Jul 22, 2011

Poverty Doesn't Have To Lead To Failure [Or, Let Me Talk About Exceptions And Ignore The Rule]

CJ Penso is a Summer Research Associate about to enter her senior year at Oberlin College. She has worked with children in a variety of settings, from summer camps to inner-city high schools. At Oberlin, she works as the financial manager of student activity funds for the student body.

According to so many statisticians, I should have failed. I am both multiracial and a first generation American. I was raised by a single mother on the edge of gang territory, in a two-bedroom apartment sparsely furnished with items mostly originating from garage sales, secondhand stores, or free bins. My mother always worked two to three jobs and we relied heavily on the child support my father sent in highly-anticipated, though often tardy, checks. According to all the studies, I should be barely literate, less than basic in math, and possibly involved in a gang.

Statistics do not always show the whole picture, though. Correlation is not causation, and though I have heard that "poverty hurts the brain," I can assure you that there is nothing particularly wrong with mine. Unlike many of my neighbors, I did not fail. I am about to enter my final year at a prestigious private college, and this summer I was lucky enough to be hired as a Summer Associate at StudentsFirst.

Many statistical studies do not explain why there are students like me, students who instead of failing set their sights on being the best they can be and work hard to get there. What made a difference in my life was the quality of the schools and teachers I have had. It was not easy to access those resources, though. Had it not been for the herculean efforts of my mother, I would never be where I am now.

My mother became a teacher in NYC in 1985. She moved to California in 1989 to be with my father and worked as a substitute teacher for all the districts in a 20-mile radius. What she saw in the schools uniformly appalled her. She was determined that I would receive a great education and knew that I would not in the schools for which we were zoned. Unlike many families, we were too poor to move to a good district or, really, to move at all. Rather than see me stifled in poor schools, she worked tirelessly to make sure I could attend the best private schools available. She searched for scholarships and financial aid, researched and interviewed local private schools, and even fought an extended battle in court to ensure that I received adequate child support. All the while, she was teaching me to read, write, and do basic mathematics. She always read bedtime stories to me until I could read bedtime stories to her. As a result of her efforts, I have been privileged enough to attend good private schools from the time I was two years old to now.

I recently spoke to my mother about her efforts to put me in private schools. She said it was worth the struggle to see me educated, even though all of the financial aid she worked so hard to obtain still left the cost of my schooling outside of our financial means. In retrospect, she wished that she had had access to publicly funded vouchers to aid in paying my tuition. Though I have never felt strongly one way or another about vouchers, I found my mother's reasoning to be compelling.

"If the state has a mandate," she said, "to provide appropriate and safe (safe is important) education for every student, and if they are not capable of doing it, then they should pay for it to be done. If a kid has special needs that the local community cannot meet, then the state is required to pay for a private source. The same should apply for everybody."

My mother had to struggle to put me in a school that would teach me at the level she believed I needed. Though she received no help from the state, she gave me an invaluable education. However, not every student in this country is lucky enough to have a parent who is able to wade through the mire of the system with as much skill as my mother. Families are hindered by language barriers, misinformation, and far worse financial situations that ours.

The children of these families should not have to miss out on a good education because of the obstacles in their paths. Every family deserves the right to choose for their child the best option available be it a good neighborhood school, a public charter school, or maybe in some cases private schools. A child's success shouldn't be determined by whether or not you live on the right side of the train tracks. It is for these causes that I came to StudentsFirst, where we are working to ensure families have quality information and good educational choices to that more students will beat the statistics like I did.

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