Breaking New Ground
By Jill Jenkins
The new Common Core Curriculum is designed to make each student college or career ready, but why are so few students from lower social-economic groups whether they live in an inner city or a rural environments choosing to go to college and completing a four year program? Is it because of academic deficiencies or is the problem more complex? To most of us choosing to pursue a college education is easy, but for the student whose family has never experienced a college education, it is much more complicated. Students in lower social economic groups have a bigger fish to fry than just being academically prepared. Why is pursuing a college education so difficult for them? First, human beings are herding animals living in families first and communities. Students who venture beyond their families’ experience are like explorers in a world. It is both exciting and terrifying because they feel they are leaving the world of their parents and friends to explore an alien world. Second, they do not share the same values and culture of most of the people in college so they become “a stranger in a strange land.” Third, if they are not only social-economically deprived, but also of a different ethnic minority, they will look and speak differently from most of the natives of this new land and that can alienate them even further. The journey into this strange world could lift them and their decedents to new heights. This is journey worth taking.
Most of us belong first to a family who in essence is our tribe. From our family we learn our values, our expectations and goals. If the parents of children have had a negative experience in school or have no experience with school, they may be reluctant to instill a desire to continue down that road for their children. In many lower-social economic groups, children are expected to graduate from high school get a job, get married and produce children. That was the pathway my parents mapped out for me. Four of their five children chose to take that path. I choose to go to college. My father scoffed at the idea saying I’d be pregnant before I finished. College is only for men, not women. My mother seemed disappointed that she wanted more grandchildren and she felt that it would change me and I would not fit into the family. She also expressed to me that she didn’t think I was smart enough to succeed and she worried that failure would be devastating. She was right about educations changing me. It did. I remember visiting them some years later and realizing that I felt like Buddy in Eugenia Collier’s story, “Sweet Potato Pie.” I could appreciate “the potato pie,” but I didn’t really feel like a member of that community. A friend once told me that a person can’t live successfully in two worlds and he was right. Eventually I lost my membership in my original tribe which is a difficult loss. My mother was wrong about being smart enough to succeed. I really resented her lack of confidence in my ability, but later when I was a parent I understood her fear. She wanted to protect me from failure, but no one can protect a child from everything. To succeed means taking risks. When my own daughter moved to New York to pursue her Master’s Degree in journalism and later her career in journalism, I felt that fear, but I realized it is a fear any mother has in watching her child grow up and soar away. I had to let her go to achieve her dreams. My mother had to let me go too.
It is a difficult transition when the student from a lower social economic group goes to college. The first year is going to be lonely which is why so many choose to end their academic career there. These students don’t share the same values and culture of many of the students from higher social economic groups and don’t have the resources to join many of the social activities. One of the reasons that I sent my daughter to private and parochial schools was that by interacting with friends whose families expected their children to continue their education and have high goals, she had a better chance of developing their values and expectation during her post-high school education. Thus, she would have an easier transition than I did. As another one of my friends once said, “If you want to help these kids get out of the ghetto, you need to take them out of the ghetto, so they know that there is another world out there.” As a single mother earning a teaching salary, I wanted my daughter to see how the other world lived.
Ethnic minority students from lower social economic groups have even a larger hurdle to overcome. I never really thought about how difficult their transition was until I was teaching in an inner-city school. The school was made up of about 70% ethnic minorities and 30% Caucasian, but the honors classes and the extra-curriculum activities were about 90% Caucasian and Asian and about 10% Hispanic and Blacks. As a school, we decided to make an effort to individually invite students from these non-represented groups to join activities. I was the drama teacher and because of the personal invitation I improved the percentage of non-white students in the plays. As a result, the NAACP invited me to a meeting to help with an activity they were presenting at the Arts Festival. Even though I knew many members at the meeting, being the only Caucasian person there was a little uncomfortable. I was angry with myself for feeling uncomfortable, but it made me realize that if a liberal minded adult felt uncomfortable, how does an adolescent with poor self-images feel being the only Black of Hispanic student auditioning for a part in a play? To solve this problem I began inviting students in pairs to audition for the play. Everyone feels better with a friend there. What I learned from this experience is many of these students were working to help their families financially or caring for children while both their parents worked two jobs or in the case of single-parent families they were both working and helping care for younger siblings. To help them participate in extra-curricular activities I changed the rehearsal schedule to meet more of their needs. In another school where I taught, the school had a similar problem. The school had a disproportional number of Caucasian and Asian students enrolled in honors classes, but few minority students enrolled in them even though the school was comprised of more than 90% ethnic minorities. To remedy this situation, the school identified students from these non-represented populations who were bright, but not pursuing honors and A.P. classes and gave them a study skills class which later became an A.V.I.D. class to support them. As the teacher, I needed to supply all of the emotional support and study skills techniques to help them become successful. All of these efforts were successful.
As teachers we need to recognize the problems students face who are the first person in their family to attend college. My salvation was good teachers and counselors in my high school. My debate teacher, Ellen Wixom, taught me how to organize an argument and the debate program gave me confidence that I could be successful. Gary Walton’s drama classes and his ability to give me clear, positive feedback reinforced that confidence. Maurine Haltiner’s A.P. English class forced me to read more difficult pieces of literature and analyze them. Mr. Dee Anderson, my school counselor, helped me complete financial aid forms and college applications. When I got to college, Mr. Jay W. Lees, my mentor and favorite college professor, told me his life story about how he grew up in my old neighborhood and became friends with my uncle. He took me under his wing and even let me share dinner with his wonderful family. Educators were my salvation.
Leading a student from the safety of their childhood home to pursue the higher expectations of academia is not only the job of dedicated educator, but that educator may be the only person in that student’s life who can lead him. His parents may come from a foreign country and are still learning the language; his parents may have had a negative experience in education and do not support it; his parents may be high school drop outs who work two minimum wage jobs to put food on the table; or his parents may not feel a good education is a valuable commodity. These are not the parents who will attend a meeting about how to prepare their child for college. The educators must provide information about the application process, the financial aid process, a quality education, and serve as the child’s personal cheerleader as he travels this new roadway. Dedicated educators are the ones who can help a child make that transition into a successful academic career. Breaking new ground is never easy, but the benefits outweigh the sacrifices.