How much privilege do you need? That was my first thought when news broke about the college admissions cheating and bribery scandal. The news was a painful reminder to me that the odds are stacked against you if you are poor or, even worse, a poor person of color in America.
I have always believed in the American ethos; that with hard work and a solid education you can rise above humble beginnings. Twelve years ago, I became a first grade teacher at Success Academy Harlem 2. I was drawn to the mission of creating exceptional schools for every child because I am a product of highly selective independent schools and the education I received opened up immense opportunities. There was a downside, however. I was often the only black child in my class. The schools that I attended did not reflect the diversity of the city in which I was being raised.
I have always believed in the American ethos; that with hard work and a solid education you can rise above humble beginnings.
It would be an understatement to say that I was excited to teach in a public charter school that provided for Harlem children the same type of rigorous and well-rounded curriculum that New York’s most elite schools offer to this city’s wealthiest families. I still remember the hope that I saw in the eyes of each parent as I welcomed their scholars to class that first day of school.
Today, those students are now in high school going through the long arduous college application process. Some have been skipped a grade and as seniors are anxiously waiting to hear from colleges; the rest are juniors, preparing to take college entrance exams and working on their personal statements. I am so proud of them, but I am also acutely aware of the work — by the students, their parents, and an entire community of adults and educators — that has gone into making sure they arrive where they are today: It has been Herculean.
For kids and families, it has been 12 years of early arrival and longer school years, of summer homework and reading logs, of going to libraries and studying for tests. For Success educators, it has been 12 years of writing and re-writing and re-writing curriculum; 12 years of tweaking structures and systems and approaches; 12 years of marching, begging for laws to be changed, knocking on doors for funds; 12 years of scouring the landscape for colleges that have money and of chasing financial aid.
Our scholars have worked incredibly hard — they have demonstrated almost unfathomable grit and optimism. And they have been backed by the collective action of a community of adults who have done everything humanly possible to make real for them the dream of college.
But the children they are competing against — the children and families at the heart of this scandal — have every advantage. From my perspective as a black woman, being white in America is already a huge privilege. On top of that, they are rich, and thus most likely had access to excellent schools. Their parents are college-educated, they have been able to travel, they can afford any tutoring or extracurricular they want or need. And then, they have the unspoken admissions advantage of being able to pay the full cost of college tuition.
These kids have everything — I know because I went to school with kids just like them. Our kids have the love and support of their community and a great education — but is that enough given what is stacked against them?
I read about this college admission conspiracy early in the morning. Then I arrived at school and I looked at my kids. I love them and in their faces I see hope and opportunity. But yes, there is a small part of me that feels defeated. All of us are pouring our heart and soul into this effort to transform and equalize opportunity. And we are telling our kids that their hard work counts. That it will be recognized. But there appear to be kids who are learning the exact opposite: that if their parents have money, they will be served their future on a silver platter.
America. We can do better.