HPL Hosts American Promise Panel Discussion: Is Private School the Answer?

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Audience members watching the documentary American Promise
Audience members watching the documentary American Promise at Hartford Public Library

On February 8, 2014, Hartford Public Library (downtown) hosted a screening of the documentary American Promise and a panel discussion at the Center for Contemporary Studies. Around 25 people were in attendance. As the audience viewed the film, a central question began to unfold and become the main topic of discussion.  In the quest for the American dream, is private school the answer to attain success?  American Promise shows that for students of color, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and private institutions can fail to make them feel included.  The interactive discussion that followed the screening unpacked the benefits and downfalls of private school education and what public schools can learn from them.

Over a span of 13 years, Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster’s documentary captured the educational triumphs and trials of their son Idris and his best friend Seun. These parents decided to send their children to the prestigious Dalton School because it would provide them with  an education that would allow them to be successful. As two of the few black students, Idris and Seun faced issues that spanned beyond the classroom. The implications of race and class in a predominately white institution were prevalent throughout the film, and it clearly impacted the boys’ intellectual/personal development. Furthermore, the self-esteem issues that Idris and Seun faced made the value of this experience questionable at times.

At the age of nine, the Dalton teachers described Idris as a “hard to manage” student who was often disruptive. Seun was seen as a student who was “bright”, but had difficulty focusing on tasks at hand. The documentary captured the transition of the boys from doe-eyed, color-blind six-year-olds to young men who realized that they were not like the other kids and the treatment they received from faculty was different. Due to feelings of isolation and their parents’ inability to afford the privileged lifestyles of the other students, Seun and Idris had a difficult time performing in school. Seun crumbled under the pressure of dyslexia. Even with extra tutoring, his sense of self and motivation diminished over time at Dalton. Ultimately, he went to public high school in Brooklyn. Idris was able to graduate from Dalton with countless hours of extensive, extra help from his parents and proper management of his newly found ADHD. Both of the boys were able to go on to college.

For the sake of the fantastic opportunity at Dalton, Seun and Idris’ parents tried their best to be pillars of strength for their children as the boys lost self-confidence in private school. For students of color who are seeking out the best opportunities, is private school the answer? What can public schools learn from them?

Stan Simpson, a current affairs talk show host and a former columnist for the Hartford Courant, moderated the panel discussion.  The panelists included Milly Arciniegas (Executive Director of the Hartford Parent University), Lee Huguley (Dean of Students at the Westminster School) and Adam Johnson (Director of Secondary Education for the Capital Region Education Council).  Stan Simpson kicked off the panel discussion with the question  “What’s the secret sauce of private schools and why can’t that be duplicated in public schools?”  Lee Huguley dived into the question by explaining, “Students and faculty at private school have a different type of connection. Specifically from my experience in private boarding school, there is a lot of contact time with the students.”  Lee followed up by asking  “Do you think the success of private schools stems from a pool of high achievers and active parents as we saw in the documentary?” Lee disagreed and explained that seeing the kids in their own environment allows faculty to really know who they are both inside and outside of the classroom. Johnson added that private schools are able to “remove kids from negative, outside influences” and “allows students to establish and draw on networks for the rest of their lives”. These factors create a very rich learning environment for the students. As a champion for public schools, Arciniegas explained “public schools have gotten away from accountability. Public schools need and should have the best and parents have to want more”. She elaborated by explaining that if there were faculty members in private schools that weren’t doing their best, they would be fired. Public schools should be doing the same.

As the discussion continued, the panelists agreed that private schools should not be seen as the only option for students to get the best education. However, in order for public school students to perform to the highest standard, a combination of things must be in place. Johnson pointed out that leadership in schools is key. When he was a principal at Law & Government Academy, he wanted to make it the best experience possible for the students. Arciniegas went on to assert that parents also play an active role in their children’s educational development. However, the kids should drive their own success and parents should be there for inspiration. Arciniegas felt that Idris’ parents were not allowing him to develop due to their strict control of his life.

Regardless of whether children of color attend private or public schools, the panelists explained that perception of self is the key to success.  For minority students, many of the hardships that may come from attending a private school stems from feelings of inadequacy in the new culture. Huguley noticed that there was a lack of mentors in the documentary, which is particularly essential for the students’ adjustment. He explained that boys like Idris and Seun (whether they are in public or private school) need someone in school that they could count on for motivation.

In conclusion, students of color can attain success in any type of school. It is a combination of external and internal factors that can either make or break a student.  All schools should have the best in order to provide an environment that is conducive to high achievement. As pointed out by the panelists and the experiences of Idris and Seun, there is no one-size-fits-all model. Private school is not necessarily the answer.


 XRS (Class of 2014) is a sociology major with minors in French studies and community action. She is from Brooklyn, NY and attended public schools before going to Trinity College.