Twice in the past two months I stood outside the Save Mart in Loehmann’s Plaza for an hour in the late morning polling 40 pedestrians each time.
The first time, April 22, I asked people whether they had heard of Country Day, and if so, what was the first stereotype that came to their mind about the school.
Of the 21 who gave me stereotypes, 43 percent chose stereotypes with a negative connotation while 24 percent chose positive ones. The rest of the responses were neutral.
Those who gave me negative stereotypes, responded with stereotypes such as it has “snotty rich kids,” it’s “exclusive” and it has “white, privileged” students.
However, when I went back on April 29, accompanied by my eighth grade brother Dylan, I asked a slightly different question.
“What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Country Day?”
This time, the number of negative responses decreased by 13 percent, (although someone gave me the middle finger), and the number of positive answers by 11 percent.
But I still heard negative responses that ranged from Country Day’s exclusiveness to its expensive tuition to that it’s mostly white to how it has privileged children.
Director of communications Julie Nelson suggested that the reason the responses were so different is because the stereotype question had a negative connotation.
“Surveys are extremely hard to create,” Nelson said. “And by asking a question that already has a preconceived answer, you’re going to get an answer that reflects your question.”
In addition, Nelson said that stereotypes about any school form because of a lack of information.
“(Stereotypes form when) people haven’t done any investigation,” Nelson said. “All they have to do is go on a website and figure out what that school is about. So if they don’t know, then they haven’t done the research.”
Knowing that the internet is a smart way to change stereotypes, assistant head of school Tucker Foehl and Nelson recently began using the school website as a marketing tool to better show the Country Day dynamic and encourage families to visit the campus.
Students like freshman Avinash Krishna, who is Indian-American, said that the website can be a useful tool for eliminating inaccurate stereotypes.
According to Krishna, media like the website will both challenge the stereotype that Country Day is an almost all-white school because it displays people of color and also give prospective families a better understanding of the school’s diversity.
In fact, Krishna has had to deal with this stereotype in the past.
“One time I was talking to a friend, and he (asked), ‘Isn’t that school all white?’” Krishna said. “So I told him, ‘No, it’s actually really diverse.’ Before it might not have been as richly diverse because I shadowed here when I was in fourth grade, and I didn’t see much diversity.
“But when I came here in ninth grade, I saw a lot more people of different races.”
In fact, from the 2004-2005 school year to the most recent year of polling in 2015-2016, the percentage of students of color at Country Day has increased from around 22.5 percent to more than 40 percent, according to polling cited by Foehl.
And while 40 percent is not the majority, Foehl said anyone who believes that Country Day is above average in percentage of white students for an independent school is mistaken.
In fact, SCDS has around 5 percent more students of color than the average independent school in California and more than 10 percent above the national independent school average, according to the same poll.
Like Krishna, sophomore Savannah Rosenzweig said she has heard of SCDS stereotypes from others that she thought were either exaggerated or simply false.
“(Before I came to Country Day), I heard a lot that most people (here) were going to be rude or stuck-up,” Rosenzweig said.
“And my brother, who goes to Jesuit, told me that I was probably going to get in trouble there because the teachers are super strict.”
Nelson said these social stereotypes are created because there aren’t a lot of independent private schools in the area, so Sacramentans have nothing to compare the school to.
However, Nelson and Foehl use the fact that Country Day is unique in the area to their advantage.
“We’ve made a concerted effort to talk about how we go beyond the traditional academics,” Foehl said. “A lot of the schools in our marketplace are very traditional.”
In addition to the academics, Nelson and Foehl also emphasize the school’s diverse extracurricular activities.
“(We explain that) it’s broad, and it’s not just an athletic school,” Nelson said. “It’s not just an art school. There’s something here for almost every student.”
Foehl said that the end goal of increasing publicity is to get families onto campus because that’s when the school has the biggest impact on visitors.
“I hear all the time (from visitors), ‘I had no idea that Country Day was like this,’” Foehl said. “So they get to the campus and come with certain stereotypes of what it means to be on a campus that costs $20,000-$25,000 a year.
“(But) they come here, and I think their stereotypes, quite frankly, are turned upside down.”
In fact, to refute a Save Mart pedestrian’s response that the school is exclusive (in the second survey), Nelson said that many people think this because of the cost.
“A lot of people would say (that) it’s got an excellent reputation,” Nelson said. “It’s got an excellent curriculum, but it’s too expensive, because they haven’t bothered to find out that we have tuition assistance, which makes it more affordable than it used to be.”
People who don’t tour the school or attend Open House are more likely to believe (or not deny) false or exaggerated stereotypes that they hear, according to Nelson.
For instance, before Rosenzweig came to SCDS, she said that most of the people who learned she would be attending either hadn’t heard of the school or thought that it was a boarding or military school.
Sophomore Shimin Zhang said that she hasn’t encountered these stereotypes, but she also said that most of the time, people haven’t heard of the school.
Indeed, of the pedestrians at Save Mart, only 53 percent had heard of the school only half a mile away.
Foehl said he thinks that the interviewees who had negative opinions or stereotypes of the school school should come visit.
That said, Foehl acknowledged that it’s impossible to completely erase all of the stereotypes since, according to him, there are stereotypes for “everything in life, from Pizza Guys to East Sacramento.”
According to Foehl, another stereotype that wasn’t mentioned since no business owners at Loehmann’s Plaza were polled is that Country Day kids are more respectful and thoughtful than other students.
“They’re comparing us to Jesuit and (St. Francis Catholic High School) and other schools,” Foehl said. “And they’re saying that Country Day kids are the best kids that come into their businesses and shops.”
Originally published in the June 6 edition of the Octagon.
—By Jackson Margolis