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Completion is Not Enough: Reflecting on my High School Experience

Neeja Patel, State and Local Policy Intern

 
Thursday, August 24, 2017

This blog is the second in a series of junior Forum for Youth Investment staff and interns sharing their perspectives and engaging with the Forum’s Changing the Odds concepts.

http://forumfyi.org/perspectives

I recently read an article on NPR by a Duke student reflecting on growing up in South Carolina’s ‘Corridor of Shame,’ where students often lack the resources to be ready for school, work and life. This article made me recall my own experience growing up in Silicon Valley, where wealth gaps and socioeconomic disparities remain prevalent. My high school was a perfect microcosm of this phenomenon—low-income students and the affluent attended the same schools and were all encouraged to strive for success. However, the messaging around what success meant startled me. The goal was to complete high school and graduate, instead of attaining true readiness for future school and job opportunities. Despite the best of intentions, as the Forum says, completion is not enough.

Discussing this article and the need for equitable education in historically underserved communities with other Forum staff, I was reminded of my experience as a peer mentor at the UC San Diego Writing Center and Teaching and Learning Commons. As a peer mentor at my school —one of the top ranked US institutions for social mobility—I see every day that completion does not at all equal readiness. Graduates of programs like AVID and Upward Bound as well as students from underfunded schools come to me for advice in remedial coursework, struggling to write what should have been taught to them much earlier. The K-12 school system had failed to equip them with the skills expected of a college freshman.

Despite receiving recognition for finishing high school, students encounter a harsh reality when they attend college without the tools needed to excel. They enter an unequal playing field, meeting students who already had familiarity with college-level material. Upon talking with them and hearing their stories, many have told me  that they felt completely overwhelmed and underprepared for college. They told me that despite being heralded as successes by their communities, finishing high school and attending college without the tools and knowledge needed to succeed was a cruel joke.

Students at my university writing center tell me that attending college was supposed to catapult them into a world of success. But how can that be, one student asked, when he could barely write a cohesive paragraph, and only encountered words like “thesis” and “topic sentence” for the first time in college.

This problem is not a local one. It plagues the country from coast to coast and everywhere in between. Clearly this problem not only appears in California, as the NPR article introduced me to a prime example of this failure in South Carolina’s ”Corridor of Shame.” The corridor comprises a string of 36 rural school districts that are underfunded and understaffed, often leaving students to navigate secondary and postsecondary education systems for themselves. Large rates of teacher turnover, lack of funded training, minimal college-prep classes and little to no social supports all lead to gaping holes in academic instruction and available resources in the “Corridor of Shame.” When compared to their more affluent peers, their educational experiences did not prepare them academically and socially for future school and employment. For example, according to the article, North High School reports “a four year high school graduation rate of 85 percent.” However, only 10 percent of students from this school who took the ACT passed college-ready benchmarks in English and 2.5 percent of students passed in math.[1] The disparity been the number of students who meet college-ready standards and the number of high school graduates is a glaring signal that students leave school unprepared for what lies ahead.

Echoing the very same sentiment that I heard firsthand at the writing center, this article was authored by Ehime Ohue, who based it on a paper she wrote for a human rights class at Duke University.  She discusses growing up in South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame” and then attending Duke, utterly unprepared by her K-12 education. Schools in the Corridor of Shame receive so little funding that the state Supreme Court has declared the funding formula to be unconstitutionally stacked against the largely poor, rural and predominantly minority communities within the area.[2] Despite the 2014 ruling by the Supreme Court, changes impacting this region are slow moving as well as few and far between. Ohue states “We didn’t have enough math teachers and barely enough working calculators.” She recalls feelings of shame and inadequacy as well as how she “never agrees with other students [at Duke] who say, ‘Everything we are going over now we basically learned in high school.’”[3]

Because so few students from regions like this receive the resources needed to be ready for college or the workforce, the public school system cannot label its graduates as automatic success stories upon high school graduation. The fact that schools across the country, from coast to coast, face this issue tells me that the need to frame students’ needs to support readiness rather than completion is a deeper and systemic challenge. For me, I know that when I return to campus this fall and continue working at the writing center, I will push to have a deeper conversation with the university and its students about:

  1. how to better support students who have not yet achieved readiness,
  2. how to remove the feelings of shame and inadequacy that are all too common for students, and
  3. how universities can push public K-12 education to shift messaging and resources towards readiness and not completion for future students.

To allow students to prevail despite socioeconomic hardships, we must recommit to the systemic changes that will enable students nationwide like Ehime Ohue to receive access to an equitable education that leads to true preparation for college and work.  Only when we shift our educational culture from accepting completion to nurturing readiness can we change the odds for America’s children.

 

[1] Kamenetz, A. (2016, May 31). One Student Tries To Help Others Escape A 'Corridor Of Shame'. Retrieved July 21, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/05/31/473240474/corridor-of-shame

[2] Carolyn Click and Dawn Hinshaw - cclick@thestate.com; dhinshaw@thestate.com. (2014, November 12). SC Supreme Court finds for poor districts in 20-year-old school equity suit. Retrieved July 21, 2017, from http://www.thestate.com/news/politics-government/article13911206.html

[3] Ohue, E. (2017, July 06). Perspective | At Duke, I realized how badly many South Carolina schools are failing students like me. Retrieved July 21, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2017/07/06/at-duke-i-...