For a majority of American students, zip code determines the quality of the education they receive. Inequities in property taxes, parent education, school resources and neighborhood influences all contribute to the tragic reality that a child living in a poor family in a poor neighborhood is likely to attend a poorly performing school.
How can anyone be OK with this? The good news is there are schools that are trying to tackle these inequities head on. I recently was one of many who testified in favor of the approval of RISE Academy, an intentionally diverse charter school in Rhode Island that will serve three communities—three zip codes—straddling urban and suburban. In addition, the school’s charter requires that at least 50 percent of the students it serves come from low-income families.
Schools That Break the Zip Code Stranglehold
After hours of impassioned testimony from stakeholders both in favor and against RISE Academy, the Rhode Island Board of Education voted 5–3 to grant the school preliminary approval. It is easy for me to publicly promote RISE Academy because I see firsthand the value of a regional charter school. My children attend Blackstone Valley Prep, a Rhode Island Mayoral Academy; RISE Academy is also a Mayoral Academy and will be the third one to open in the Ocean State. The school my three young sons attend serves two suburban and two urban communities with more than 60 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunch. The school outperforms all other schools in Rhode Island with similar demographics by double digits and even outperforms many schools whose demographics present far less challenges. Quite simply, it is an excellent school getting unprecedented results in Rhode Island. Why do these regional and intentionally diverse schools work and what is their value? Well, I’d imagine people have a variety of answers to this question but for me, it is that
zip code becomes irrelevant. All students, regardless of their backgrounds, are held to the same high standards. Whether a child lives in a huge house with married PhD parents or in a government-subsidized apartment with a single mom looking for a job, they receive an equal education. Whether they are black, white or brown, they enjoy the same awesome teachers, crisp uniforms, enriching field trips, school materials, musical instruments, and most importantly, the same unwavering expectation that they will go to college.
Where ‘Potential is Infinite’
Having taught in both affluent and impoverished communities, I’m convinced that kids are kids and their potential is infinite. Their intelligence, sense of humor, compassion and creativity are equally awesome. Yet in too many cases, only students of means are given the opportunity to maximize their many gifts. Intentionally diverse schools level the playing field. They fulfill the promise of
high expectations for all children, not just for some children. And they do whatever it takes to make it all happen. Our children will be heading out into a world where diversity is everywhere, where cultural competence will be an essential skill. Children who spend their days surrounded by kids of all races and income levels learn how to get along with everyone. This will serve them well, especially after they cross that college graduation stage ready to take on the world, the incredibly diverse world. Zip codes, you’re busted.
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...