Finding Acceptance for My Gay Family in NYC’s Private Schools
It was an amazing open house at Saint David’s, an all-boys school in the heart of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The headmaster and his four student disciples delivered an unbelievable and passionate sermon on what the school had to offer—from the amazing facilities and faculty to its vast exposure across all disciplines—and more importantly how they hold true to their mission to “be good men.”
Yet, the headmaster’s final remark truly epitomized how far we still have to go:
“And if you forget everything I have just said over the past hour’s lecture, I want you to look over to your wife and listen to her intuition," he said. "We all know that the mother’s gut is the ultimate decision maker and always chooses the correct path for your boy, his future and your family.”
I looked over to the empty seat on my right, where my partner, Andy, should have been (he was in Hong Kong for business) and thought to myself, “Is this the reason no gay parents have sent their kids to this institution?” How, in this day and age, in this great metropolitan city of ours with all backgrounds, faiths and orientations, could this be vocalized? How could such a prestigious institution not recognize the myriad ways a family can be composed, and not use the correct word of “spouse” or “partner”? Even then, single parents would be left out of the equation.
The application process for private schools in the city of New York is a rat race for all parents. As gay parents, however, we have the added pressure of making sure the school is as diverse and accepting as they claim to be. There are simple actions that give a sense of the diversity and thoughtfulness of each institution: Do application forms have “Mr. and Mrs.” scrawled on top? Do they ask questions such as, “Will you and your wife be attending this event?”
Some background on what this crazy process entails: it starts one and half years before your child enters kindergarten. Ridiculous indeed, I know! But welcome to the big concrete jungle we call home. One must start attending open house spring tours the year prior to applying to get a sense of if the school is the right fit for your child and family, but also to start developing a relationship with the admissions committee.
After the tours come the applications, which are released the day after Labor Day and resemble college admissions applications. Did you forget you were supposed to work on an essay over the summer outlining why your child should be granted admission to this school, their strengths and weaknesses, your family dynamic and what specific attributes you are looking for in a school? This essay is standard across all schools, but it needs to be professional and informative, with your own flair and twist.
Once all has been submitted, the school schedules a playdate for your child and an interview for the parents. The playdate is 45 minutes or so, and requires the child to conquer basic tasks of writing, mathematics, social play and independent activities—A mere 45 minutes to determine a successful admission or a complete and utter failure. During the playdate, the parent interview will be coordinated to occur simultaneously. The parent interview allows the committee to dive deeper into your family, the child’s needs and truly learn whether or not you fit their overall plan for the coming year’s admitting class and continued tradition.
The author's partner, Andy, and his two sons
After both the interview and playdate are completed, there are several events in the coming months that are just as important to attend to ensure your presence and commitment is felt. The schools usually visit your child in their current preschool to again assess all their attributes, reconfirming and/or dismissing their planned acceptance.
Once you have narrowed down the schools to your top choices, a very well-orchestrated first choice letter is sent, but the main coordination is between your current exmissions director and the private school. With some back and forth and some pre-commitment discussions, you arrive at a conclusion on what would be the best placement for the child, with his or her best interests at heart. Two weeks into February, the notifications of acceptance are sent, concluding the process with a final acceptance and a signed contract—for the lucky ones. What an enormous roller coaster and commitment.
This process may be particular to the world of New York City’s private schools, but anyone can relate to trying to find the right environment for your child. It was critical for us to find a school that would be accepting of our family dynamic. As we went through the steps of the applications process, acceptance and diversity needed to be demonstrated in the initial stages, in all the paperwork and communications. The lectures, open houses and tours needed to be sensitive to everyone’s identity and family dynamic. Diversity stems from all angles and requires cultural acceptance. The culture is the school’s commitment to progress from the student body, the curriculum and initiatives to accepting criticisms that affect positive actions for powerful change.
If we could give advice to these schools, we’d encourage them to do their research and not be afraid to ask questions! If you know a gay family is applying to the school or joining the tour group, know that it’s okay to ask how your children refer to you, like Daddy or Papa.
Schools should anticipate questions from gay parents as well. How diverse is the school? Are there any other gay families enrolled? What about any gay students who have come out? How have they been supported? What initiatives toward diversity and acceptance are already in the works, and what is lacking or being worked on for the future? All of these questions are standard and show some element of concern and understanding toward progress.
It is completely fine to admit that you don’t yet have a diverse student body, but you must at least be making efforts to place awareness into the curriculum. There must be some understanding that it’s unjust, and a willingness to put corrective actions in place for the future.
Even if we did get accepted to Saint David’s, before signing any contract we would have needed to have a discussion with the administration on having an open-door policy and making sure they were willing to change with the times and admit any lack of sensitivity.
Everyone says you find the school that’s right for you and your family; you just know it when you walk through the doors. For us, we decided on Allen-Stevenson and the Dwight School for our two boys, but saw so many accepting and diverse schools throughout the process, like Cathedral School, St. Hilda’s, St. Hughes and Trevor Day School. You see it in the student body and the parents, and you hear it in educated and formal discussions—it’s emanating from the walls.
These administrations didn’t necessarily have all the answers, but they asked the right questions. This is the key.