Good intentions sometimes lead to effective action, but there’s nothing quite like a sudden civic crisis to spark institutional change.
In recent years, Porter-Gaud and Ashley Hall have become increasingly aware of, and concerned about, their lack of diversity. They are elite private schools that historically have served Charleston’s privileged white families.
Porter-Gaud got its start in 1867, but wasn’t integrated until 1967. Ashley Hall was founded in 1909, but the first Black student didn’t graduate from there until 1976. Today, around 10 percent of the student body at each school is Black because of recruitment and financial aid policies.
But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, the protests that have been drawing attention to police brutality and endemic discrimination in the U.S. against people of color, institutions across the country are examining their histories, questioning their practices and striving to adjust to demands for accountability.
Porter-Gaud and Ashley Hall each issued statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. But that was hardly adequate for many of their graduates. Alumni submitted letters to school leaders expressing concerns over insufficient diversity and asking for substantive changes. Their message: Action speaks louder than words.
Concerned graduates of Porter-Gaud wrote: “Despite the school’s note acknowledging the death of George Floyd, we are disheartened by the lack of specific action. We know Porter-Gaud to be a place that supports and cares for its students. But our school must do much more to welcome and support students of color, particularly Black students, and to teach all Porter-Gaud students how to actively engage in anti-racism.” The letter was signed by around 500 alumni in a week’s time.
Graduates of Ashley Hall went a step further, forming an organization called the PQV Action Network (PAN), “a group of committed, diverse, and aligned alumnae who seek to bring true equity, diversity, and inclusion to Ashley Hall” and who expect the school “to use its resources for good to provide all students a safe and loving space to grow.”
Its letter, signed by around 200 people as of last week, listed several explicit demands, including formal school support for the Black Lives Matter movement, a new director of diversity and inclusion, curriculum changes, teacher diversification and training and more.
Both letters present the two schools with formidable challenges. Porter-Gaud alumni urged collaboration with school officials to make specific changes. Ashley Hall alumnae insisted on a wholesale cultural shift.
One would not be faulted for assuming the letters put school leaders on the defensive.
DuBose Egleston, Porter-Gaud’s head of school, said he was happy to hear from graduates.
“To get over 500 alumni to sign a letter in a week shows passion and engagement,” he said. “Every school dreams of that. Maybe we taught them well! We’ve got alumni with purpose. That’s a huge plus.”
Jill Muti, Ashley Hall’s head of school, also expressed optimism.
“I’m so proud of the alumnae who care so deeply and passionately about this topic,” she said, adding that the ghosts of the past stuck in the school’s basement need to be released and confronted.
But both leaders also were quick to point out that much has been done in recent years that conforms to what the letter writers want, and both said they were eager to share some good news with their graduates, and equally eager to collaborate on additional reforms.
“One challenge that I’m facing internally is that many of the alumnae who have signed the document don’t realize how much work has been done,” Muti said. “Looking back as an adult” — whose worldview and political opinions now are well-formed — “doesn’t always provide a clear view of recent progress.” Nor does it always acknowledge inherent institutional limitations, she added.
Nevertheless, she said, she embraces the opportunity to continue to examine school practices and implement changes, and she welcomes the help offered by graduates.
“I’ve called for the formation of a task force to look at this between July and November,” she said. The task force will include administrators, faculty, parents and, of course, alumnae.
Egleston said the alumni letter opens wide a door of engagement and makes clear the enthusiasm expressed by graduates who deeply care about their alma mater.
“We do want to capture that, use this opportunity to tell them what we’ve done,” he said. The administration plans on setting up Zoom meetings soon to foster ongoing engagement. “But this isn’t about patting ourselves on the back. None of these initiatives ever finish.”
The school must remain vigilant, constantly examining its progress, failures, and gaps, he said. “It’s a never-ending process. There are no check boxes.”
Certain changes are easier to make than others because the school has full control over them, Egleston added. Curriculum, for instance. And religious education (Porter-Gaud is affiliated with The Episcopal Church), which promotes appreciation for all faith traditions. Other changes require more time and effort, and can be influenced by outside factors, such as the state of the economy or the characteristics of the city, which might or might not appeal to potential students, teachers and staff.
Despite the challenges and uncertainties, administrators and alumni at both schools seem to be on the same page, and hopeful about cooperative action.
A safe space
Ashley Hall currently has 625 full-time students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 20 percent of them are people of color; of those, 10 percent are Black. Tuition ranges from $20,000 a year for kindergarten students to $28,000 for high school-level students.
Since 2012, the school has increased scholarship funding for minority students, and aid to students has increased, Muti said. Today, about 30 percent of girls attending Ashley Hall receive some amount of scholarship assistance. Close to half of all scholarships go to students from underrepresented communities.
The school will welcome its first Black board member this summer, alumna Kendra Hamilton, a professor of literature at Presbyterian College. Recruiting her has been a two-year process, Muti said. The board also will welcome its first Chinese member this year, reflecting an increase in international students at the school in recent years.
Tiffany Dayemo, a Black 2011 graduate, lawyer and founder of PAN, now 27 and working in Washington, D.C., on technology policy and international law, said she has been thinking about her years at Ashley Hall and how students of color, no matter their socio-economic backgrounds, were not always heard.
“Diversity is beneficial to all students, it prepares them for the world,” she said. “Our mission is not only (to foster) a safe space for people of color, but to nurture leaders.”
And that takes more than scholarships. Socio-economic diversity is just part of the solution, Dayemo said. Besides, the narrative that all Black students must be aid recipients is potentially harmful and derogatory. Charleston, she pointed out, includes Black professionals who might be able to afford the tuition.
In other words, it’s possible to maintain Ashley Hall’s high standards and achieve a more diverse school population at the same time, she said.
Shannon Laribo, a 26-year-old Black graduate now working in education in Charleston, agreed, pointing out that other elite institutions have done a good job creating a diverse and welcoming environment.
But diversifying the population is only half the battle, she said.
“Even if you have these students there, if they don’t feel like they belong, if they don’t feel included ... they won’t take advantage of the opportunities that are there,” Laribo said.
Rebecca Blank, a 28-year-old white alumna and educator in Nashville, said it’s essential to foster a welcoming environment for minority students, which requires across-the-board changes.
“It’s unethical to bring in students just for the sake of diversity, without creating a safe space for them,” she said.
That’s why the new alumni group she helped form must play a central role in these efforts, she added.
“The fact is, a white-led school is going to naturally have a lot of blind spots,” Blank said. Alumnae who have had time to reflect on their experiences and suggest solutions can help a lot.
Miller Bianucci, a white alumna of the class of 2011, said she only began to appreciate the legacy of slavery and systemic racism and inequality while studying at the University of Oxford, where she was part of the African Studies program.
“It should not have taken a master’s degree for me to understand,” she said. “These issues really weren’t discussed in school (at Ashley Hall).” History was viewed mostly through one lens. “I believe many perspectives are needed.”
Muti said she wants to harness all the positive energy and start by being honest about Charleston’s fraught history and about campus life. Ashley Hall has long strived to provide girls with a sense of belonging and purpose, but it hasn’t always succeeded.
“We have to examine what we can, systemically, at our school through the health and wellness program, through our curriculum, to make a safe space to have these conversations,” she said.
She noted that when she arrived at Ashley Hall in 2004, the faculty included no Black teachers. Today there are six. It’s a start, but more must be done, despite inherent obstacles over which the school has little control, she said, citing more robust job markets in bigger cities that tend to lure Black professionals and pay them better wages.
But the effort to find racial reconciliation and create diverse working environments ought to be centered in the American South, Muti said.
“The nation won’t be healed at all until we do the deep work and heavy lifting in the Deep South.”
Porter-Gaud currently enrolls about 1,000 students. A little more than 12 percent are people of color; of those, 10 percent are Black. Tuition is $22,000 a year for lower school grades and $27,000 a year for middle and upper school.
The school now has 25 diversity scholarships that draw from an Equity and Inclusion Fund. It awarded $2.4 million in financial aid for the 2020-21 academic year, supporting 25 percent of the student body. Already it has made some curriculum changes, adding topics such as white privilege, unconscious bias, social justice and more. Its English reading lists include more authors of color and more women writers.
Greg Rouse, a 27-year-old graduate now working as a defense attorney, said he was the only Black male student in his grade when he first arrived at Porter-Gaud as a young child.
“I’m happy with the progress being made,” he said. But more is needed.
Charleston is a place where history can be found in the front yard, he said. You don’t need to go far to bump into it. It’s also a city that was ground zero for the North American slave trade. So part of the effort must include direct and in-depth lessons about the treatment of African Americans and other marginalized groups, he said. Greater understanding of the experiences of others leads to empathy, and empathy helps to neutralize persistent prejudice and discrimination.
What’s more, he said, diversifying the curriculum and the student body will strengthen Porter-Gaud’s reputation as an elite school. To maintain its status, “you have to let people who aren’t like you in," Rouse said. “It will make you a more well-rounded, better person.”
Ultimately, he said, Porter-Gaud’s population ought to reflect that of the wider community. And Rouse thinks the administration shares that desire.
Anna Mack is a 27-year-old alumna now working on Broadway. She signed the letter because current events have prompted many Americans to look inward and consider how they can improve their institutions.
“We can all be doing better,” she said. “This is a call to action. ... As a signer, I just feel as though Porter-Gaud is in a very special position being where it is in the country.”
Leveraging its resources and elite status, the school should set an example for others, Mack said.
“Why can’t Porter-Gaud trailblaze the way?” And why can’t alumni play a leading role? “The places that molded us, we help mold.”
Flora Boatwright is a 2015 graduate who attended Porter-Gaud for three years and understood she was in a protective bubble. She said the school’s status is a result of class hierarchies that have produced various bubbles of privilege and excluded many who deserve access.
“It’s kind of racist to create an education system based on class,” she observed.
Porter-Gaud, therefore, must diversify its faculty, which today is overwhelmingly white, Boatwright said. It must make structural changes, bucking the status quo, in an effort to combat racism and promote inclusion, even at an institution that historically benefited from the opposite.
“There’s no easy or immediate fix,” she added. “I don’t expect them to fix everything overnight.” But she’s encouraged by the school’s response to the letter she signed.
At the table
W. Melvin Brown III, an emergency room doctor, is a 1987 graduate of Porter-Gaud who now serves on the board. His daughter is a student there.
Porter-Gaud and Ashley Hall have more Black students than Buist and Academic Magnet, both part of Charleston County’s public school system, he noted.
His alma mater has made important strides, and now it needs to bring its alumni up to speed, Brown said.
The board includes three African Americans, he said. Women also play important roles.
When he was a student, he was one of just four African Americans in his class, and one of perhaps 10 total. The school offered little scholarship assistance to underprivileged children. That has changed dramatically, Brown said. But more scholarship funding is needed if the school hopes to build on its successes.
The commitment is evident now, but it will need to be renewed year after year, he said.
Dwayne Green, an African American attorney, was in Brown’s same class. He joined the board in 2005 and served eight years, overseeing the formulation of a new strategic plan and diversity efforts.
“Turning around a school like Porter-Gaud is like turning around a ship,” Green said. “You can’t just go from 10 Black students to 100 students in one year. You have to gain trust in the community, you have to get talented Black teachers.”
The diversity achieved so far didn’t happen by accident; it was a result of deliberate investigations, strategies and practices, he said. The extended support from alumni will help propel the school forward.
“The fact that alumni are driving this is just proof that the board succeeded in creating people concerned about diversity,” Green said. “The support has to be institutional, it has to be purposeful. If it’s not part of the ingrained culture of leadership, then diversity doesn’t become part of institutional culture.”
Egleston, Porter-Gaud’s head of school, said it will be an ongoing process that produces intended and unintended consequences. Stakeholders will encounter hurdles, cope with external factors and celebrate successes.
The goal is to burst the bubble, to provide students access to the world and its harsh realities, to foster empathy and to pursue an agenda of social justice. He is glad to have the help of Porter-Gaud alumni.
“We have got to get everyone at the table,” he said.