In 1991, I attended kindergarten at a small elementary school in Owensboro, KY, with my twin brother and my half-sister, who was only eleven months younger than us. We walked a short distance to school every day, which we loved. I suspect it gave us a sense of agency in a world that, for us, often felt upside down.
We lived in the projects, desperately poor, often hungry and dirty. Our youngest sister was removed from our home and placed in foster care for a while. Honestly, our apartment in the projects was quite an upgrade from the homeless shelter where we have lived before, where I remember sleeping on a cot and wondering if I was safe in such a forlorn, hopeless place.
The year before I went to kindergarten, the Kentucky General Assembly passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act, sweeping reforms that sought to ensure that every student in Kentucky had access to an education that truly gave them a chance to be successful. I loved school, and while my life at home was sometimes dark and demoralizing, my life at school was full of light, full of hope and opportunity.
Unfortunately, in the 26 years since I went to kindergarten, gaps in achievement and opportunity between wealthy, white students and their peers from backgrounds of poverty, their peers with brown skin, their peers who hear a language other than English spoken at home, or who have learning differences – those gaps have not only persisted, but have actually grown.
As a teenager, I had a page from a magazine taped to the wall above my bed, and I read it every night before I went to sleep, almost as though it were a prayer. Nestled in the middle of a beautiful outdoor landscape, it imparted words of wisdom from one of the great philosophers of our time, Oprah Winfrey: “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.”
Indeed, I was lucky enough to go to a school and have teachers who held me to high expectations, offered me a rigorous education, and gave me a real opportunity to rise above the circumstances that threatened to drown me in poverty and despair.
But not every kid is so lucky.
The Prichard Committee’s Achievement Gap Study Group’s most recent report reveals that in Kentucky, 50% of children start school behind, and gaps in achievement persist from before school until after graduation. Students of color are disciplined too harshly and removed from opportunities to learn too often. They have few, if any, opportunities to learn from teachers of color.
While the fight for equity has been a long and exhausting one, we can’t give up. As a former teacher, as an advocate for fair education, and as a parent, I know that we can change the narrative of student success in our country.
We don’t have to leave it up to luck. We can come together to do more for our children.
We can support leaders at the school, district, and state level who believe in equity and cultivate learning environments where every child learns at high levels every day.
We can continue our support for high academic standards for our children, and accountability systems that amplify and share the successes of schools getting it right while supporting schools that aren’t.
Life itself is a golden ticket, and when you examine the lives of the people viewed as traditionally successful, you’ll find that their lives are the icons of luck compounded, again and again and again. For those who struggle – the opposite is true. Despite diligence and hope, luck has never shined its beautiful, bright light on them.
Luck is far too central to success in America, despite the fact that it is the antithesis of the country’s promise – equity.
We can, however, look to our children as inspirations for change. Here is my son, Oscar, on his first day of preschool. He’s lucky — as a privileged male from a financially successful family, he will never face the challenges I did as a child. Other children his age, who aren’t fortunate enough to have three meals a day, to attend preschool, or even have adults read to them – they suffer and struggle every day across the country.
Oscar is so many things to my husband and me, but, importantly, he’s a symbol of the foundational promise of education – that in a single generation, the course of a family’s life, their legacy, in fact, can change for the better.
That picture of myself in kindergarten is the picture of a girl who had many paths before her, and while the path out of poverty, the path to college and a career, was terrifyingly narrow, I didn’t have to travel it alone. There were teachers and principals, and, behind the scenes, advocates and policymakers, supporting me, not only believing in a more equitable future, but also working hard to make it a reality in the present.
We can’t wait for the lucky moment when equity shows up on our doorstep. We have to cultivate it. We have to work together to make it a reality, to transform the outrageous inequities that mar some of our schools today into mere footnotes in the history of a stronger, more equitable, more excellent public education system. We have to set high standards for our students and take every step necessary to give them the tools to not only meet the high bar, but surpass it.
It’s time to work together increase the intersections of preparation and opportunity.