When I was growing up, I never really thought much when people asked me the question: where are you from? I always thought it was somewhat irrelevant. Whether the answer was Beverly Hills, California or Queens, New York, I tended to look at the similarities between American communities rather than the differences. But the truth is, I was incredibly wrong; where a person grows up has a heavy hand in determining who they are today and who they become tomorrow.
The reality is that children growing up in affluent communities experience numerous advantages over those living in poor neighborhoods. Aside from resources like better hospitals, high quality legal services, and high performing schools, the most critical advantage of living in a wealthy zip code may not be the most obvious one at first. Children living in these neighborhoods are surrounded by successful people: doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business executives- able to inspire them and demonstrate that it is in fact possible to ‘make it’ in the real world.
These fortunate youngsters have something that many kids in poorer communities lack: the ability to imagine who they want to be when they grow up. Children in less affluent areas who grow up knowing few high school and even fewer college graduates cannot conceive of the kind of possibilities that other children can. When finishing school becomes a near impossible feat rather than a basic requirement, many students find themselves just giving up and dropping out.
So, how can we begin to tackle this complex issue? The answer: it starts in the classroom.
It’s important to note that completing high school is often most difficult for minority groups who are all too often “stuck in poor neighborhoods” that are both resource and opportunity scarce. In Myron Levine’s Urban Politics, he states that four times as many African Americans and three times as many Hispanics live in these high-poverty areas and attend highly-segregated poorly run schools. Poor academic performance and low-graduation rates permeate these institutions creating a clear and present “tradition of failure.” Children are left thinking little of themselves and their ability to succeed.
This phenomenon has numerous consequences for many minority students; namely, as studies have shown, an increased likelihood of unemployment and fewer chances of economic prosperity later in life.
After analyzing these figures, the intersection between education and economic inequality becomes abundantly clear. To close the opportunity gap, the ‘education gap’ must also be addressed in minority communities. Since the two issues at play here, poverty and education, are so deeply intertwined, it is important for a variety of institutions to address the education gap from unique angles. Both the Church and the government, in particular, have vital roles to play in restoring these hurting schools and communities.
For starters, charter schools are one way to provide students with an education as they offer sufficient government oversight coupled with the academic freedom that makes private schools so highly valued. One inner-city charter school that has received attention for its success over the years is Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York. In the early 2000s Canada took a group of some of the poorest and most vulnerable children, 60% of whom lived below the poverty line, and decided to see what would happen if they were provided with an exceptional education. With the help of local governing authorities and a large staff, he wanted to address issues of “inadequate parenting” while at the same time “pouring money” into a previously underfunded community. The result: enormous success.
Canada’s program has transformed the lives of children who, under normal circumstances, may not have had much of a chance. He explains that Harlem Children’s Zone is meant to target and assist children who “don't have two parents, whose parents haven't gone to college, who haven't got a chance statistically of making it.” Instead of only seeing children as a reflection of their zip code, family history, or ethnic background, Canada and his team seek to harness students’ enormous potential and give them the unimaginable: an opportunity to succeed.
But even with the impressive results of programs like Canada’s, the needs in many communities are still pressing. While some schools are certainly well equipped to provide instruction and discipline, they are unable to provide a child with essential spiritual and emotional support. This presents a unique opportunity for the involvement of private faith-based groups who are well suited to address these needs. Little Lights in Washington, D.C. is an example of the good that can come from church-state partnerships. Little Lights connects volunteers and mentors with students in need of after school tutoring through a program they call ‘Homework Club.’ The format is simple: Little Lights provides the place, the people, and the passionate service while the Capital Area Food bank, supported by federal funding, provides the food. Students who utilize this service are not only much more likely to complete their homework assignments, but also more likely to advance to the next grade level the following year.
Although reforming the current education system to better serve minority groups and their families is an often hot and openly contested topic, no single institution has a clear monopoly when it comes to offering solutions. Minority students in low income communities struggling to complete high school require assistance in a multitude of areas. People like Canada who passionately provide alternative schooling options, along with organizations like Little Lights that offer tutoring and mentorship to students are both able to breathe new life into the way Americans view education. Because, after all, it is not about the books or the desks or even the number of teachers. It is about the students, their potential, and at the end of the day, their opportunity to succeed.
-Gabriella Siefert is a sophomore at Wheaton College studying Political Science and Spanish. This year she has been involved in a myriad of on campus activities including Student Government, the Wheaton College Mock Trial team and International Justice Mission. When she is not talking, thinking and writing about political issues and their intersection with her faith, Gabriella enjoys traveling, reading and cooking elaborate meals for her family.