Poverty has deep roots in America. There is no simple way to eradicate it. Some look at our nation’s have-nots and say, “Oh, they’re poor and uneducated. Let’s give them money so they’ll have an equal chance at success.” But without providing those who struggle economically with adequate preparation, education, or other supports that approximate the circumstances of those standing on firmer financial terrain, poverty persists.
And when it does, many observers blame its victims. “How could we have expected success from these people?” they say. “Guess they’re meant to be janitors after all.”
Examples of this sentiment abound. “Seat Pleasant 59,”a recent Washington Post series looked at what became of 59 fifth-graders from an elementary school in Prince George’s County who, back in 1988, were promised college scholarships if they graduated from high school.
Only 11 of the 59 students actually went on to graduate from college. Of the remaining 48, some ended up in jail and one ended up dead. Many of the others are struggling.
However, instead of highlighting the flaws of the public education system that failed these students, the reactions to this series cast blame on the students and suggested that they didn’t “make something of their gift.” The only solution, some have concluded is to lower our expectations, because maybe “college isn’t for everyone.” Well, I disagree, vehemently!
The same lazy solution was offered in a recent New York Times article about a fatal stampede at the gates of a South African university. The line of students and parents waiting to gain admission to the University of Johannesburg stretched a mile long. When the doors opened, too many people jostled for too few slots, resulting in one dead mother and numerous other injuries.
South Africa’s higher education system is overloaded with the task of extending the opportunity to attend college, a privilege once allocated for whites. However, the solution offered by South Africa’s education minister wasn’t building more institutions to meet demand; it was telling the youth population that college isn’t for all of them.
As someone who grew up knowing it would be hard for me to get to college, but believing that everyone has the chance, I am offended and outraged by this apathetic attitude towards solving educational issues. Growing up in North Philadelphia, I was forced to jump hurdle after hurdle to make it to where I am today.
Along the way, I’ve had to overcome the poverty that often accompanies having a single mother, as well as the cycle of drugs, abuse, and illiteracy that plagued not only my community, but my family. I was lucky enough to attend strong schools that pushed me to succeed. Today, I’m working my dream job at an educational advocacy organization here in Washington, D.C., and in May 2013, I expect to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
However, my story’s not the norm in my community. Many of the friends and family members I grew up with didn’t go to college. Some couldn’t afford it, some were persuaded that “college wasn’t for them,” and others went to vocational schools to earn certificates that “guaranteed” them a career.
The paths their lives have taken look somewhat similar to the Seat Pleasant 59. A good number of them have been in and out of jail, one of my cousins was recently shot to death and most of them have dead-end jobs or no job at all.
For students like me, education is the surest passport to freedom. People who walk into our classrooms saying “college isn’t for everyone,” are really saying “college isn’t for any of you.” Whether they mean it or not, their actions undercut our future choices.
In today’s tough economy, even college graduates who find themselves unemployed have better odds of success than people without a degree. And, it’s not that one can’t build a decent life without a college degree or that everyone must go to college. But society must give everyone an equal chance at succeeding in college before it starts removing their options.
When they’re young, we tell children “the sky is the limit,” but by high school — especially if they are poor, black, or brown — the low expectations of “alternative pathways” bring that “limit” down to the ground. Affluent students don’t have that problem. Sure, a few opt to skip college — Steve Jobs or Bill Gates comes to mind — but most eventually do go to college: The sky remains their limit.
We can’t create the perfect scenario for every single low-income or underrepresented kid of color. But, we can work to break down the systemic barriers that close off their options. One place to start is by overhauling the education pipeline that fails the majority of them every day. Scholarships are helpful and the tipping point for some, but they place the sole responsibility on the students to clear the barriers placed in their way.
On a grand scale, neither the students nor their families need to change. Indeed, studies show parents of color support the goal of college and career readiness even more than white parents. They’re often more concerned about affording college than whether their kids will be prepared for college success.
Recently, the KFC company gave two girls a surprise visit from their military mom, and two $20,000 scholarships to attend college. Those scholarships are a great start, but as we saw with the Seat Pleasant 59, they’re no guarantee.
When philanthropists hand out scholarships without ensuring that the supports are in place to prepare students for success, it’s like sowing seeds on rocky ground and saying “germination isn’t for all of you.” Maybe, KFC can invest another $40,000 in a college prep program at the girls’ school to make sure they and all of their classmates have a chance at college degrees.
“College isn’t for everyone” is yet another way of saying one group of people is inferior to another. Not to sound like George Bush, but that kind of “soft bigotry” is a form of oppression that denies people like me access to a prosperous future.
Uprooting poverty takes more than good will. It requires believing that every child is college material and transforming our schools, so they really work for everyone, no matter what their race or income.
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