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.Porter-Gaud students in the science classroom.
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.
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.
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.
Photo of Porter-Gaud building by leesean on Flickr.