Achievement Gap

Here's What Schools Can Do to Ensure Every Student Feels Like They Belong

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I’ve seen many of my friends mourn the loss of a loved one—their best friends, classmates, brothers, fathers and sisters. This year has been particularly violent for communities of color, both physically and mentally. Police brutality—coupled with the social, political and economic exclusion of people of color in this country—has made the notion that all people are created equal seem radical. This pattern of inequality continues to be reinforced in our education system, where race-based achievement gaps are widely documented. I believe that learning takes place both inside and outside of the classroom, but most individuals spend a large part of their childhood in class and therefore schools play a critical role in shaping our youths, and consequently, our future. While it would be unrealistic to expect schools to address and resolve all of the issues that plague communities of color—including poverty, high incarceration rates and systemic racism—they can create a space that is more conducive to students’ personal and academic success.

How Schools Can Help

For me, it was not until college that I truly felt free to be myself, to define myself and to love myself. I received a scholarship to attend a private high school and college, and unlike the majority of my peers, I was a low-income, Latina, first-generation college student. Going to elite, predominantly White schools my whole life socialized me to feel comfortable in White spaces, however there were some issues I had to deal with alone. I would never talk about my family’s financial struggles or trouble with immigration laws, and I never invited a single friend over to my house out of fear that they would see the flashing blue police light on the lamppost at the beginning of my block. I was embarrassed of not living in a “nice” neighborhood, and I was ashamed of myself for feeling this way. It was not until college that I found the space to unpack these feelings—to stop feeling ashamed and realize that only I have the power to define myself. I received a Posse Scholarship to attend Pomona College, which meant that the moment I stepped on campus I had the support of nine other inspiring and loving students from Chicago. It was during our weekly meetings that I was first able to express my worries about the future and the responsibility I put on myself to find a high paying job after college to help my family. After voicing my feelings and receiving countless hugs and nods of understanding, I felt free. Each and every person in that room knew me and accepted me for who I was, so I could accept my working-class upbringing without the fear of being judged and associated with one of many negative stereotypes of being poor. I felt free and empowered to be myself, to define myself regardless of what anyone else may think or say based on my income, race or gender.

'I Feel Like I Don't Belong Here'

It was during our weekly posse meetings that I was able to see frustration and sadness in the eyes of a young man that I care about like a brother, when he said he was not doing well academically and felt like he didn’t belong at our college. “I feel like I don’t belong here” are words that I heard constantly throughout those four years, mostly from students of color. I not only heard it, I felt it—the isolation and pain that comes from being a person of color in a country where you are constantly, subtly and not-so-subtly, told that you are not good enough. It was in those meetings, however, that we created a space that allowed us to share parts of ourselves that society routinely rejects and shames. We had each others’ backs, and so we were able to be vulnerable and open with each other. In that space I was able to be myself and know myself, so much so that I felt empowered to reject any judgement imposed on me by society. This is the type of space every student should have.

The Type of Space Every Student Should Have

Classrooms should be spaces where students can be themselves and define their own experience. These spaces are fostered by teachers and school administrators who are caring and inspire trust in their students. They must work together with families to ensure that students of color are not hindered by the low expectations and negative stereotypes society projects onto them. When a student is not bound by societal expectations that are both external and internalized, they are able to be themselves and be fully present in a classroom. They are able to speak up even if they use slang or speak with an accent and know that that does not make their ideas any less valid. They are able to make mistakes and not feel isolated and dumb because of what society says about their race. Above all, students who accept and love themselves are able to see themselves as capable and valuable beings who truly are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Brenda Benitez
Brenda Benitez is an intern at Education Post. She recently graduated from Pomona College in Claremont, California, where she studied public policy with a concentration in psychology. She is passionate about education and immigration reform. Thanks to scholarships for both high school and college, Brenda had the opportunity to attend high-performing private schools. Her interest in education is ...

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