Last week I left the foundation’s main offices to go to the East Harlem site for the very first time. This unique “I Have A Dream” site is the newest to the national program—the students who receive our resources are rising first and second graders. They’re truly little bundles of energy— always excited to participate in class and learn new things. The students are really special and a lot of hard work goes into making their summer program experience great.
Schools that have unqualified teachers, deficient textbooks/ irrelevant instructional materials, and educationally inappropriate facilities, certainly carry with them a stigma that impacts students of color. Leading scholars like Linda Darling Hammond suggest that these institutions atrophy self-esteem, positive attitude towards school, and performance. The nagging sense of marginality as a result of the schooling environment and overall quality of the classroom experience compounded with pervasive images in pop culture reinforced by circumstances at home are more than enough for children to grapple with. These sorts of educational environments are detrimental to children’s understanding of their abilities as students and foment self-hatred. Furthermore, they turn impending failure into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each day, educators must enter their classroom wondering how they’ll raise the self-esteem of a child and their academic achievement at the same time.
It is important to note that students of color understand their disadvantage. They recognize that their schools don’t have the resources that schools in more affluent neighborhoods have and that while some students are taught to lead, others are taught to follow. Labels like “regular” and “honors” resonate. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein remarked,
If people believe the game is rigged, if people no longer believe that you can start out anywhere and end up at the top successfully in America, that the American dream is part of the past, I think that erodes a sense of belief and confidence in our nation.
Every American has a stake in the future of education; empowering these students to “upset the set-up” and motivating them to be excellent will make all the difference in years to come. It is simply not enough to offer schools more funding. It is not enough to design universal curriculum standards. It is not enough to eliminate zero tolerance policies.
What goes on in classrooms affects far more than educational trajectory.
The value and importance of human connection and sense of understanding between teacher and student—whether through an accepting classroom culture, mentorship, or encouragement—is undeniable. For this reason, one of the most significant and far-reaching policies that can be implemented is cultural competency training.
The teacher and volunteer training for the East Harlem “I Have A Dream” Program lasted three days, for about seven hours each day. One piece we read on the second day of training really struck a cord with me. It was the introduction to Richard Rothstein’s 2004 novel Class and Schools. The piece essentially argued that the reason the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap persists is not merely bad teachers, low expectations, standards, lack of accountability, and lack of motivation. Rothstein asserts that environmental factors like access to healthcare, lack of stable housing, and even the type of job their parents hold have great bearing on the students’ success in the classroom. His argument undoubtedly has merit. I was impressed and very pleased that the “I Have A Dream” training and support staff took the initiative to delve into these difficult topics. The article and ensuing discussion fostered very important dialogue among staff and volunteers about why our program is under special circumstances. All in all, it bred greater understanding of the challenges the Dreamers face.
In many ways the discussion was a gateway to the cultural competency training that I advocate for in my education courses at Stanford. It was exciting to be in an environment with so many other people passionate about creating opportunity for advancement and who were committed to thoroughly addressing the challenges students face. I hope to continue to explore these ideas and grow in my understanding through working with the Dreamers and the “I Have A Dream” Foundation staff.
If you’re interested in the ideas discussed above, read more about it! There is tons of literature out there that can help you better understand the issues our young people face. I’ve listed some suggestions below:
1. Lani Guinier, “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma”
2. Darling-Hammond, Linda. The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future
3. PBS Newshour
4. TED Talks Education