By Curtis Bunn
Urban News Service
INDIANAPOLIS — Diversity is a slogan in many places, but at The Oaks Academy’s campuses near downtown Indianapolis, on any given Wednesday, the hallways are lined with more than 100 students and parents — black, white and otherwise, low-income, well-off and in-between — who come together for a morning worship service.
At the Oaks Academy, a faith-based private school with three campuses in the outskirts of America’s 11th largest city, all of this is by design.
The Oaks’ two lower schools and a middle school intentionally educate a balanced mix of students based on income and race. Some students hail from low-income families, others from struggling middle class families and still others from comfortable, well-off ones. The racial blend, by design, is 40 percent African-American, 40 percent white and 20 percent other races. Non-Christians are also welcome to attend. At The Oaks about 25 per cent of the teachers are African-American–a much higher percentage than in neighboring schools.
“How many places are this comfortably diverse?” asked Andrew N. Hart, The Oaks’ CEO. “Even church — 10:00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated place you can find. Sadly. In every city, neighborhoods are divided.
“Here, we intentionally bring together the races to build a place where the students are in a relationship with people unlike themselves, whether it’s socio-economically or racially. They grow up together. We all tend to go toward those who are like us. . . But to gain a true understanding and connection to what we are unfamiliar with, we have to bring the races together.”
An uncommon acceptance policy is what allows these rare dynamics. Students are not selected on academic achievement or an ability to pay the $10,000 annual tuition.
“The criteria is that you, as a parent, must be in the child’s life,” Hart said, “have a bed for him to sleep, feed and clothe him, have a place for him to live and can get him to school on time — and will read to him 20 minutes a night. That’s it.”
Some families pay $10 a week while others pay the full $10,000-a-year tuition, Hart said. “We are really giving all students what they are rightfully entitled to: a premium education in an environment where they can feel safe and learn about each other.”
Diversity has not reduced the school’s test scores. The Oaks was No. 1 in Indiana, according to the statewide ISTEP test. Among its 280 middle-school graduates, 99 percent have received high-school diplomas, and 87 percent have reached college.
Practically every teacher at The Oaks with school-aged children enrolls them right there. Gabriel Moore, 22, understands why. He began teaching art history, the history of literature and the history of science just three months after college. “We study Tom Sawyer, but also study the slave trade and the 1800s through Reconstruction of American history,” said Gabriel, who is mixed-race. “To have those discussions in a comfortable setting with students from various backgrounds is really important, especially with the racial divide today. We’re teaching this history to young children of diverse backgrounds in the hopes that they will be the light that helps bring about reconciliation among the races.”
Michelle Rausch helps her sixth-grade students analyze the music that bounces off the walls as they learn Rhythmic Complexity in Translation of African Music. Several black, white, Hispanic, and Asian students raise their hands to discuss the sounds. “I appreciate the school’s diversity,” Rausch said. “It was harder to challenge myself and the students,” in public schools. “Here, the concept of being intentional about mixing kids who wouldn’t normally be together is phenomenal. And it works. That’s the whole point of diversity. You want to get people together, who wouldn’t normally know each other, to build relationships.”
“There is a tangible value in what’s happening here, and you see it in our students who graduate and come back to visit,” said Laura Grammer, the head of the Oaks middle school. “They are confident. They have a capacity to engage. They have a strong sense of who they are. And we know it all started here.”
The school operates primarily on donations — which account for 40 percent of the school’s capital. Hart collects about $3 million in donations per year, mainly from individuals. And not all of the donors are wealthy.
“The beauty of being intentionally diverse is the students have greater depth of experiences,” Hart said, “so they can learn about each other and grow together.”