As my first group of students walked into my classroom in Compton, California, one student stood out: Brandi. She had a bright smile and beautiful round eyes that were full of expectation for fifth grade. It turned out that first day was Brandi’s best day. By the end of the first week, she had become obstinate and disinterested in school. She defied me and rebuffed any efforts to engage her. As a 22-year-old, I was unsure how to handle Brandi’s hourly outbursts. I became angry and frustrated. Brandi was in fifth grade and could barely read or do basic math—and it didn’t seem like she wanted to try. One afternoon, a couple months into the school year, I was complaining about Brandi to a veteran teacher at my school. She looked at me with bewilderment and said, “Honey, hasn’t anyone told you Brandi’s story yet? Last year she saw her father kill her mother right in their living room. She’s living with grandma now and she hasn’t been the same since.” I stopped in my tracks. I was misled by my own unwillingness to see beyond Brandi’s classroom behavior. I just assumed she was “bad” rather than asking deeper questions to understand what was going on in her 10-year-old life. Brandi not only changed my teaching, she changed my heart. She taught me to look beyond the classroom. She taught me to remember that every young person is of immeasurable worth, even when the system treats them differently, or their behavior isn’t the best, or they’re far behind in school. And, as a Christian, I began to ask God how, for the rest of my life, I could work on behalf of all children to ensure that, regardless of their race, income or family background, they would have public schools that helped them succeed. I now lead The Expectations Project, a national education advocacy organization focused on mobilizing people of faith to help close the academic achievement gap in our public schools. We believe that we can eliminate this gap in our lifetimes, but only if compassionate people open their hearts, roll up their sleeves and get to work on behalf of students. That’s why we empower people of faith to shine a light on education inequality through prayer, compassionate service, and faithful advocacy. I wake up to do this work every day because things haven’t changed much in our public schools since I taught Brandi years ago. Although a student in Beverly Hills and a student in Compton both live in the Los Angeles area, they have drastically different educational experiences and outcomes. About half of the students growing up in cities like Compton will never graduate from high school. And only 1 in 14 will graduate from college. Nationally this tale of two public school systems repeats itself in every city across America, zip code by zip code. It’s happening in your hometown. Look closer and you’ll find it. But we can change this. We can make a difference for all the students like Brandi. The Expectations Project seeks to shine a light on educational inequality and doing something to change it. Want to help? Take the Hope For Students pledge or text the word ‘HOPE’ to the number 44144. You will receive resources and suggestions for how you can get involved in your local schools.
Nicole Baker Fulgham is the founder and president of
The Expectations Project. She is a former Teach For America vice president, policy analyst and public school teacher. She is the author of Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can & Should Do to Help Improve Low-income Public Schools for Kids.