MANHATTAN — Even though Gina Parker Collins knew her kids would be among the few children of color in their top tier New York City private school, she still felt "a little bit of a pinch" when she saw the lack of diversity in their classroom.
Collins, who is African-American, came from a corporate background in marketing and publishing where she was accustomed to "being one in a room," she said.
But she didn't want her children, now in fifth and eighth grade at Riverdale Country School, to feel alone or unsupported, so she rolled up her sleeves and got engaged, meeting with the curriculum director, for instance, when she noticed that books on reading lists did not offer pluralistic perspectives.
In doing so, she not only became an advocate for her children but for other families of color in private schools across the city.
Collins founded Resources In Independent School Education (RIISE) to help navigate the admissions process and create a support system to help boost their chances of staying in these schools if they got in.
Only 5 percent of students enrolled at New York State's 98 independent schools are Hispanic and roughly 7 percent are black, according to 2012 data from the New York State Association of Independent Schools.
Another 8 percent identify as multi-racial and 7 percent are Asian-American while white students make up roughly 72 percent of the student body.
A growing number of the city's elite private schools have been focusing more attention and resources on improving the racial and economic diversity of their student body, Collins noted.
RIISE held its fourth annual free "parent power conference" — "Encouraging Diversity in Independent School Education — on Saturday at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. More than 20 schools, including Chapin, Horace Mann and the Calhoun School, were on hand to answer questions about their diversity initiatives. That's up from 10 when Collins started her efforts.
"I think the schools are beginning to acknowledge that to develop successful and innovative leaders who can compete in today's global market they have to recruit and attract a diverse student body," Collins said.
Collins is trying to help the effort by "pulling back the velvet rope" and having heads of schools, educators, parents and students "share their stories" about how and why diversity matters to their institutions.
"We are helping shift some perceptions that independent schools are only for white, wealthy families," she said.
At the same time, the group provides a forum for families to discuss things like, "If my child is the only kid of color in his class again this year, what does that say to him?" Collins said.
"We want our families to walk in with their eyes wide open. As long as we have a network and support one another we're going to be OK. We're not going to be left out."
At Riverdale, the diversity of the student body has been increasing in recent years.
In 2005, 17 percent of its students received financial aid to help cover the $45,000 annual tuition and 18 percent identified as students of color, according to the school. By 2010, 19 percent received financial aid and 24 percent identified as students of color.
This year, 20 percent received financial aid and 31 percent identified as students of color.
Of the school's faculty, 29 percent identify as people of color, Riverdale officials noted.
The school, which also attended the RIISE conference and hosts an annual admissions event at the Bronx Museum of Arts, has in recent years expanded programs tackling race and social issues.
In January, the school sponsored the Hilltop Diversity Conference that attracted 220 students from 10 middle schools. This month it hosted the Young Men of Color Conference for students from across the area.
On May 2, the school is hosting an event with Safe Passage, an organization that provides legal help to unaccompanied minors.
Riverdale, like many private schools, also has several "affinity groups" where students who share certain backgrounds can get together and explore issues of identity. There are clubs for black, Hispanic, Asian American and LGBT students, for instance.
At the nearby Ethical Culture Fieldston School, which also has a campus on the Upper West Side, affinity groups were recently integrated into the curriculum, requiring third- through fifth-graders to separate themselves by race and engage in a series of five facilitated 45-minute conversations throughout the semester.
But the progressive school wants to do more than pay lip service to diversity and multiculturalism.
"Our school is committed to providing our students — the ethical leaders of tomorrow — with the necessary skills to address the complex problems of identity and race in American democracy and on the global stage," head of school Damian Fernandez said.
With a growing awareness of the importance of diversity in private schools, Collins said she's confident that she and other advocates are sending the right message to their children.
She said she wants her kids to understand that they're "part of this power structure in a way and this is where we can affect change."
Collins has been pleased with the results of her efforts so far — as well as with how schools are often receptive to parent involvement. After speaking to her school's curriculum director about the reading list, she was happy to see Howard Zinn’s, "A Young People’s History Of the United States" — which presents events through the lives of ordinary people rather than elites — added to the list.
"If you're in the library and you don’t see something, say something," Collins said.
"Family participation is key at these schools. They not only accepted our kids, they accepted the whole family."