This February, Lower School students danced joyfully to the music of famous Black musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. They also created art inspired by artists Romare Bearden and Alma Thomas. In Middle School Morning Meeting, students learned about the origins of Black History Month, Juneteenth and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Episcopal community also celebrated Black History Month with classroom discussions featuring a celebration and recognition of the contributions of Black leaders throughout history. The effort is ongoing and continues with the following Upper School activities.
A Sense of Belonging and Support
Merriam-Webster defines community as a unified body of individuals. The Episcopal community is united by a common mission to educate the whole child – spiritually, intellectually, morally, physically and artistically. As the definition suggests, a community is made up of individuals. With a diverse student body, Episcopal is also a place for individuals to find that special group of friends. Finding your group is important. Whether it’s a common love of art, a relatable desire for success on the field or a shared culture, there is something meaningful about being with those who have a similar story to your own, even as you explore the diverse nature of the world.
A group of Upper School students has discovered this sense of belonging and kinship through a Black student affinity group. What initially began as a six-member student focus group to discuss the Black student experience has transformed into an informal group with ever-increasing student participation. Science teacher Jennifer Purnell says the group provides a space for Black students to connect with each other in a different context and form new and meaningful friendships. The world can be confusing and isolating for teenagers, and Black students may feel like an island among their peers. The affinity group provides a space for students to be themselves in a comfortable and familiar setting. Purnell says it has been rewarding to see the group come together. Older students are serving as mentors to their younger classmates, and meaningful discussions are taking place.
Over the years, as Episcopal has sought to create an inclusive community, these discussions have increased. In 2017, Assistant Athletic Director Jimmy Williams reflected on his experience as an Episcopal student compared with that of his young son. “There is no question that Episcopal is becoming increasingly diverse,” he wrote in a school blog post. “This diversity spans race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geography, religion, and language. Acknowledging Episcopal’s diversity is an important step to living and learning with others in our school community. Can Episcopal improve? Sure, we can. Everything has room for improvement.”
Recently, members of the Black student affinity group looked for opportunities to continue the discussion by sharing more about Black History Month with the larger school community. Students self-organized to share information on notable Black figures. They created posters highlighting influential figures in math, science, athletics, the arts and much more. The board on display in the Field House even featured Williams for his success in the NFL. The displays were well received by faculty and classmates, and the effort is something Purnell hopes students can build upon in the future. Going forward, Purnell and the students will continue meeting and finding ways to contribute to the overall student experience.
The support found among peers has proven important for the affinity group students. That sense of community is also important as students prepare for the next phase of their lives. This month, the College Counseling team will offer a panel focusing on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to help students delve deeper into what these institutions have to offer.
Panel Discussion on Historically Black Colleges and Universities
As a college preparatory institution, Episcopal has a comprehensive College Counseling department. With three full-time College Counselors, students receive one-on-one support as they make one of the most important decisions impacting their future. Counselors provide a range of panel discussions, an annual college fair and significant test prep resources.
College Counseling Director Justin Fenske says recently the counseling team has seen an increase in student interest in Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He points to Episcopal students who are having considerable success at HBCUs including Kolin Bilbrew ’20 – Southern University, Alex Dumas ’16 – Spelman College, Cameron Dumas ’18 – Xavier University of Louisiana, Ellis Herring ’16 – Morehouse College, Kristine LaMotte ’18 – Spelman College and DJ Morgan ’20 Xavier University of Louisiana.
In the past, Historically Black Colleges and Universities have participated in the annual Episcopal college fair and visited students on campus. This year, to meet student interest, counselors have organized a virtual panel discussion focused on HBCUs with representatives of Dillard University, Morehouse College, Southern University, Spelman College and Xavier University of Louisiana slated to participate. Students will have the opportunity to hear directly from school representatives about what their institutions offer. They will also be able to ask questions and learn more about the pros and cons of attending an HBCU. The panel discussion is open to 10th and 11th grade students and is scheduled for March 10th. The following week, the counseling team will offer a general college panel for juniors on March 17th.
Episcopal schools are intentionally diverse communities serving people from a range of religious, cultural and economic backgrounds. We are a community united to help all students as they prepare for lives of meaning and purpose.