How is it that academic expectations range so significantly just ten minutes down the road? From simply hoping to experience high school, to striving to attend the most prestigious ivy league colleges, students adapt to certain expectations and pressures according to the environment in which they grow up. Why is this acceptable, when the distinction between success and failure is simply which exit one lives off of?
Living in Westport, I live in a bubble. The tools and preparation for success has been offered to me since the first day I stepped into Coleytown Elementary School. The continuous years of textbooks, workbooks, and testing has become a routine for me and all other Staples students, who are in essence just competing with each other for the same goal; to attain the most prestigious college. All these years of training have led up to the 4 hour ACT test, and the three letters ‘G’ ‘P’ ‘A’ that ultimately determines your future. Expectations continue to increase as years go by, as I follow through with this “plan” Ive been designated to, unconscious of the rareness of my reality. I’ve been spoon fed the opportunity that every child and parent around the country dream of an extraordinary education.
I was so fortunate as to be given the opportunity to visit two opposite learning environments through the Child Development program at Staples High School. One including Greens Farms Elementary School in Westport, CT, in which I was greeted with a warm, open heart, and adapted a sense of safety, community, and hard work. Colorful kindness chains surround the school along with students artwork and posters. A positive school climate, which values and honors the students and families served, establishes the foundation for well-defined school, family, and community relationships. These partnerships begin with the understanding and awareness that families from all races and all cultures have strengths and play a critical role in their children’s educational success. Families are their children’s first mentors, educators, and support system. Research demonstrates that “culturally responsive,” “culturally appropriate,” and “culturally congruent” and effective schools have high levels of parental engagement and improved academic achievement for all students regardless of the racial/ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic background of students (Equality in Education 16). Quite simply, families and communities are at the heart of students’ identities and experiences. A school or organization will not achieve equity and excellence for all of the students in its care if it does not acknowledge, understand, and include the families and communities of all students.
The other, which I only spent roughly three hours at, was the Luiz Marin Elementary School in Bridgeport, CT. This school did not demonstrate nearly as much of a positive school climate. From the 3 hours I spent at the school, my mind and heart had sunk into my skin. It was a feeling I had never experienced before. Walking into the building, and being stopped by a big police officer scanning to see who I was, and why I was there. The hallways lined with officers outside of every classroom, with their gear, guns, tasers, always ready for action. Undesirable lunches distributed throughout the classroom in mini trays, providing scarcely enough for lunch alone. However, the students save them, knowing dinner was not dependable for the night ahead. Students of all different races, shapes, sizes, color, and most importantly, stories. Every student had a unique story to them, that for me was unimaginable; it’s like it was out of a movie. “This”, I realized that day, “this is reality”. Unless one has been in poverty, has experienced the despair and hopelessness felt by those in our society who are disenfranchised, you cannot know what it is really like. We can empathize, sympathize, and imagine what this disparity feels like, but there is no way we can know what it is really feels like. Even “walking in someone’s shoes” for a period of time, can only give a glimmer of the reality. If we only “walk a mile” in their shoes, we are not walking in their day-to-day lives.
Clearly, the educational disparity among these two schools is prominent, however what exactly is making this distinction? Why are these two environments so different, when they are nearly 10 minutes apart? Educational disparity can be caused by many different elements, however the main elements that we see across the country include socioeconomic status as well as health outcomes and healthcare. This disparity is evident in early childhood and persist from kindergarten through high school, if indeed that child makes it that far. Disparity is reflected in test scores assessing academic achievement, such as reading and mathematics; percentages of those repeating one or more grades; dropout and graduation rates; proportions of students involved in gifted and talented programs; enrollment in higher education; as well as in behavioral markers of adjustment, including rates of being disciplined, suspended and expelled from schools (American Psychological Association).
It is simply not fair that success is strictly correlated to the environment in which you have grown up in. There is simply less motivation in schools of less opportunity, like the Marin, but why? There are three elements critical to building mutual trust, respect, and shared responsibility for education among home, school, and community that have a direct positive impact on student motivation, participation in programming, and success across subjects. First, intentional actions to engage families to strengthen student learning. Secondly, teacher efforts to become knowledgeable about students’ cultures and the local community that are employed in their lessons; and third, endeavors to strengthen the network among community organizations to expand services for students and their families. (Equality in Education 17). Some children simply do not have any of these critical elements for a bright future. Many times, parents are so focused on their jobs and other issues, that they have no time or effort to engage in their child’s learning. Also, many times in environments of low educational quality, teachers simply do not have the drive they would in a wealthier, more educationally enriched environment, to teach and develop connections with the students, because the expectations are not nearly as high. Teachers are supposed to be role models, but how can these children be motivated when their biggest role model is not a leader? Lastly, many times, children do not have the money to participate in outside programs other than their public school it simply is not in the cards.
Clearly, there has to be a change to these realities. We have to advocate for wider access to high quality, early childhood education programs, which have been shown to help redress disparities associated with poverty in early childhood. (American Psychological Association). As Václav Have once said, “Vision is not enough. It must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.”