As mentioned in my previous post, Twitter’s Role in the Education Debate, The dialogue around education reform is becoming divisive. I am not a proponent of either side. I actually see a common ground. Nevertheless, what has been on my mind is the misconception that people who want to create better neighborhoods and communities for our nation’s low-income citizens, while simultaneously pushing for education reform, are being labeled as status quo. That label is extremely confusing for me. I hope that many of you can help me to understand why a belief that is perhaps the most progressive is labeled as status quo.
I decided to tackle this issue, by shedding light on how I developed my education reform theory. I hope that my story helps you to understand my point of view: Children growing up in low-income communities have the innate ability to achieve at high levels. However, often as statistics indicate, their community’s influence limits them to see what is possible. Many become products of their environments. Nevertheless, America has the capacity and knowledge to create better neighborhoods for its low-income citizens. Building more sustainable communities, coupled with reforming these schools, will systemically change our public school system for the better.
Growing up in small-town Bridgeton, N.J., (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridgeton,_NJ) exposed to me an early age to the economic inequality in America. I had friends who lived in middle class homes, like me, and I had friends who lived in “the projects”. I knew early on that something was inherently wrong with that, but in my elementary years, I was too young to understand why. However, because my town was so small and school options were slim, everyone from middle class to low-income attended the same schools. Back then, my town had six elementary schools (now all K-8) which fed into one middle school and one high school. I gained an early awareness through certain life experiences (summer camps at Rowan University, computer courses as the local community college, constant interactions with college-educated people, etc) to a different way of life, partly because my dad went to college. He was able to open my eyes to what is possible for me to achieve beyond my small-town. This exposure was the reason I was able to overcome living in a small-town that had little resources. (According to Census results, the median income for a family in Bridgeton is $30,502). Fortunately, I grew up with a middle-income lifestyle. This was not the norm for many of my peers.
During my eighth grade year, my dad asked me if I wanted to attend private school. By that age, I had developed my own educational and economic theories, and I knew exactly why he asked me that question. Growing up my local high school did not have the best reputation—in fact; it was labeled as the worst high school in my county and one of the lowest performing in the state. This label haunted my classmates and me as we interacted with students at different schools. As a student-athlete, we would interact with other schools that made it known through their taunting and sly remarks that we were at the bottom of the barrel. In my county, people would say, “Oh, you’re from Bridgeton?” as if it meant that I was less of a person. Therefore, when my dad, asked me if I wanted to attend private school, I knew it was because he wanted what any parent wants for their children: the best education. Since he was fortunate to beat the odds and graduate from both college and graduate school, he wanted me to have every opportunity to succeed.
Yet, without hesitation, I firmly and confidently told him that I wanted to attend my local high school, and I knew what that decision meant, too. It meant that I may not receive the best education—yes, math still haunts me to this day. I even failed my first collegiate math course. However, what was most important to me was that I served as a voice to my peers to take charge of their futures despite where they grew up. I wanted them to prove people wrong; I wanted to prove people wrong. I wanted to prove to naysayers that people growing up in Bridgeton could achieve just like anyone else. Most people cannot escape their environment to attend a better school–but I chose to stay.
I do not know if I chose my life, or if my life chose me, but I committed my life to advocating on behalf of my peers who fell victim to their zip code. I decided early on that people should not have to live like that. That is why I view education reform and community reform as both necessary to systemically change our nation’s public school system.
Be on the lookout for Part 2 of How I Developed my Ed Reform Theory.