At 27 years old, I was a graduate student at Smith College getting my Masters degree in Teaching. I believe hard work and education can save peoples’ lives. It definitely saved mine. While in graduate school, my focus was on urban education and learning how to narrow the achievement gap. The term "achievement gap" is often defined as the differences between the test scores of minority and/or low-income students and the test scores of their White and Asian peers. This was personal for me. So many kids where I grew up barely made it through high school let alone college.
The more statistics I learned, the more fascinated I became:
As a graduate student, I had to complete my dissertation, student teach and pass my classes. The amount of planning, reading, and writing was overwhelming. I just kept falling behind. At the time I thought I had made a major mistake leaving a good paying job in finance to follow a belief that I could make a difference by changing kids’ lives through education in urban settings.
All my life, I’d hated school. In my opinion, it had set me up to fail. In elementary school, I was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD. ODD stands for Oppositional Defiant Disorder. It is just a fancy way of saying that I was a kid who did not listen. Some people would still say that about me today.
If you were to ask my teachers, they would have described me as lazy and lacking focus. When asked to read out loud, I would break into a sweat because I couldn’t read fluently and I would skip words. My spelling was terrible, and I tested very poorly.
If you asked my mom and coaches, they would have described me as a hard worker. School has always been a struggle for me. In high school, I would study, prep, and pull all-nighters just to get a B-/C+ average. I failed out of Naval Academy Prep School (NAPS), which was supposed to help me prepare for the Naval Academy and improve my SAT scores. In college, I graduated with a 2.7 GPA despite working my hardest while my peers were all getting 3.5 GPAs and higher.
From elementary school through college, I never measured up. I was always compared to other students. It was always implied that I wasn’t smart enough. My teachers would ask me why I could not do it like all the other kids. This made me self-conscious, which prevented me from participating in class. I was the kid that did not raise his hand because I did not want to look stupid. I was the kid that put his head down during class because I had given up, I was the kid that got made fun of for giving the wrong answer.
This isn’t a sob story. I had a mother who believed in me and supported me in every way she knew how. She tirelessly advocated for me and my education. I was lucky to be athletic…and thank God I’m tall. Through basketball and mentorship, I learned how to work hard, ask for help, and push through hard times.
While I was in graduate school, I went to my advisor for help in writing my dissertation. She read my work, asked me a series of questions, and then asked me to read out loud for her. At the end of the session, she sent me to student support services. It was not until I was 27 years old that I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I spent most of my young life thinking I was not smart because of how teachers treated me for not grasping the material like everyone else. To finally realize that I had an underlying learning disability was almost a relief.
All of the statistics I had been reading about students of color and low-income students became even more personal because I am those students.
According to the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership,
* Black and Latino kids are suspended 2 and 3 times more than their peers
* less than 30% of Black and Latino children are reading at grade level
* 28% of low-income students are at grade level for 8th-grade math
Schools are unintentionally alienating students who learn differently or don’t fit into the typical student learner model. Even the most well-intentioned teachers and administration aren’t always able to meet every students’ needs. What this means is that kids, lots of kids, are slipping through the cracks. Many kids are pushed to the streets. Schools focusing on students’ weaknesses instead of highlighting their strengths. When kids don’t have strong support systems, they often feel alone and forced to navigate their “place” in school and community. The streets become appealing to kids who haven’t yet found their place in the world. The streets welcome kids by showing them how they can “add value” and “contribute” even if it means making poor decisions.
I am lucky to have the mother and coaches I did and the athletic ability to play college basketball. These things helped me gain resources that I would not otherwise have had. Every child should have access to a support system that helps them thrive. Kids’ success and upward mobility should not be solely dependent on their zip code.
This is why I created C4C…to create a safe space within schools to help struggling students focus on their goals. Our program recruits high school students to lead and support younger students under the guidance of college students and teachers. We help students discover their untapped potential. By focusing in on student dreams and strengths, we have helped improve school attendance, reduce behavior infractions, and better students’ grades. Although these are all important data points, at the heart of C4C we try to create an environment for students who have been overlooked feel like they are part of something bigger - a community that values them and their contributions.