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The role of equity in education has been on my mind for a while, but it wasn’t until my first full class here at High Tech, “Equity, Diversity, and Design Principles” that I took a rigorous look at equity from a variety of perspectives and more deeply considered what it means to me. Our culminating assignment was to take a step to improve the equity in our school or classroom. I thought the best step for me would be to reflect on what equity means to me as well as to do some initial research for an important equity project I will be working on this year at my school. I have broken this paper into three parts: (1) my past experiences and educational identity from an equity lens, (2) how my values in terms of equity translate into my ideal equitable organization, (3) the initial research for work I’ll be doing at High Tech High Chula Vista, in the context of my equity values.

I. The Past: My life experiences and identity

High Tech High’s founder Rob Riordan is a big proponent of the idea of “experience as text”. It’s an affirmation of one’s own personal experiences and that what you’ve been through in your own life–and the perspective it gives you–is just as valid as any outside literature. In that vein, it only makes sense for me to dig into my experiences and how they’ve shaped my identity, especially as it connects to equity and education.

I was born in India, and my parents moved to the States when I was one. The oft told immigrant tale of coming to the US with no money and working hard to build a career and is very much part of my family’s narrative and a force in my own educational journey. My parents achieved enough career success to send me to a private school from elementary to middle school, at which point we moved to a neighborhood with a top public school district. Because of values I internalized from my parents early on, I was an active, willing, and successful participant in the game of school. More on that later. Because my school district was 75% Asian, I didn’t spend too much time reflecting critically about my race while growing up; I was in a bubble. But since college and beyond, and especially while here at High Tech, I have begun to realize that whether reflected on actively or not, one’s racial and cultural identity usually weaves itself into most aspects of life.

For the most part, my race hasn’t been a disadvantage, perhaps due to the model minority effect. In terms of the cultural differences, however, between my culture and typical American culture, it’s not until recently that I have begun to recognize the effect they’ve had. For years, I have felt something was subtly wrong with me when I compared my introverted tendencies, taste in music, and social styles with those around me, when these were usually just traits that I developed via my cultural upbringing. But these traits, especially the ones that affected my communication and relationships, often conflicted with what was required in the classroom or workplace. I have spent a lot of energy trying to be extroverted, speak English in a sophisticated manner, etc. to try succeed in those settings.

Mental health

I mentioned this in my previous paper: when I was finishing up my senior year in college, I told myself I was never going to do school again. I want to dig into that a little bit more.

It’s not even a specific memory anymore because I had so many of these moments–boxed into Starbucks for a weekend doing a month’s worth of studying, walking into my advisor’s office to request a more flexible schedule, stepping into an exam for a class I wish I hadn’t signed up for–all of them on little sleep and the kind of lethargy that comes with forcing yourself for hours through something you’re trying hard to make yourself care about, but don’t.

That was the main thing: I was all right with hard work and sleepless nights, but it was all for something I didn’t really care about.

As I discussed briefly, I was a solid student in high school. I went to the rare school district where doing well in school is what made you popular. After a basketball game in junior high, in which I watched my team from the bench the whole game, my coach, who was also my science teacher, tried to console me: “It’s okay that you’re not the best basketball player…you’re smart…and you’re lucky to go to a school where nerds are the cool kids and not targets for bullies.” My school was three quarters made up of kids from immigrant Asian families; you could say we had a model majority. If you’ve read about “tiger moms” (or have or are one yourself!) you know that Asian culture demands academic achievement above all. Many of our parents worked to build careers through which they could provide nothing less than a great education for their kids–whether that meant buying a home in a neighborhood with a competitive public schools like mine or sending their kids to college preparatory private schools. For example, my parents specifically didn’t need or want me to do a part-time job that might take hours away from studying. All of this meant that I had internalized a desire to achieve in school from early on. I did have a few strong passions out of school and explored them, but not to the extent that they would risk having an effect on my grades. We talk about making school more engaging to keep our kids motivated…at that point for me as a student, whether it was engaging or not, school always came first.

And then, as I was entering my senior year of high school, my otherwise very stable family life started to take a turn towards instability. I was thrust in the middle of tough family issues, forced to keep secrets, and called to help resolve conflicts I was not equipped to. For someone who hadn’t dealt with such issues for most of my life, it was a shock I didn’t absorb so well. I felt emotions for which I had no outlet, and it continued this way up until my high school graduation, at which point I was dealing with regular headaches, stomach pains, and tightness in my back. Fortunately, I had a few months off before college started. Unfortunately, my ailments stuck around, and I started in the fall at UC Berkeley in their notoriously intensive engineering program.

Because of these ailments, college was tough for me. I was no longer motivated the way I was in high school. Too often I’d be too tired, my body would be aching, or I just plain wasn’t in the mood to leave my dorm or apartment. At the end of my freshman year when I decided to seek help, I was able to “officially” pinpoint that I was dealing with various forms of anxiety and depression. But the outcomes of these mental health challenges and the very physical symptoms they brought with them, was that simply wanting to do well in school was no longer a driver for me. I just didn’t care anymore. Unless my professor did something exceptional to make a class or project especially purposeful or engaging to me, I literally had to force myself through it. It’s then when I started to critically evaluate the quality of the education I was experiencing. Like perhaps many others, my passion for education as a whole was born when I stopped feeling passionate about my own.

What I took away from my experiences is that school as it stands is often perfectly tuned for a certain type of student. One who is white or affluent, extroverted or mentally healthy. And often, it’s a lot to ask for.

II. The Future: My ideal equitable school

Combining my own experiences with the wealth of reading and observation I’ve done thus far at High Tech, I decided to take what I value in terms of equity and see how that might manifest itself as an actual school organization. If you are at High Tech High, much of this will remind you of it; my ideal school is heavily inspired by the tremendous bright spot that is High Tech High. But it also takes a wider approach, considering some of the great work on equity done by other educators and researchers as well a little bit of “blue sky” (i.e. the “sky’s the limit”) brainstorming.

First, one of the pieces of literature that has most inspired me in recent months is the book Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough (2016). In this recent follow up to his previous book on the importance of non-cognitive skills, How Children Succeed, Tough digs into actionable strategies for helping kids who grow up in adversity. He draws two broad principles for this from the many great case studies he discusses: (1) Help the student feel a sense of belongingness, and (2) Make the actual work authentically engaging and purposeful.

An authentic sense of belongingness for different groups

It’s easy to say that a friendly staff and culture creates a sense of belonging. But an authentic sense of belonging means one that is responsive to the individuals in the organizations. One of the ways to do this is through strong 1:1 relationships with adults. High Tech High is especially great at this, through programs such as advisory and the way it encourages teacher-student interaction.

But another way to be responsive is to do what Gloria Ladson-Billing’s (1995) calls culturally relevant pedagogy: “Educational practices must match with the children’s culture in ways which ensure the generation of academically important behaviors…The point of cultural compatibility is that the natal culture is used as a guide in the selection of educational program elements so that academically desired behaviors are produced and undesired behaviors are avoided.” (p.110)

Chris Emdin (2016) takes this even further in what he calls “reality pedagogy”. He says we have to meet “each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf.” I really like this framing, because it addresses the emotional along with the cultural, even though of course they could be very related. Based on these ideas, this what my ideal school would have:

  • True cultural representation of the student body by staff members
  • Introvert- and extrovert-friendly work environments
  • Projects that allow students to dig into and share their personal identities
  • Opportunities to adjust work responsibilities based on mental health challenges, for both students and staff
  • Daycare available for teachers who are new parents
  • Job positions specifically for part-time moms or others who need flexible schedules
  • No less than 1:15 ratio of mental health worker to staff/student
  • Organized structures for mental health support and skills coaching
  • No homework or demands on student time outside of school

Projects and school work that is authentic and purpose-driven

This is a topic that I will dig into more in my later work, but briefly, it is the idea that purposeful work can be a source of equity. I define purposeful work as work that meets students where they are, and allows them to address their own reality with their school work. For example:

  • All student work has an authentic outcome, whether in terms of community impact or personal goals of students
  • Work is authentic to the individual student: if a student is facing personal challenges that prevent them from being engaged in school work, they should be able to bring these challenges into their school work

III. The Present: Next steps at High Tech High Chula Vista

Because I only recently have been able to articulate my aforementioned personal values of equity, it was hard for me to decide what specific action I wanted to take on my home campus at High Tech High Chula Vista. I didn’t feel confident enough in my understanding of equity challenges to do anything with immediate consequences. Instead, my equity step involved reflecting on what challenges my school was already trying to address and subsequently deciding to join a project that had already begun, with an equity mission at its core.

The project I’m referring to aims to increase the number of students who qualify for and attain the Cal Grant scholarship at my school. The Cal Grant gives low income students a scholarship that pays the majority of their tuition to any state school in California, given they maintain a 3.0 GPA for sophomore and junior year. We are exploring how to make sure every student who meets the income criteria also attains the GPA necessary to get the scholarship.

The reason I chose to join the Cal Grant project is that after digging into what constitutes various forms of inequity in schools, I realized that this project touched a lot of those different angles. For example, the simple question of why low income students aren’t achieving a key academic milestone could have many different answers. Is it because these students, who are typically boys of color, do not feel a sense of belonging? Is it because these students are facing adverse conditions at home that prevent them from engaged in the classroom? Or is it because they and their families are not fully aware of the financial opportunities available to make it possible for them to attend college?

One distinct example of an intervention that has one of those angles is the Becoming a Man (BAM) project in Chicago: “BAM uses group discussions and role-playing exercises to help develop anger-management and self-control capacities in the students, all teenage boys, who are selected for the program because they are considered to be at especially high risk of dropout or of involvement with the criminal-justice system or both” (Tough, 2016). There’s a lot to this, and something similar might be helpful at our site.

We are going to be exploring all of these angles through the project, and have already started to do so. The first thing I did was interview a few students in their senior year. What came up was the fact that socioemotional challenges that are clearly affecting a lot of students. My director and I also attended a conference earlier this week with an improvement science group on College, Career, and Civic Readiness. At this conference, we connected with various other organizations working to improve college-going rates for low income students, and we brainstormed many potential steps to help our students set goals and to increase family literacy on college and aid options. We have already started to work on the last piece–literacy–as part of first improvement science Plan-Study-Do-Act (PDSA) cycle. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of this, as well as to opportunities to address the other aspects of this project.

References

Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks who teach in the hood– and the rest of y’all too: Reality pedagogy and urban education.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of cultural relevancy. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 3 (Autumn 1995), 465-491.

Tough, P. (2016). Helping children succeed: What works and why. http://www.paultough.com/helping/web/