Education as a Lever for Addressing Inequality

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Jonathan Kozol speak about “Race, Poverty, and the Corporate Invasion of Our Public Schools.” Kozol has long been one of my personal heroes working in the field of education, so I relished the opportunity to be in the same room with him.

So much of what he said made such obvious sense to me, including his belief that we are shortchanging students before school even begins by failing to offer quality preschool to all children, particularly those children who could most benefit from it and all of the services that ought to accompany a reputable program. And where would the money come from to fund such an initiative? His answer: from the budget we currently pay to standardized testing companies.

He also spoke at length about the continuing — and perhaps worsening — inequities in public education as segregation in schools continues unabated. This issue is of particular interest to me, as I am looking at positions in urban schools and have been floored by the intra-district inequalities in terms of free and/reduced lunch rates. (Of course, free/reduced lunch is a contested indicator of poverty, but I think it works to support the point made here.) I was shocked that it would be permitted to allow one school to have 12% of students receiving free/reduced lunch while another school across the city has upwards of 85%. Perhaps it was naive of me to assume that these types of obvious inconsistencies would be viewed as intolerable and immediately eradicated.

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Prior to attending Kozol’s talk, I read one of his works that I hadn’t read previously — Amazing Grace. I found the book difficult to read, even though his other works have given me some familiarity with the contexts described. It is always painful to read about difficult situations; however, what made this one particularly challenging was the gnawing sense that even though the book was written two decades ago, things don’t seem to have improved a whole lot in that time. It is unfortunate that the political priorities in this country continue to lie elsewhere and that public interest is not constantly directed toward the staggering inequalities that persist in our own country and are, as the title of another Kozol book suggests, “the shame of the nation.”

School in the Summer?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ll be working at an Upward Bound program in Maine for the next six weeks. If you want to learn more about Upward Bound, here’s a link to the official government site about it. (http://www2.ed.gov/programs/trioupbound/index.html). And this is my program: http://www2.umf.maine.edu/upwardbound/. Essentially, my summer program is designed to giving rising sophomores, juniors, seniors, and college freshmen an academic boost heading into the next school year and to help connect them to resources and people who can support them in their efforts to become first generation college students.

My role in the program is primarily as an English teacher. I teach four sections of students (the rising sophomores and juniors) three times each week. In addition to my classroom responsibilities, I am also in charge of an “advisory group” — a small group of students that functions as sort of a “family” while we’re here, am involved in evening study sessions and “free time,” get to plan and organize activities for evening events, and live in the dorm on the girls’ floor. The amount of time that I can spend interacting with these adolescents over the next six weeks is truly boundless!

We started our classes on Monday and I was feeling quite nervous about making the transition from teaching second graders to teaching high schoolers. But, so far, things have been wonderful! The depth of our discussions and their engagement in my English class has been unbelievable so far. It is blissful to not have all of the (charming) interruptions of the younger set and to be able get through everything that I have planned without getting sidetracked by behavior or other issues. I’m sort of spoiled, because these students applied to be here and are highly motivated, but it is just so fantastic to work with them. They talk with me about what we’re doing in class in the lunch line (really!) and are thinking hard about the issues that we’re discussing around the media and technology — even outside of class. It’s been really invigorating — even more so than I could have possibly imagined!

While I’m loving the program and feeling great about being part of such a grand vision for supporting these students who will really benefit from the hard work all of the staff is doing, I can’t help thinking from time to time about how there were students who applied to be here who didn’t get accepted. I hate that programs that do such good can’t take on all students. Everyone who wants an opportunity to pursue an education ought to have that chance — it really frustrates me that the deck is stacked against so many students and that for each student who does get to engage with a program like Upward Bound, there are others who get left behind. I’m trying hard to stay upbeat and focus on doing everything that I can for the wonderful students who are here, but I can’t help but think about the other kids at their schools who were not as fortunate as they were in the application process.

Of course, it’s not the job of one program to solve all of the problems relating to inequality of educational opportunity, but I think it’s worth thinking about what we, as educators and citizens, might do to help make sure that no one falls through the cracks, that all students get a chance to feel like they can realize their dreams and live the life that they’ve imagined. It’s something I know that I’ll keep thinking about in the weeks ahead, while I spend time with students that may not appear to be obvious college-material on paper, but who are flourishing in the rich environment here at Upward Bound.