This essay is the high school winner of The Nation‘s Third Annual Student Writing Contest.
I am a graduating senior from an urban public high school. I am in a lottery alternative school that focuses on a college preparatory curriculum. What I know the next president has to address is inequity in education, because it reflects inequity in society. No Child Left Behind? What a joke. I see students left behind all the time, and I am in the best school in my district. My school doesn’t have clocks that work, but less than three miles away is a suburban school with an indoor swimming pool. I live in Ohio, where we still depend entirely too much on property taxes to fund public education despite contentions and legal suits that the funding system is illegal. The legislature has not yet resolved this issue, and there is a huge disparity between many districts.
The demographics of my school reflect the school district I live in because we are a lottery school that pulls students from all over the city. It is a straight lottery, no entrance requirements. We are about 69 percent minority, and 72 percent of students at my school qualify for free or reduced lunch by federal guidelines. Every year we get less white and more poor. Why? Because people are afraid to attend urban public high schools and because of racism and because our district is poor. No swimming pools, no well-funded athletic teams, old buildings and large, crowded classes. What hope do we have for the future? It seems like we can be cast aside and abandoned for the promised land of suburbia.
If the President-elect Obama doesn’t address the inequities that exist in education, the United States will continue to see disenfranchised youth who don’t vote, don’t go on to higher education, don’t get ahead and don’t have a chance of moving up the socioeconomic ladder. In my school, we have a large population of English as Second Language (ESL) students. They are evaluated on the same tests as the rest of the school population, even though they don’t speak English and might have arrived in the United States three months ago. In the suburbs, most students come from families that don’t struggle every day to pay rent or have enough food to eat. How is it fair that less than three miles from my school, there is a school where students eat at fast food restaurants for lunch and sit on benches in their school’s courtyard talking about what they will wear to the school dance? Kids in my school are dashing off to work to support their family and to try to pay for basics. We know the differences exist and we wonder why we are treated differently.
How can that kind of inequity be tolerated in our country? How can students in poor school districts matriculate to college and succeed in the towers of privilege that we call college? Last year my district cut the high school schedule by one period to save money. So here we are in an urban district, where by all research accounts we should be spending more time in school. But the day was cut because there just isn’t enough money to maintain even the barest standards of educating students. For most of the students in my school, art, music and drama are off the table because of the shortened day. With a shortened day, we are lucky to get in the basics we need to graduate. We are taking the bare minimum we need to graduate, not because we want to stick to the basics but because our school day is so short that there isn’t enough time to fit in anything else.
I did an extensive essay this year on gun control. I was a strong proponent of gun control. Know what I found out? It is socioeconomic disadvantages and a lack of adequate education that spurs on problems with guns. Countries where owning a gun is common don’t have more violence because they don’t have the inequities we have in the United States. It is really disparity that produces violence, not guns. If inequities continue to exist and flourish, we can expect the same violence and crime we have now. With the economic downturn we are in, I predict violence will intensify.
So my suggestion for the incoming president? Address educational inequities and do it swiftly and with commitment. States have failed to do this, and we need national leadership now. Show the students in schools that everyone counts and will be educated fairly, with equal opportunity, no matter where they live or how much money their parents or community have. Only then will we really have “No Child Left Behind” and a culture change will be under way.