What do you think about when you think about prep schools? If you’ve seen “Dead Poets Society,” perhaps you think of passionate students and teachers with a subversive streak. If “Rushmore” is more your speed, maybe the students are quirkier, the teachers more beautiful. Or maybe you went to a college with a lot of prep school kids who gave you some insight into what it was really like to go to their schools. But whatever your context, there’s a good chance that when you think about prep schools, you think about schools whose student body is overwhelmingly wealthy and overwhelmingly white.
The same cannot be said of Chestnut Hill’s Crefeld School, whose commitment to social justice and inclusion makes for a diverse student population, filled with tweens and teens from different socioeconomic, academic, racial, religious, gender and sexual identities. Students like Mahdiya Trudeau, who graduated Crefeld in 2018. “Personally, I’m from a lower-middle class bracket,” she recounted in a recent interview. Her family didn’t have the funds to pay for her education at Crefeld, “but I got really good scholarships.”
Trudeau, who lives in Germantown with her family while she pursues a degree in fashion design at Jefferson University East Falls, comes from a mixed-race family. But despite her racial identity and socioeconomic background, she was far from an anomaly during her time at Crefeld. For a school with so few students (Crefeld, which covers grades 7–12, has just 100 students enrolled in any given year), it’s remarkably diverse.
Head of School, George M. Zeleznik, EdD, noted that students of color compose 30-40 percent of Crefeld’s student body, which represents over 50 zip codes across the greater Philadelphia area. And these stats are just the tip of the Crefeld’s diversity iceberg. Zeleznik outlines some of the other things that make Crefeld’s student makeup so unique. The school prides itself on its “very neurodiverse” population, as well as its LGBTQ community. “We have, just a guess, 8 or 9 students—so, 9 percent of the school—who are using pronouns that were not used at birth. We’ve had students fully transition here. We’ve had students come here to do so because they didn’t feel safe at their previous schools.”
The students’ families also contribute to the student body’s diversity. Not only does Crefeld “have students here with a mom and dad and brother and sister,” Zeleznik continues, but there are also students who are “being raised by an aunt and uncle, or by a grandparent. Students with two moms or two dads.” The school also hosts several students whose parents identify as trans. To Zeleznik and his peers, as well as to the student body: “It’s so not a big deal. No one even thinks of it. They talk openly about it. We were in an admissions meeting a few weeks ago, reviewing five applicants, and four of the five had two moms. We’re very proud of that because we strive to make this a safe place for all families,” he says, noting that at many so-called inclusive schools, there can still be some sort of stigma attached to those family systems.
But diversity isn’t simply a fact of life at Crefeld. It’s a part of the daily narrative. The school’s Perspectives Committee is an extracurricular group that allows interested students to explore questions of diversity, intersectionality, and social justice. Supervised by Sara Narva, who is white and Jewish, and Nica Fleming, who is black—but led almost entirely by its student participants—Perspectives provides a safe space to consider current events, as well as an opportunity for students to learn how to have difficult conversations with others with whom they don’t see eye-to-eye. “Sometimes Nica and I will lead an activity,” says Narva. For the last few years, “we did several lessons about the difference between debate and dialogue, or how do you practice holding your perspective while also listening to someone else’s.”
That isn’t to say the focus is on having polite dialogue at the expense of taking action. Fully committed to social justice, Narva and Fleming encourage Perspectives students to think about how to take action. Fleming says that she often challenges participants to consider: “How do you impact your circle in this room, the school, the larger world? Is it important for you to have impact on the larger world? How do you do that effectively?” Critically at a time when many people are feeling burned out by their activism, Fleming also asks: “How do you do it effectively while at the same time practicing self-care?” The work done in Perspectives radiates outward to the wider student body and even to the community surrounding Crefeld, where students participate in mandatory community service projects that align with their personal interests.
Gena Lopata, who teaches 9th and 10th grade English and also oversees Crefeld’s summer program and mentors the school’s seniors, says that every other year (classes at Crefeld are vertically grouped, with 7th and 8th graders, 9th and 10th graders, and 11th and 12th graders sharing classrooms, meaning that teaching material every other year guarantees every student will benefit from it once, regardless of their actual grade level), she focuses her curriculum around the concept of “identity.” She spends a lot of time talking to her students about how they personally identify, and how those identities align—or don’t—with the ones society might assign to them. She also asks students to think about their blind spots, and spends a lot of time considering her own. “A couple of years back, I got into some pretty hard topics with my kids about identity. We talked a lot about race and about equity. I went to George and was like, I need more training. I’m a white woman in a room full of not-all-white kids and I needed more guidance on how to do a good job with it.” Zeleznik set up some in-service training for teachers to help with these issues, and Lopata has also worked closely with Fleming to see how she might best handle certain sensitive topics.
With such a small student body, the commitment Crefeld’s faculty and staff make to exploring these issues with their students in a deep and meaningful way cannot go unnoticed. A little over a year out from her own experiences there, Trudeau looks back at what she feels made the school so unique: “It’s a private school with about 100 students that really, really cares about how its brown people are doing, how its gay people are doing, how its minority people are doing. It just kind of has, the school kind of has an air of community that I’ve never seen anywhere else in my life. It’s like, of course there’s a commitment to social justice and diversity at a school where they want you to be okay. At the base level, they care so much about you as a person, how could they not deal with social justice and diversity, too?”
This article was written in partnership with The HIVE at Spring Point. The Hive is a collection of organizations, individual practitioners, and youth who focus on strengths-based youth development that empowers young people to make positive change in their lives and their world.