When I was in middle school, it was pretty clear what my teachers thought of me.
I was placed in the slow track, literally named the “Delta” group, as opposed to the accelerated “Alpha” track, along with most of the other Black and Brown kids at my school. At some point in my middle school experience, I began to internalize that this slower track was exactly where I belonged.
My parents valued education deeply, perhaps because systemic racial inequality denied them of achieving their full academic potential. My father grew up as a poor sharecropper in North Carolina who was largely self-educated as an adult, while my mother was unable to finish college.
It’s for that reason that my parents worked tirelessly to pay for my sister and me to get the best education that they could afford. Their first priority was our physical safety, followed by the belief that a quality education would provide us with access and choices in our lives.
Unfortunately, despite the small fortune that they paid to send us to fancy private schools in Westchester County, New York, these schools’ prestigious reputations were often not the reality for the few Black and Brown kids that attended them.
Despite the very real flaws in my educational experience, it was still markedly better than what many of my neighborhood friends had to endure simply because their families lacked the means to afford any other option.
I can’t remember any teachers that were truly invested in me as a student. I was painfully shy and so, as long as I was quiet and polite, teachers largely left me alone. I existed in almost complete anonymity all the way up through high school, surrounded by a small group of Black and Latino kids that were also from the Bronx. I was a solid B student that was fully committed to putting forth the minimum effort needed to maintain that B. I was a “Delta” through and through.
And so when I got to college, I nearly flunked out. Not because I wasn’t smart enough to do college work, but because I was unprepared. If not for the help of a dean who took me under his wing, I would not have graduated.
It’s no wonder the college graduation rate of low-income students in this country is less than 15 percent.
Our nation’s schools—whether in urban or suburban areas (I went to schools with mostly White students)—are set up essentially as gatekeepers. And the door that is locked to predominantly Black and Brown children or children from low-income backgrounds is called college access.
That door gets shut very early in many children’s lives when well-meaning but misguided adults decide a child’s trajectory by placing them in classes where expectations are arbitrarily low.
And then that door gets bolted shut in high school, where 70 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch don’t get access to AP classes, a huge predictor of college success.
I Know What Positive Change Looks Like
I’m an educator at a school that turned that statistic upside down. By doing that I proved that our society can decide to help millions of low-income students obtain a college degree.
When schools begin to reject that status quo and become gateways rather than gatekeepers, incredible opportunities open up for kids. Students who pass AP exams are more likely to graduate from college in four years, so our school is increasingly ensuring the majority of our students take AP courses.
Consider that at our school, Uncommon Schools North Star Academy Washington Park High School, 80 percent of students take an AP course. There’s only one other school in the area that comes within 20 percent of that. And because we are serious about ensuring that our students do well by training and supporting teachers, over 50 percent of our seniors have passed an AP exam, compared with about 30 percent of the most affluent kids in New Jersey.
Indeed, our students passed AP Chemistry, AP Physics, AP Computer Science, AP English Language Composition, AP World History and AP U.S. History at higher rates than the national average among all students across the country.
This focus on AP, among other programs to ensure our students are truly college-ready, has helped us increase the percentage of our students who have graduated or are on track to graduate from college within six years to nearly 80 percent—well above the 58 percent college completion rate among the highest income quartile in the U.S.
This month, 116 seniors graduated from our high school in Newark and they are headed to schools like Yale, Princeton, Brown and Amherst, as well as a variety of other competitive four-year institutions.
Dejon Jones is one of those students. His upbringing in Newark was a lot like mine. And yet, because he’s had a school with much higher expectations for him than mine had for me and many of my Black and Brown peers, not only is he well prepared for college, but he’s going to one of the country’s best—Stanford University.
In addition to being a straight-A student in high school, Dejon passed seven AP exams. In the world of college acceptance and completion, that means Dejon has a greater chance of actually graduating from college. He wants to be a surgeon. Imagine the good that Dr. Jones will do in the world.
And imagine what the world loses when 70 percent of low-income kids are prevented from accessing a portal to the freedoms and opportunities that a college degree can provide.