Getting a college education is a 20-year investment. When you’re growing up poor, you’re not accustomed to thinking that far ahead. Instead, you’re thinking about where you’re going to get your next meal and how your family is going to pay rent that month.
Besides, my parents and my friends’ parents seemed to be doing just fine driving taxis and working as janitors. It wasn’t until I was a teenager when I realized I didn’t want to do those things. By then, I was two-thirds of the way through my education, and it was almost too late to turn things around.
When you grow up poor, you want to be rich. I was no different. I’m the second-oldest of seven, and was raised by a single mother on government aid in Queens, New York. By virtue of growing up low-income, my siblings and I went to some of New York City’s most struggling public schools. I had over 60 absences when I was in seventh grade, because I didn’t feel like going to class. My high school had a 55 percent graduation rate, and even worse, only 20 percent of the kids graduating were college-ready.
When I actually did make it to college, I told my friend Brennan how our teachers would always ask us to raise our hands if we were going to college. I was taken aback when Brennan said, “Karim, I’ve never been asked that question before.” It was always, “What college are you going to?”
Just the way that question is phrased made it unacceptable for him not to have gone to college.
Nowadays I get asked a different question: “How were you able to make it out?” For years I said I was lucky, but it’s not just luck. When my older brother and I graduated from high school at the very same time and he later dropped out of a two-year college, I wanted to understand why he dropped out and I kept studying.
It wasn’t until I got to Cornell as a Presidential Research Scholar that I started to learn about the very real educational consequences of being raised by a single mother on government aid and attending the schools that I did. That’s when my older brother’s trajectory began to make complete sense to me.
I also learned that our most admirable education reformers, people like Arne Duncan, the former U.S. secretary of education, or Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America, had never attended an inner-city public school like I had.
So much of our education reform is driven by a sympathetic approach, where people are saying, “Let’s go and help these poor inner-city kids, or these poor Black and Latino kids,” instead of an empathetic approach, where someone like me, who had grown up in this environment, could say, “I know the adversities that you’re facing and I want to help you overcome them.”
Today when I get questions about how I made it out, I share that one of the biggest reasons is that I wasn’t ashamed to ask for help. In a typical middle class or affluent household, if a kid is struggling, there’s a good chance that a parent or a teacher will come to their rescue even if they don’t ask for help. However, if that same kid is growing up poor and doesn’t ask for help, there’s a good chance that no one will help them. There are virtually no social safety nets available.
It Starts With Summer School
So seven years ago, I started to reform our public education system shaped by my firsthand perspective. And I started with summer school.
Research tells us that two-thirds of the achievement gap, which is the disparity in educational attainment between rich kids and poor kids or Black kids and White kids, could be directly attributed to the summer learning loss. In low-income neighborhoods, kids forget almost three months of what they learned during the school year over the summer. They return to school in the fall, and their teachers spend another two months reteaching them old material.
That’s five months. The school year in the United States is only 10 months. If kids lose five months of learning every single year, that’s half of their education. Half.
If kids were in school over the summer, then they couldn’t regress, but traditional summer school is poorly designed. For kids it feels like punishment, and for teachers it feels like babysitting. But how can we expect principals to execute an effective summer program when the school year ends the last week of June and then summer school starts just one week later?
There just isn’t enough time to find the right people, sort out the logistics, and design an engaging curriculum that excites kids and teachers.
But what if we created a program over the summer that empowered teachers as teaching coaches to develop aspiring educators? What if we empowered college-educated role models as teaching fellows to help kids realize their college ambitions? What if we empowered high-achieving kids as mentors to tutor their younger peers and inspire them to invest in their education? What if we empowered all kids as scholars, asked them what colleges they were going to, designed a summer school they want to attend to completely eliminate the summer learning loss and close two-thirds of the achievement gap?
By this summer, my team will have served over 4,000 low-income children, trained over 300 aspiring teachers and created more than 1,000 seasonal jobs across some of New York City’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.
And our kids are succeeding. Two years of independent evaluations tell us that our kids eliminate the summer learning loss and make growth of one month in math and two months in reading. So instead of returning to school in the fall three months behind, they now go back four months ahead in math and five months ahead in reading.
Ten years ago, if you would have told me that I’d graduate in the top 10 percent of my class from an Ivy League institution and have an opportunity to make a dent on our public education system just by tackling two months of the calendar year, I would have said, “Nah. No way.” What’s even more exciting is that if we can prevent five months of lost time just by redesigning two months, imagine the possibilities that we can unlock by tackling the rest of the calendar year.