How forward-thinking, long-term cultural change can advance your school’s DEI initiatives


How forward-thinking, long-term cultural change can advance your school’s DEI initiatives

Don't lose sight of the forest for the trees

Illustration of activists and books

Looking back across the last five years, independent schools have had to respond to multiple, major human rights flashpoints and social movements that most schools were not prepared for.

For example, schools have had to dialogue with students and the broader community on issues such as:

  • Polarizing political views amidst contentious election cycles
  • LGBTQ rights, as catalyzed by North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill”
  • Sexual abuse and misogyny in the wake of the #MeToo movement
  • Immigration and human rights abuse due to the family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border and refugee bans
  • Climate justice and Indigenous rights, as prompted by environmental protests
  • White supremacy and anti-Semitism in light of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA
  • Police brutality and systemic racism, brought to the forefront by George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement
  • Racial discrimination and institutional injustices in response to student experiences shared on "Black At" accounts

Following George Floyd’s murder and nationwide protests for racial justice—the most recent events in the list above—many independent schools have been, rightly so, laser-focused on advancing racial justice. However, as many schools find themselves charting new territory, they are often turning to a “set-it-and-forget-it” approach.

For example, in an EAB analysis of 80+ K-12 anti-racism statements released across the summer and fall of 2020, we found that only half of institutions cited any specific short-term actions (e.g., conduct a community listening tour) or long-term actions (e.g., review existing policies under a racial equity lens) to advance racial justice. Independent schools are creating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) committees that do not have specific, measurable goals or accountability structures. Schools are quick to hire a DEI director (or similar role) with the expectation that this individual will single-handedly execute transformative change.

This “set-it-and-forget-it” mindset will not lead to meaningful, long-term change at the institution level. Independent schools should not lose sight of the institutional culture they want to create while addressing the individual issues (e.g., racial injustice) they want to solve.

“50 years ago, nobody knew that today we would be working to ensure that our transgender youth felt connected, seen, comfortable—like they belong. That was not the civil rights movement [at the time]. We don’t know what marginalized group will be needing us to stand up for them in 50 years. We are doing this work today so that in 50 years, when whatever group is being marginalized, [we are] holding [ourselves] to a standard of belonging.”

Natalia R. Hernández

Head of School, Breck School

Below, we share our initial findings to help heads of school get started on creating a forward-thinking, long-term approach to cultural change. Later this year, we will be convening heads of school to dive deeper into these recommendations.

Milestones of success when integrating DEI into school culture

In our conversations with heads of school and DEI directors, we asked about signs of success in creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive school experience. Their responses moved beyond simplistic, quantitative measures (e.g., enrolling a specific percentage of students of color as an end goal) to a more holistic vision where all students have a place in the community.

Independent school leaders spoke about a fully inclusive community and students’ ability to navigate a complex, changing society. Below, we highlight goals within each sign of success.


The school community is fully inclusive, where every member feels like they belong.

Within DEI, independent schools have historically focused on increasing compositional diversity in the student body. However, a more diverse community does not necessarily guarantee a more inclusive one. As one head of school told us, “We’ve seen our numbers of those who identify as POC grow but making sure they belong is the real challenge.”

A truly inclusive community is one where all student voices—regardless of students’ race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, political view, religion, etc.—are respected, heard, and valued in the community. Students are more likely to feel a sense of belonging when they see themselves reflected in and supported by people, programming, and policies.

As a start, two PreK-12 independent schools we spoke with (located in the South and in the Northeast) are partnering with the nonprofit Pollyanna to develop surveys that measure student belonging.

At The Prairie School, head of school Nathaniel Coffman intentionally meets with all upper school students at multiple points in the year to gauge students’ sense of belonging within the school community. He poses questions such as, “If you experience any challenges or obstacles, which adults in the building would you go to for help?” and “Who on the faculty knows you well, wants you to do well, and you trust?”

Students are prepared to navigate an increasingly complex, changing world.

Independent schools should equip students with the knowledge, language, and skills to navigate and lead in a complex, diverse society with respect, open-mindedness, and courage.

Below, we highlighted examples of skills and behaviors that schools should consider instilling in students, from our conversations with school leaders and sourced from Learning for Justice. These skills and behaviors should not just live on a classroom wall poster or in the student handbook. They should be intentionally integrated into classrooms across all disciplines and grade levels, student clubs and extra-curricular activities, and programming.

  • Embody respect, curiosity, and open-mindedness when dialoguing with others who present different values, beliefs, and lived experiences,
  • Analyze multiple perspectives to inform decision-making,
  • Demonstrate empathy when people have been excluded or wronged due to bias,
  • Cultivate social consciousness and demonstrate positive community involvement,
  • Identify unfairness at the individual level and injustice at the systemic level—both historically and in the present day,
  • Describe different social identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, social class, sexual orientation, abilities) and recognize the intersectionality of identities,
  • Understand how power and privilege impact interpersonal, intergroup, and institutional dynamics.

At one Northeast PreK-8 independent school, students in the lower school learn to talk about differences in racial identity, gender identity, learning style, and family structure in language that is age-appropriate. In the middle school, students study social justice topics such as human rights, gender normativity, immigration, and systemic racism. For example, students learn about race and racism by studying the U.S. Census. Students discuss how race categories have changed over time and the implications of legitimizing specific groups while marginalizing others.

At another Northeast PreK-12 independent school, upper school students select elective courses focused on diversity, equity, and community. For example, students study how factors such as race, class, immigration status, and trauma impact students’ educational experiences. In another course, students examine how data and statistics can be manipulated to propagate sexist, homophobic, and racist beliefs. In service-learning courses, students analyze issues of access and equity, such as food insecurity, the development of public transportation, mass incarceration, and climate justice.

To drive meaningful cultural change at the institution level—“DNA work,” as one head of school calls it—schools need to shift away from a “set-it-and-forget-it” approach. Ultimately, institutional culture work is larger-scale, ongoing, and here to stay.

Interested in learning more about this research?

Reach out to Claire Criniti to connect with a member of our research team.

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