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Diversity in International Schools: a New Era in Mexico City
By Sloane Starke 25-Mar-14
It has become a buzzword of our modern age, but what does “diversity” really mean? There are a number of associated ideas—from affirmative action and equal opportunity employment to multiculturalism and racial quotas. Due to its complexity, the real-world definition of diversity itself can be controversial and difficult to nail down. Diversity has long been a cornerstone of the American school experience. After all, the American School Foundation in Mexico City’s (ASF) first class of nine kindergarteners in 1888 had Mexican, British, and American students. Today, 125 years later, the student body includes citizens of more than three dozen countries. That is pretty diverse. Having a diverse community has always been a priority for the Board of Trustees and school leaders, who know the value learners derive from being exposed to different points of view. “Understanding,” an ASF core value, is based on the idea of experiencing differences and working through them to reach agreements. In late 2010, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a piece in Spain’s El País about a visit to a school in Sweden, Rinkeby School, where he encountered great cultural and religious diversity, coexisting with tolerance and high academic achievement. This reignited an important discussion on the subject among ASF trustees, says longtime trustee, ASF alumna and former parent Cathy Austin. “Concluding that diversity at ASF should include more than just nationalities, a task force was set up to consider the kind of diversity ASF should pursue, how to go about it and how to fund it,” Ms. Austin said. Today, three years later, ASF has a diversity statement and plan in place. What does it mean in practical terms? The evolution of diversity Executive Director Paul Williams echoed Austin’s account of those first conversations: “It started as general discussions within the community and also the Board, about strategic direction as included in the vision, bringing in the aspect of being a caring and diverse community. But what kind of diversity?” To find out, the Board formed a task force that included ASF administrators as well as community members from different areas—academia, law, finance and educational technology. The first need was for information. Reenrolling families were asked for much more demographic data than before, for statistical and analytical purposes. “We saw a certain diversity as far as beliefs, cultural differences, religions,” said Williams. “But we also found that the background of our families was very similar. Even though we had made great strides with socioeconomic diversity, we wanted to see how we could make the family base more diverse in terms of professions and backgrounds.” The task force also looked at ASF’s tuition and bench-marked it against bilingual institutions in Mexico City, which helped define the key role of financial aid in building diversity. In the end, the task force defined five key areas of distinction to foment in the ASF community—academics, arts, athletics, community service, and entrepreneurship. “We crafted recruiting guidelines to attract outstanding students and families from these areas, who espouse the mission and vision of the school, irrespective of their capacity to pay,” Ms. Austin said. “We are talking about including more families whose diverse professional backgrounds do not provide incomes that make ASF affordable,” Director of Admission and Financial Aid Patsy Martin de Hubp said. “We help them, and their presence benefits all of us. We believe these are families that would contribute a lot to ASF.” It’s a win-win situation, according to Ms. Hubp. “This kind of diversity is in line with our status as an IB World School,” she said. “It’s everything that we believe in.” Where are we now? Today, 10 students are enrolled at ASF, divided from elementary through upper school, as the first generation of diversity scholarship beneficiaries. In these cases, the Board has authorized discounting admission, registration, and tuition fees by 50 percent. ASF’s financial aid program has traditionally not included discounts on the admission and registration payments, so this is a major change. The plan is to add 10 more scholarships each year, until ASF reaches the Board goal of having at least 20 percent of the student body on financial aid, in line with the standards of the National Association of Independent Schools. The figure at ASF today is closer to 13 percent, and the vast majority of those are not designated diversity scholarships, and still will not be when the total reaches 20 percent. But the number of diversity scholarships will continue to rise. When the goal is reached, 20 percent of ASF students will benefit tangibly and financially, but 100 percent will benefit from an environment even more richly diverse with different ideas, opportunities and points of view. “It is going to allow people a better global understanding,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s a changing world. We want our community members to be exposed to many different opportunities in life. It also helps make students much more well-rounded.” To see how, just talk to scholarship recipients and their families. Andong Li, for example, is an upper school student and nationally ranked swimmer who received one of this year’s new scholarships. Aside from being a standout athlete, he also grew up in another state in Mexico, and his parents are from China. “My family and I have contributed to the diversity of the ASF community in a number of ways,” Andong said. “I have a somewhat different mentality about society, social interactions, Mexico, etc. than most students at ASF. And since my parents are from China, I have been raised in a different manner than other Mexicans.” Said Lorena Amaro, mother of a lower school scholarship recipient, “Due to my professional background—17 years working to integrate and include differently abled children in our communities—our son Fernando knows and is used to relating to children from low-income families who also have neuro-motor disabilities.” The ASF diversity policy has a multiplying effect, she pointed out, since Fernando not only brings his own type of diversity to campus, but he is also able to develop in the environment of social and cultural diversity that ASF provides. “Diversity is important because the school is opening to different ways of interacting with families from different backgrounds, professions and ways of thinking,” said Kelly Medina (‘86), an ASF alumna and mother of a scholarship student in the lower school. She and her husband, who have both worked as foreign language educators, are strong representatives of the “academic” area of the school’s diversity strategy. No definition of diversity can last forever, and adjustments are certain in the years to come. The five key areas may be only the beginning. “The diversity statement says ‘among others,’ so there is flexibility to grow,” Mr. Williams said. For now, the ASF Admission and Financial Aid Office continues to seek and recruit qualified students and families who will bring their own unique contributions to the school. And there are no better marketers and recruiters than the school’s current families. “We need families who know what ASF is all about, who are proactive, and who will help identify prospective families who might just need a nudge to approach ASF,” Ms. Hubp said.
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