Aligning Our School Mission for an Anti-Racist Future

A History of Privilege

The Wheeler School was founded in 1889 by a white woman of privilege, artist/educator Mary Colman Wheeler from Concord, MA. Her family home was a location on the Underground Railroad, giving refuge to run-away, enslaved persons on their way to Canada. At 11, Mary was attending lectures on the Free State question with her family, hearing from anti-slavery activist John Brown. While she attended high school, three of her brothers were volunteers in the Concord Artillery and Massachusetts Cavalry during the Civil War — including brother Henry Lincoln Wheeler. (Henry was captured and jailed in a Southern prison for a year.) Despite these efforts, her father, Abiel Wheeler, became the subject of a local argument with neighbor and author Henry David Thoreau when Wheeler took away a portion of an Irish farm laborer’s winnings from a wood-chopping contest. Thoreau began a town-wide effort to collect enough funds to return to the laborer.

These family records and philosophical, Transcendentalist underpinnings do not change the fact that Mary Wheeler’s life was one of racial privilege, and the school she created reflected this. School archival records show that it was not until the mid-1960s that a Black student from Jamaica was admitted to the school (name unknown) during the tenure of Head of School S. Rowland Morgan, Jr. Asian students were part of the boarding program in the decades prior. During Hugh Madden Jr.’s first year as Head, the first African-American student admitted, Wanda Catala Sharif, joined the still all-female student body in 1969, graduating in 1971. Full co-education of the school followed in 1975 (although young boys had been part of the early Froebel Kindergarten program Mary Wheeler franchised based upon a play-as-learning curriculum.)

During the 1970s, both the Board of Trustees and the faculty community welcomed people of color from Latinx and Asian backgrounds to diversify its membership.  Slow, but incremental changes were happening. But it was not until 1992 that Head of School William C. Prescott, Jr. actively engaged in an effort toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion when he appointed Young Un, current Head of Strategic Innovation, as the School’s first DEI Coordinator.

The steady movements toward diversity initiatives in mission and policies, hiring, curriculum, enrollment, programming, and professional development have continued:

  • Unity and Diversity courses that have expanded from Lower School through Upper School over the past two decades
  • Twice yearly, required, whole-school professional development in diversity equity and inclusion for all faculty and staff
  • In the 2019-20 school year, the student population grew to 35% of students of color and faculty and staff of color to 25%. More than 1/3 of the School’s current Board of Trustees are people of color
  • Wheeler has further amplified equity efforts across the region by sharing its resources to host Wheeler Diversity Conferences since 2019. Part of the Pollyanna Diversity Conference Network, the annual conference brings together independent schools to deepen conversations and commitment related to all facets of DEI
  • Among the staff has been the addition of a Student Support Coordinator to support underrepresented students during their experience at Wheeler, the college admissions process, and their post-secondary success
  • Increase in financial aid budget to support socio-economic diversity from $2.3M in 2010 to $4.3M in 2020

Actions Wheeler Is Taking In 2020

While we are proud of the progress we’ve made, Wheeler is committing to increase our work to look critically at ourselves, analyze what we see, and to take courageous and bold action in days, months, and years to come. We seek to accelerate and broaden our approach and to reconcile with our past. As a result, this June, our Board of Trustees and Head of School created an Equity Task Force charged with the following purpose:

The Equity Task Force aims to further meet Wheeler’s continued mission and begin the process of healing by building an anti-racist school community where all students feel affirmed and supported in their identities so that they can actively pursue joy, meaning, and impact as ethical, engaged, creative, equal citizens of the world.

This group of faculty, staff, students, parents, and trustees is meeting regularly, soliciting input from all constituencies, analyzing many forms of data, and bringing recommendations for action steps to our Board of Trustees this winter for courageous and bold action to meet its charge and to meet our mission: to learn our powers and be answerable for their use.

In addition to this Task Force, school leadership, faculty, and staff are continuing this urgent conversation and performing outreach, awareness-building, personal inquiry, and activism in the following ways this summer and fall:

  • School-wide N-12, Department-led curriculum and pedagogical review with anti-racist lens
  • Presenter Dena Simmons to speak at Opening Week 2020 for faculty and staff professional development
  • Wheeler White Ally/Accomplice and Anti Racist Group
  • White Privilege Professional Learning Group – WP-PLG
  • Faculty/staff/student activism through Black Lives Matter protests
  • Students’ ongoing participation in “Students Unite! Seeking Justice for Ahmaud Arbery”
  • Establishment of the Equity Task Force, soliciting input from all constituents regarding their experiences with race
  • Created and published a list of anti-racist resources for parents
  • Open community meetings with school leadership
  • Faculty/staff of color community meetings with Head of School
  • All-school art project for Black Lives Matter to create a banner hung publicly at the campus
  • A summer 2020 survey of all alumni and alumni parents since 1969 for their views and experiences to learn if race impacted their Wheeler experience

Our Equity Task Force will share progress updates on their inquiries, their analysis, and their findings with our entire school community frequently over the fall with their recommendations for reconciliation and repair by January 2021.

Equity Task Force Members  include:

Mohammed Abdalah, Co-Chair, Early Childhood Faculty

Princess Sirleaf Bomba, Co-Chair, Director of Unity & Diversity, Alumni Parent, Former Trustee

Sarah Palomo, Co-Chair, Upper School History Faculty

Charlene Queen, Co-Chair, Computer Technology Specialist, Alumni Parent

Sam Abeshouse, Middle School Faculty

Valerie Allen,  Current Parent

Kelly Clifton ‘02, Director of Alumni Engagement, Alum

Ryan Davis, Lower School Art Faculty

Sean Kelly ‘02, Director of Athletics, Alum, Current Parent

Christine McNamee, Hamilton Lower School Faculty, Current Parent

Kristin Murphy, Upper School Art Faculty,  Current Parent

Marco Rodarte, Upper School English Faculty

Charlotte Stutz, Middle School Science Faculty, Current Parent

Maria Terrero-Kamara, Current Parent

Maria Xavier, Enrollment Office Associate, Current Parent

Jay Nimmagadda,  Former Trustee, Alumni Parent

 

Trustee Liaisons:

Shankar Prasad, Trustee, Current Parent;

Abbot Stranahan, Trustee, Alumni Parent

 

Student Liaisons: TBD

Alumni Liaisons : TBD

 

Parent Resources:

Nina Insler, Current Parent, Alumni Parent

Chanda Womack, Current Parent