Diversity Day opens minds at a private prep school

Times Staff Writer

There had never been a day quite like this at the exclusive Brentwood School. Students, faculty and staff set aside regular classes to consider topics such as Harlem Renaissance art, Japanese World War II internment, gay youth suicide, Chicano lowrider culture and dwarfism.

Dave Velasquez, assistant headmaster, organized and presided over Diversity Day, an opportunity to grapple with the complexities of race and culture that continue to inflame young people and loom large in multifaceted Los Angeles.

In a way, the event, held last week, was a natural step in his 27-year career at the private college-prep campus.


When Velasquez arrived as director of admissions and college counseling, there were few students or faculty members of color. Today, minority students represent 27% of the 900-member upper and middle school student body. And of 111 faculty members, 15% are people of color. Nationally, about 14% of employees at private schools are minorities, according to the National Assn. of Independent Schools.

Velasquez could be Exhibit A in a story about the changing face of private schools. He grew up poor in El Paso, Texas, with parents who had not attended college. Through grit and determination, he landed in the MBA program at Stanford University. His trip to California was the first time he had stepped onto an airplane.

When he was recruited to Brentwood in 1980, he was aware that he would be entering a fairly exclusive environment and asked if he might encounter problems as a Mexican American. He was surprised by the bluntness of the response. It was time, the head of the school told him, that students and their families confront the fact that Latinos could be more than just their gardeners and maids.

Now, the school reflects a greater ethnic and socioeconomic range: 15% of students receive financial aid and a school bus picks up and drops off students from South Los Angeles. There are more activities to promote diversity, such as a potluck that attracted more than 130 of the school’s Latino students and a celebration of Black History Month. Also addressing topical issues and reinforcing the school’s core values as a diverse and vibrant community are assemblies like the one featuring Dr. Drew Pinsky, a medical doctor who hosts a radio show that offers relationship advice for young people.

But Velasquez acknowledged that there is still much work to be done, not only in broadening the ethnic makeup at Brentwood, where tuition is as much as $25,000 a year, but in dealing with issues such as socioeconomic disparity, physical disability and hate speech.

Not everyone was happy with the Diversity Day idea when Velasquez proposed it last spring. Some teachers were initially unsure of the academic relevance of diversity issues and were reluctant to give up an entire day of classroom instruction.

But Velasquez was convinced that the day would make a powerful statement about the school’s commitment to raising awareness and would energize discussion long after it was over. When the brochures came out listing the broad spectrum of forums and prominent presenters, students and faculty members threw their support behind it.

Velasquez did not set guidelines for speakers, and when he popped into workshops, he often heard frank and free-flowing dialogue.

Speaker Walter Gertz, a staff member of the Museum of Tolerance, explained the economic and social forces wrenching Germany in the late 1920s that led to the rise of Hitler. A member of the Guerrilla Girls, an activist arts collective, wore a gorilla mask while telling students, “Change doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen.” An Vo, an exchange student at Brentwood from Ho Chi Minh City, led a workshop titled “Is Your Heart Big Enough?” about the continuing trauma from the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Jill Foley, who graduated from Brentwood in 1996, led a workshop on poverty and how it affects families and children. An attorney for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, Foley said Velasquez’s commitment to diversity and social justice issues helped shape her career.

“He fought for me to get into Brentwood because my test scores were low and then helped me to go to Berkeley,” Foley said. “A day like today is really inspired. He was doing assemblies and bringing in speakers years ago, but he’s been able to bring diversity issues deeper into programs.”

Velasquez said his mother had pushed him to excel in school and continue on to college. His mother later went back to school herself, and the same year he graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business, she graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso.

After a professor wrote “trite” across his first paper, Velasquez called home to say he was leaving college. But his mother wouldn’t have it.

After graduating from Stanford, he worked as a retail executive in Chicago. He said he never thought he’d work in education but when he got a job offer from the Stanford admissions office, he decided to return. Later, Brentwood recruited him.

Through a track coach, Velasquez made contacts with prospective students at Willowbrook Middle School in Compton. Brentwood joined organizations like A Better Chance, which recruits underrepresented students for top public and private schools.

Velasquez also met Brady Johnson, who, with his wife Margaret, founded the private K. Anthony School in Inglewood, which sends as much as 50% of its sixth-grade class to leading prep schools. Johnson has an affinity for Brentwood, largely because of his long association with Velasquez.

“My kids come out of South-Central Los Angeles, and they do such a marvelous job of mentoring and nurturing,” Johnson said of Brentwood. “I attribute most of that to Dave. He talks about how he was brought up and what he says of minority students is, ‘The gates are open if you want to walk through them.’ ”

As the school’s first Diversity Day wound down, teachers, students and parent volunteers congratulated Velasquez. Headmaster Michael Pratt said the event would probably affect the school’s curriculum.

“We wanted to define diversity in the widest sense to grapple with issues that often times aren’t part of traditional college prep curriculum,” Velasquez said. “Hopefully, it will provoke continuing discussion.”*