There are perks to surrounding myself with like-minded people. For one, any time I need motivation, all I have to do is scroll through my Facebook feed to find a feel-good story about one of my teacher friend’s students or one of my board colleague’s successes at a school. Because I am an educator and a school board member, the majority of my friends on social media tend to be very passionate about education. They often post about recent events while sharing best practices.
Lately, however, I have come to realize that I’ve been living in a bubble. Comprised of my own network and immediate circle, the bubble was burst dramatically by the lack of awareness I encountered when I surveyed some of my non-political friends on their thoughts about why school boards mattered.
A few days ago, an Op-Ed in the New York Times about “Lifting Kids to College” went viral on social media and caught my eye when dozens of my own friends shared and reposted the piece. It centered around the Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), a program through which the University of Southern California prepares underprivileged kids who live relatively near its South Los Angeles campus for higher education. This initiative has long been admired for its focus on providing local kids access to more resources and preparing them more fully for the college application process, enhancing their journey to and through college. While the NAI’s inspiring work is considered a gem within our communities, it also sheds light on the bigger issue that is sometimes hard to really have a conversation around.
The Neighborhood Academic Initiative programs, which include the establishment of three local charter high schools meant to serve low-income neighborhoods, are all part of USC’s efforts to address the noticeable inequities in public education vis-a-vis schools located in impoverished communities. While there are many reasons why not enough disadvantaged students attend and graduate from elite colleges, the failure to identify and recruit students with high potential is one that readily stands out. However, the real gap is rooted in a basic truth we often overlook: the system is not doing its part to make students from disadvantaged communities even eligible to apply. How are students expected to open doors to “brighter futures” if they aren’t even being provided a set of keys to begin with?
According to Frank Bruni, author of the Op-Ed,”We don’t guide them (students) through elementary, middle and high school so that they have the necessary grades, scores, skills and mind-sets.” And you know who is responsible for implementing the vision to ensure that all students are prepared with the necessary skills and knowledge to be successful in college and career and beyond? School Boards. Universities, like USC, have had to create their own pathways and initiatives, that–while exclusive to their local regions–serve as real opportunities for students in that geographic area. But what happens to everyone else? What about students who do not attend the Foshay Learning Center, one of the partner public schools participating with the Neighbor Academic Initiative. Or what about students who are not able to attend one of the three USC sponsored charters? Shouldn’t they also have the same resources and opportunities that enable them to at least apply? Yes, they should. This is where school boards need to step it up.
There are many misconceptions around school boards. While many of them stem from the lack of information around how school boards actually function, there is one specific aspect of a school board member’s role that I would like to emphasize: board members have a lot of power. With the right leadership and intentions, school boards can be transformational. They are the ones directly responsible for policies that affect all students, for budget allocations, for the development of new career pathways, for championing stronger partnerships with colleges and universities, and so much more. They have influence over the direction they want schools to move in and whether they want to prioritize college readiness or not.
Everything that USC offers in an attempt to close the opportunity gap within their own neighborhood zone could and should be replicated across the entire LA region. Who can lead those efforts? A well-equipped school board.
As elections approach, do not overlook school boards. These boards are powerful and can have direct influence over the future of our communities. I will never tell people who to vote for but I will encourage you all to exercise your power in order to influence generations to come. We can lift more kids to college, that is a fact. But we can only do so if we have the right advocates at the table championing kids from all communities, board members who also understand that equity does not mean giving everyone the same resources. Rather, it means having leaders who are willing to focus a little more attention on the disadvantaged communities that have been left behind for years, with intentional efforts to close the gaps created within our own system.
Let’s stop romanticizing the stories about the small group of students who made it despite their circumstances; instead, let’s make it a norm to provide all students access to resources and opportunities that can help them effectively meet life’s challenges, while also equipping them for success in college and career and beyond. To invest in our students, we must exercise our power to vote for leaders who can serve as strong champions for them.
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