The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

Students confront awareness of class disparities

While nearly 15 percent of students identify as low-income, several students say that there are too few discussions of class, creating an environment that is not well-equipped to discuss class disparities.

Earlier this school year, senior Clara Idlebrook was reading George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” in her English class. In a class discussion, her teacher asked the group: should Eliza Doolittle, the play’s protagonist, have chosen to assimilate into upper-crust British society instead of remaining a poor flower girl? Idlebrook was a little less focused than usual that day, but her ears perked up at one comment made by a classmate.

“They said, ‘Poor people can’t have dignity,’ something along those lines,” Idlebrook said.

Idlebrook, who identifies as lower-income, said she was angered by the comment.

“I got really focused and responded,” Idlebrook said. “It just felt really ignorant. I was kind of angry at the person, but I was also angry that our teacher wasn’t saying anything about that. And neither was anyone else in the class.”

When comments like these, regardless of their intention, go unaddressed, they can leave low-income students feeling isolated and angered. A failure to acknowledge the presence of low-income students ultimately contributes to a detrimental culture of silence surrounding wealth in Brookline.


According to the latest data from the 2020 Census, the median household income in the town is $130,000 compared to the state median of $96,505. The median price of a single-family home is $2.5 million and the median price for a condo is $927, 500 in contrast to a median of $910,000 for a single-family home in the Greater Boston area, according to data from the Boston Globe. Despite these figures, 10.1 percent of Brookline’s residents currently live below the poverty line.

The perceived lack of socioeconomic diversity in Brookline is, among other factors, a result of difficulties in implementing affordable housing in Brookline. When Brookline Town Meeting voted last year to comply with the MBTA Communities Act in Nov. 2023, which mandated an increase in the number of multifamily housing units within half a mile of T-stops, the news made waves. However, the vote does not reflect Brookline’s historical struggles with multifamily and affordable housing.

According to the Boston Globe, Brookline banned triple-decker housing, which commonly housed immigrant families, in the early 20th century, a move led by the local Immigration Restriction League, an organization founded by a Brookline resident. Even in 2011, those in South Brookline pushed back against the expansion of Hancock Village, with Town Meeting enclosing it in a Neighborhood Conservation District, capping the number of housing units built in the area. However, a Massachusetts Land Court judge handed down a decision allowing the owners of Hancock Village to continue building.

2023-24 data from the Massachusetts Department of Education indicate that there are 310 low-income students enrolled at the high school, making up 14.8 percent of the student body. Support is available for low-income students across the district; the district-wide Financial Assistance Application “covers most school fees in the full school year,” including instrumental, athletic, and field trip fees, with additional forms covering costs of optional field trips and meals.

Steps to Success (STS) also supports the academic and financial needs of low-income students in the town. According to the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) website, STS, which is also a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, aims to “facilitate the academic and personal success of children from low-income families and to ensure educational equity.” It was launched in 2001 as a collaboration between PSB, the Brookline Housing Authority and the Brookline Community Foundation in an effort to close the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students.

At the high school, 131 students are enrolled in the program, with students of color making up 89 percent of the enrollees. STS, which provides services like after-school help centers and college application support, offers assistance beginning in the 4th grade and has served over 5,000 students, the vast majority of whom go off to college and complete a degree in four to six years.

Student Perspectives

In Brookline, a plurality of experiences relating to socioeconomic status exist, but they’re often not discussed in classroom settings.

Senior Gabriel Spagat, who identifies as upper class, grew up and lives in Pill Hill near low-income housing. He said that from a young age, his parents tried to instill in him knowledge of class differences, but he still wouldn’t consider himself as class-conscious as he’d like to be.

“I think if anything, my peers at Lincoln, where I went to middle school, and Brookline High School have made me less class conscious,” Spagat said.

Spagat cited purchasing food off-campus as an example of behavior among students that has been normalized as a result of going to school in an affluent town like Brookline.

“I’ve become more numb to the luxuries that sometimes come with having more money. With that, I’ve become less conscious of my class because I kind of just see it as, ‘Oh, everyone can do this!’ when I forget that it’s just because we live in a bubble, and that’s a very specific thing that people here can afford,” Spagat said.

Class differences can also manifest interpersonally, causing tension between friends. Talking about class can be difficult, Spagat said, mainly because it essentially requires people to talk about their personal finances.

“It’s hard for a lot of people to separate their own social class and just being able to talk about the overall class consciousness,” Spagat said.

Idlebrook, who alternates between living with her lower-income mother near the Roland Hayes School in Cleveland Circle and her middle-class father and his family in Needham, said that despite making an effort to be friends with people who are conscious of class, things still get, as she put it, “complicated” with friends of a higher socioeconomic status.

“Sometimes they’ll try to be too nice about it, so they’ll try to pay for everything, which is kind of them, and sometimes I can’t afford the things, so it is useful, but also sometimes it feels a little embarrassing,” Idlebrook said.

In a classroom setting, Idlebrook said people don’t think about the possibility of a low-income student in their presence.

“If there’ll be a field trip, [teachers] won’t really remember that they have to mention that there’s a financial aid option,” Idlebrook said. “So sometimes I’ve had to go up to them and be like, ‘Hey, is this an option? Are you not mentioning it because it’s not an option? Can I pay for this?’

English teacher Peter Sedlak said he has open conversations in his classes exploring themes of class. According to Sedlak, these conversations are often difficult to navigate, as classrooms can be filled with myriad experiences, perspectives and backgrounds. Sedlak said these conversations can sometimes be far removed from real-world settings and comments that are made may hurt students of lower economic statuses.

“It’s definitely difficult to balance whether or not the conversation is going productively,” Sedlak said. “I try to make sure people understand at least sort of like where the class tensions are coming from.”

Idlebrook said there is a difference between behavior based on ignorance of issues of socioeconomic status and behavior based on judgment.

“There are the people who think it’s someone’s fault that they’re lower-income, which isn’t great. I don’t love that. It’s concerning when people tend to have an association with a certain group of people and see them as an ‘other.’ And that seems to kind of be what BHS does,” Idlebrook said. “It’s kind of like people see anyone who’s lower-income as either someone to feel sorry for or someone completely separate from them, which is not fun.”

College Talk

For seniors, the college application process is stressful without the additional layer of finding a way to pay for your education. Conversations around college applications are also anxiety-inducing, but according to English teacher and Brookline resident Nick Rothstein, they may also unveil classist attitudes.

“I’ve always hated the term ‘safety school,’” Rothstein said. “When somebody says to me [Boston University] is my safety school,’ I’m like, ‘well, my wife went to BU, and she certainly didn’t see that as a safety school.’ She was the first kid in her family to go to college. BU was a success to her.”

Rothstein grew up in Whiskey Point, an area between Cypress Field and Downes Field, and said he was friends with children of low-income families who also lived in the area, many of whom went on to be first-generation college students. He said he considered comments about BU or UMass being safety schools to be “telling” and pushed back against the idea that attending a “safety school” should be frowned upon.

“There will always be every year – it might be a small portion, but it’ll be a portion – of students who will be the first in their families to go to college. And that is a success,” Rothstein said. “I don’t care where they go. That is a success story. And none of those schools should be thought of as anything less than important steps.”

Idlebrook said she planned on applying to schools early decision but then realized she couldn’t.

“If you [apply] early decision, you’re less likely to get aid,” Idlebrook said. “If you [apply] early decision, [colleges] know you don’t have another option. So they know you have to pay whatever they give you the option to pay. And that means that they will make you pay, and I can’t afford that. And many lower-income people or honestly, most people, because of how expensive college is right now, can’t afford that at all.”

Idlebrook’s stress did not end with an acceptance.

“When I got mine, I looked at the scholarship and I started doing the math immediately, and I found that there’s one college that I can maybe afford to go to out of the ones that I had been accepted to,” Idlebrook said. “But then, I’ve had friends who I’ve been there when they’ve gotten their acceptance, and some haven’t thought about that at all.”

When interviewed, Idlebrook was contemplating choosing between Western New England University, a school she would’ve been able to afford with work-study, and Hampshire College, a more expensive school that gave her a better financial aid package. Idlebrook was still waiting to hear back from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and was also applying for scholarships.

In a text message sent on Feb. 20, however, Idlebrook said she had received her first financial aid award and had an empowering message for her low-income peers.

“If you fill out [the FAFSA] and apply for scholarships, there are grants and work-study,” Idlebrook said. “So I would like people who are lower-income to know that they don’t need to completely rule out colleges for their price.”

Making Change in Class Consciousness

When it comes to addressing inequities at the high school, Senior Katherine Torres-Perez, who identifies as lower middle-class, said that the high school talks a lot about fighting against racism, LGBTQ+ hate and other forms of bigotry, but not about classism.

“I think [students] are more comfortable with talking about their race because it’s what they look like, it’s what other people are talking about, and it’s something that is becoming more and more of an open topic each day,” Torres-Perez said.

Spagat said that another difficulty in having honest conversations about class is that no one wants to identify themselves as “part of the problem.”

“I wouldn’t say any of the students are directly part of the issue, but I think people here choose to ignore that they benefit because they have to admit other people don’t,” Spagat said.

In terms of seeing change come about, Spagat, who organized the 2022 Day of Jewish Identity as a sophomore, said while he thought organizing a day surrounding the topic of class would have value, he didn’t think having a “Day Of” event would do much to expand class consciousness for a certain segment of the student population.

“I think those [who are able to have a discussion around class] are the people who are going to be the most engaged. They’re going to learn the most from the day, but they’re also the people that you least are targeting,” Spagat said. “I think a lot of people, the people who you are trying to target the most [during] those days; those are the people who are going to zone out, not pay attention, not talk in classes and have those conversations.”

Idlebrook also said she sees opportunities for courses to have more discussions surrounding class.

“I’d like an advisory lesson. Bare minimum, that would be lovely. And sometimes in the health classes would be good. Like we talk about mental health and physical health, but we don’t talk about how economic status could impact that enough. And that could be a good place to learn about it,” Idlebrook said.

Spagat said he was aware that he couldn’t relate to the experiences of low-income students and acknowledged that conversation was important as a means of building consciousness. He said he’d like to see more conversations about class, not just at the high school level but earlier on.

“I think it’s definitely something that should be talked about,” Spagat said. “I think a lot of students because we don’t have these conversations when we’re younger, don’t feel comfortable talking about it as much when we’re older…so it’s difficult for the conversation to be able to happen now, when we’re seniors in high school, when we’ve never had the conversations when we were freshmen.”

Rothstein said he wanted more than just “lip service” from affluent community members he said advocated for equity until it demanded sacrifice.

“Classism still exists in Brookline. I think it existed when I was in high school here, and I think it exists now. We still teach and think about it, but nothing’s changed,” Rothstein said. “The onus is on us who have lots of opportunities and do lots of different things to, besides just helping our own family situation, help to provide opportunities for other kids in some way, shape or form.”

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