun are in a school tutoring program– they’re the only two in the grade in it. Idris’ mother is worried about the perception.
Has the school put them in the program b/c they’re the two Black boys in the grade? How is the school perceiving them?
Idris’ father brings up that other students have the money to spend up to 30k on outside tutoring. How are fin. aid students to keep up?
Seun: “I hate school. It’s bad, it’s hard, and I’m in the 6th grade.”
“We expect a lot of independence from students, if they don’t have those skills by 6th grade things start to fall apart.” Dalton admissions
The school’s implying that Idris needs to be on medication for his impulse control/acting out. “His self esteem is falling,” Idris’ father.
“I think they’re other black boys there who aren’t doing that well emotionally.” Idris’ father on the school’s treatment.
“You start to think that everyone who goes here must be brilliant, but that’s not the case… white kids have issues, but 95% of…
…the Black kids have problems in that place. It’s not natural.” Seun’s mother on Dalton.
“What perception are we giving our children of themselves by putting them in this environment?” asks one Black parent.
Seun is placed on academic watch when 8th grade begins. If he doesn’t improve, the school won’t invite him back for 9th grade.
The transition from Public HS to Independent HS was hard enough– cannot imagine switching in reverse if that’s all you know.
“If I was white, I’d be better off, isn’t that true? At this school?” Asks Idris, re: dating.
Seun’s being pressured by Dalton to test for specialised public high schools.
“After you leave Dalton, where do you go?” ask Seun’s parents.
“We don’t have the same problem with AA girls. They do okay. There’s a cultural disconnect with AA boys.” Dalton admissions
“What are we doing wrong w/ AA Boys?” Dalton admissions.
Idris is continuing into HS at Dalton. Seun goes to public school in Brooklyn.
Don’t let, “we don’t have the same problem with AA girls” fool you. It took me until my senior year to really find my footing at Taft.
And I watched two AA girls get kicked out the year I arrived on a trumped up honour code violation charge. There are issues.
The loss of those two girls reduced the number of AA girls in my graduating class to a whopping total of 5.
“: And I watched two AA girls get kicked out…. trumped up honour code violation charge.” I saw that when I was in college too
I want to say it was ~9 AA students total that graduated with me from Taft in ’06.
I was the first and only black graduate from Cape Fear Academy in Wilmington, NC, in the mid-80s.
. I was the first Black legacy student to graduate from Taft. The school was founded in 1890.
“White parents are never saying I’m gonna take my kid out of this all white environment and put them in a Black one.” PS teacher
Not exactly the same, my kid’s in our 75% Latino CPS school b/c I didn’t want the all-white school of my youth.
Idris father after Obama’s election “What we’re doing with our kids to could pay off. Maybe you could be productive, happy, and worthwhile.”
Seun’s mother is working two jobs while going through chemo every other week for cancer in her colon and lymph nodes.
The classroom settings in this doc. are striking. Moreso than the facilities/resources, parents are paying for small class sizes…
…and the seminar-esque discussion styles you get at independent schools vs. the large public school classes.
Idris facing a demotion from varisty to JV on his basketball team– taking it hard a long with the other stress from school + ADHD diagnosis
“I know I have trouble focusing. I think I should be on medicine…. it might give me the tools to do better.” says Idris.
“I just wish Idris had half the drive that I had at his age.” Idris’ mother.
Seun’s joining clubs at school in an attempt to boost his transcript. Travels to Africa with the African tourism club.
“Imagine if everyone who’s a product of the African diaspora said they were part of the diaspora. That’d be unifying,” says Seun’s friend.
At 16 Idris is beginning the college application process– a v. stressful time at most independent schools.
Independent schools pride themselves on sending kids to Ivys and schools like MIT, Stanford, etc. Not living up to that can weigh heavy.
Seun’s brother dies in a car accident a week before his birthday– Seun is the one to find him.
Seun’s also started the college process. While Idris is already visiting and touring, Seun hasn’t finalised his list.
“I need to see some enthusiasm, Shay. Because that’s going to dictate how much money we shell out.” Convo is very different in Seun’s house.
“I want to go to college. But as for applying? I have not done that yet. I need to soon,” says Seun.
Independent Schools are big on the “college going culture”. Students who grad. from a place like Dalton are expected to attend college.
While I generally support a “college going culture” that genuinely freaks me out.
Even if they lack enthusiasm there will be a college advisor to walk them through the application process and *ensure* it happens.
That doesn’t happen at most public schools– especially not in NYC. In Dalton, Seun would have been nearly forced to apply.
Only for the students who they are tracking or consider college material. that is the public school method.
Because if you survive to the point of graduating, the schools *need* you to matriculate to a college. It makes them look better.
Financial Aid for his family would have been fully researched, and it’s likely someone would have helped him with the paperwork if he needed
But they don’t necessarily prepare their AA (or POC) students to *finish* college, or for the adjustment. Therein lies 1 of the major issues
I graduated as only black girl in grade. Product of Early Steps. I’ve come a mighty long way.
#AmericanPromise … we need to thrive NOT just survive as Blacks
Idris has been accepted to Morehouse, Occidental, and U of Vermont.
Idris didn’t get into his first choice schools, and had decided on Occidental. His parents are treating it as if he didn’t get in anywhere.
Seun was accepted to Cobbleskill.
Seun’s finally visiting his campus with his parents. Thrilled to see him go off at the end of this, after everything he went through.
“We’re disappointed, but not disappointed in you.” Idris’ parents are saying about his college decisions.
watching this it seems like his parents are constantly disappointed in him. so frustrating to watch these interactions.
Their reaction to Oxy, U of V, and Moorehouse, all great schools, is a good reminder of the problematic nature of our college culture.
Those are three wonderful schools (I wanted to go to Occidental!) but they’re not brand name schools.
And honestly the process should be about where you think you’ll be happiest not the name of the institution
His mother even said he had recieved a great package from Occidental. Given the amount of $$$ I owe on loans right now that sounds amazing.
I chose Oberlin, a private school, over Rutgers, a stare school that offered me a full package for four years.
Part of that was due to academics but a *huge* part of it was Independent School encouraged… ,I think “hubris”, might be the best word.
I don’t regret going to Oberlin one bit, but I do wish I’d understood more of what I was getting into –financially– beforehand.
I chose private university over state school.The private university’s racial climate was extremely hostile.
but, private university w racially hostile environment paid my whole tuition. I felt stuck. Chose college over being healthy.
these are the kind of decisions students of color from low income backgrounds have to make and it still makes no damn sense.
Advisors at independent schools aren’t necessarily breaking that down for their kids.
Also, given that Idris worked so hard for the Obama campaign I was surprised no one pointed out to him that BHO started there.
. Kept wondering about that. His parents seemed unable to focus on anything positive during that college process.
We had a few jabs about donations/$$ playing into admissions earlier. No: places at these schools aren’t always going to the smartest kids.
Tuition at my HS is $50k this year and yes, there are several kids there from families who are writing full checks.
As unfair as it is, admissions depts get a lot more stingy and stringent about grades when it comes to awarding money to low income students
Most financial aid at these schools is completely need based. No merit scholarships.So they have the room to be picky.
BUT: I don’t want us thinking that all POC kids who attend independent schools are there via financial aid or programs. They’re not.
Quite the contrary actually. In fact, a major culture clash for me was class-based, NOT racial…and that included other PoC.
I used to get lumped in with the kids from programs like ABC, or TEAK, or Prep bc we (POC kids) all hung out together.
One issue independent schools have is that they don’t actively recruit POC kid whose families can afford them when searching for “diversity”
Which creates a lack of socio-economic and racial diversity all of its own.
That’s all for tonight because it’s late on the EST, but if there’s interest, more tomorrow + when PBS airs “The Prep School Negro” on 2-11.
In the morning Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch asked what people thought of the documentary. With sleep and a few hours to think about it, these were my final impressions:
It brought up some good points abt schools, but I can’t get over how bad the parents came off looking.
Idris’ parents– the filmmakers, I should specify.
I felt like it was very surface. A lot of things thrown out, but no one was questioned on any statements.
I agree with . Started off good and but turned into a shaming and mockery of sorts IMO.
right. i was trynna figure out what larger truths might be gleaned from this kid’s particular story…
I think there would have been more to be said about admissions/perception of Black boys from…
the staff at Dalton? But no one pressed for any response there when they were interviewed.
They just let them throw out statements like, “we have a problem with AA boys” and didn’t elaborate.
And I think an examination of that as it related to Idris wouldve been more interesting than…
watching his parents yell at him for 2 hours.
and then on the other hand we have Seun becoming less and less apart of the narrative
Part of me wonders if Seun eventually just said, “Please leave me alone.”
I wouldve. If anything that film made me glad I was in boarding school AWAY from parents.
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