The Unaware Many and the Struggling Few: Socioeconomic Status at GDS

One GDS high school student said his house often feels “foodless.” Each day for lunch, he has to “figure it out” with limited or no money to spend. “We don’t really get groceries with me having lunch in mind,” he explained. 

As a freshman, the student said, he became involved with many extracurricular activities because they often provided a way for him to eat lunch. “My coach hates me because I have such a poor diet,” he said. 

This student said he’s among the 24 percent of GDS students who receive some amount of financial aid to attend GDS. He and three other financial aid recipients, on the condition of anonymity, shared their experiences struggling with money in a community which is overwhelmingly wealthy and, according to several students and teachers, lacks adequate discourse and awareness about socioeconomic status. 

“Class Consciousness Is Necessary”

Most of the students and teachers interviewed for this article concurred that socioeconomic status is rarely discussed in formal forums at GDS; all agreed that the topic, while important, isn’t discussed enough.

When asked how socioeconomic status is discussed at GDS, English teacher John Burghardt said, “It would be easier to talk about the ways in which it’s not discussed.” He added, “One has a sense that there’s a strong interest in keeping it out of sight.”

For many students, this near silence leads to a lack of awareness about socioeconomic status—the element of identity encapsulating wealth, income and social stature.

Socioeconomic status plays “a huge part in everyone’s everyday lives,” junior Bryce Savoy said, but many people at GDS don’t “realize” that. “Any sort of dialogue around it could help,” he said. 

“People need to be more aware, because they don’t think about the little things” that some students can’t afford, senior Jara Wilensky said. “Most people would be surprised to learn that someone is struggling to just have enough food to bring from home.”

A note to readers: Most of the reporting for this article was conducted before GDS closed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic. As a result, the article mainly discusses school as it is in more ordinary circumstances. We decided to publish it nonetheless because its themes remain relevant and important as ever.

While some community members face financial troubles daily, the families of 76 percent of GDS students pay full tuition—a sum roughly equivalent to two thirds of the U.S. median household income. But most students don’t recognize their socioeconomic privilege, junior Alyssa West said.

Designer clothing gets donated from the lost and found bins at school “because students aren’t picking it up,” English teacher and Senior Dean Anna Howe said. 

Reflecting, one student said, “I think I just don’t really recognize the value of a dollar.” Another student said, “There’s never been something that I can’t afford.”

Some students can be excluded socially because while most of their peers take money for granted, “they can’t take it for granted,” Wilensky said. 

“There is a divide, we don’t discuss it and we kind of assume it’s not there,” senior Nathaniel Rosenberg said. “It’s a culture that permeates without ever being called out.”

Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Marlo Thomas said GDS “is responsible for cultivating what type of culture is existent.”

“Some of the onus is on the school that nothing is really being done to talk about the issue,” senior Ethan Litmans said. 

“It’s the Worst”

During the Friday lunch period when school is regularly in session, most of the high school student body walks up Davenport Street en masse to buy food at Tenleytown stores and restaurants. “Students take it for granted that people can afford to just go and get a $10 lunch,” math teacher Suzy Hamon said. 

One student who receives financial aid to attend GDS described the difficulty of subtly telling classmates—while trying to avoid mention of his financial situation—that he can’t join them for Friday lunch outings. Litmans said there’s an unspoken stigma associated with staying on campus during Friday lunch.

“Money is a constant thing” at GDS, a financial aid recipient said. “You always have to have it.” He added, “When I don’t have money, it’s the worst.”

The lack of socioeconomic awareness at GDS and the community’s sometimes insensitive culture negatively affect students’ experiences—especially those of lower-income students. 

Another financial aid recipient said he feels “disrespected” when other students treat money as a “renewable resource.” 

“There’s an idea that everyone that goes here is wealthy,” Litmans said. “If you don’t fall into that, then you will try and hide it.”

One student who receives financial aid said that when he’s asked at school about his parents’ jobs, he feels a need to embellish; he highlights that his father’s position as a retail store manager gives him discounts on products and often says his father “runs” the store. At GDS, unlike at his previous school, “it’s uncomfortable for me to tell someone that my dad works retail,” he said. “Describing the true reality is scary.”

“The only way to maybe destigmatize it is to talk about it and make it less painful,” Anna Howe said of socioeconomic status. “Not talking about it can make people feel really alone in their feelings about it.”

The Socioeconomic Awareness Club (or SAC) usually meets on alternating Thursdays during lunch, providing a space for students of all backgrounds to discuss “the challenges they face based on their socioeconomic status” and to learn about others’ experiences, according to Savoy, one of the club’s heads. SAC is not an affinity group. 

Litmans, the club’s other leader, said, “It’s really the only space at this school that I find that you can actually talk about socioeconomic status in a fruitful way”—which, he added, “is sad to me.”

SAC was started in 2017 by math teacher Juan Vidal and High School Associate Director of Admissions Amanda Deringer but has since become more student-run.

One student said he began attending the club “because I’d always felt some kind of disconnect between myself and the rest of the community in terms of my socioeconomic identity.”

For others, the club offers an opportunity to learn about the varied experiences of their peers. Alyssa West, a regular attendee, recalled an SAC discussion last year in which one student said they would choose the college that could provide them the most financial aid from among the schools to which they were accepted. “It’s kind of a harsh reality that probably a lot of people have to face but hadn’t ever occurred to me,” West said. 

Nathaniel Rosenberg said his GDS education has not given him an adequate understanding of socioeconomic status to prepare him to enter society beyond the school. GDS “prepares you to exist within an upper middle class community,” Jara Wilensky said. 

Howe said she worries that GDS students who receive financial aid “don’t feel as entitled to the space as other people.”

Multiple students said they feel particularly pressured to succeed in school because they receive financial aid. One student said his mother invokes financial aid to urge him to perform well academically. “Somebody gave you a lot of money here to go to school,” he said she tells him. “You have an obligation to actually do well and to succeed…. You can’t slip up now.”

“The Cost of Being a GDS Student”

A GDS student’s experience is riddled with incidental costs of varying degree: lunch each day; school supplies; transportation to school; specialized equipment for sports, clubs and classes; expensive neuropsychological evaluations for testing accommodations; costs related to the college admissions process, including standardized testing; tutoring; parking spot fees, which are set to increase substantially next school year; yearbooks; prom-related expenses and optional trips associated with sports, topics of study and extracurricular activities such as debate and Model UN. 

Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey Houser said the school’s Board of Trustees–approved budget provides financial aid for only three categories of expenses—school-related transportation, academic support and the lower/middle schools’ extended day programs—proportional to students’ financial aid awards for tuition. 

Aid for categories other than those three, Houser said, could be available to students at “the local level” from the budgets of particular departments or activities. Accessing aid this way, however, requires students to proactively identify their need by approaching teachers or other staff members who aren’t otherwise privy to information regarding their economic circumstances.

As Barbara Eghan, director of enrollment management and financial aid, noted, “Part of equity is removing barriers before people have to name them for you.”

Although aid is officially available for educational testing expenses, Jara Wilensky wrote in an email that “socioeconomic status plays a large role in the testing accommodation culture at GDS.”

Also, even families who pay full tuition can be “stretched tremendously” and still struggle to afford additional expenses, Marlo Thomas said.

In the last few months, the coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented public health and economic crises around the world. For GDS, the start of distance learning—and the community’s departure from its great equalizer, the shared physical space—brought a new set of concerns about equity. 

The outbreak, which has led to mass job loss in the U.S., “will affect some people’s socioeconomic status,” Suzy Hamon said. As teachers prepared to start distance learning, she said, economic inequity “was one of the first things we talked about.”

In response to equity issues, the high school shifted to a credit/incomplete grading system and has provided technological support to families for distance learning, with members of the tech team even going to students’ homes to deliver equipment and offer assistance.

During the 2017-2018 school year, students in the Youth-led Participatory Action Research (YPAR) class researched the cost of participating in athletics at GDS, current senior Murad Nashid said. 

A proposal written in the spring of 2018 by three YPAR participants—senior Vidya Bhargava, Laila Nashid ’19 and Matt Leder ’18—concluded that “students from lower SES backgrounds are unfairly burdened by the cost of athletic equipment and there is not an apparent and equitable system in place to aid them.”

The YPAR cohort proposed to the Board and senior leadership team an “Athletic Equity Fund” to subsidize the costs of sports equipment at a rate proportional to students’ financial aid packages, Nashid said. 

Since then, no such fund has been established. 

However, Thomas said she and Eghan are working now to create an equity fund system for incidental expenses—not just for athletic gear, and potentially not just for financial aid recipients. “We are forehead-deep in that work,” Thomas said.

One financial aid recipient pointed to another equity concern that he said is “a big issue that I think GDS needs to fix”: the difficulty of finding affordable food at school.

This fall, the school is set to open the new lower/middle school building, which will include a dining hall. According to Houser, the dining hall will provide free lunch to lower and middle school students and sell “highly affordable” packaged meal options for high schoolers. “It’s intending to produce for the high school students a slightly wider portfolio of options,” he said.

“Triumph, Satisfaction, All of That”

While sharing their experiences with socioeconomic status at school—and the ways in which GDS has fallen short in fostering awareness and equity—multiple students who identified as receiving financial aid also expressed their gratitude for being able to be members of the GDS community. 

“I think it’s very generous,” one student said of those who donate to the school to support financial aid. “They don’t have to do this, but they’re helping the school out in a huge way that helps people like me come.”

“It’s important to acknowledge the two different types of privilege,” this student said. Economic privilege can give students a “financial safety net,” which gives them opportunity regardless of their academic achievement. 

“And then there’s the type of privilege that comes with just being educated at GDS, and having these teachers that are just so good,” the student said. GDS provides an “educational safety net” to all students, he said, which helps them through college and beyond. 

“My family doesn’t come from a lot of money at all. So if we can get financial aid,” another student said, “it makes me feel somewhat better about the situation that I’m in.” He described attending GDS on financial aid as a triumph: “You did it. You finally did it. You got here.”

When he sees the costly belongings and lifestyles of many of his peers, the student who described his home as “foodless” said he thinks of how that’s what he’s “shooting for in the future.”

“That’s why I work hard now,” he said, “so I can hopefully get that payoff and be able to live comfortably like that.”