As a teacher, I spend the last week of July cramming for my biggest test of the year: the first day of school. When students walk through my door for the first time, they will make judgments about me and what I have to offer that will have enormous consequences for what we can accomplish together during the next nine months.
Although the young are more forgiving in their judgments, those initial impressions are powerful and lasting. That is why I spend the last days of July with a yearbook constantly in my hand memorizing names and faces. I mutter their names one by one until I can close my eyes and put the name and face together. When students walk into my classroom for the first time, I want their lasting impression to be that I care enough to know them. I will continue to exert most of my effort as a teacher earning their trust and building relationships.
I need students to know that I am invested in them because we have tremendous work to do. My school, The Academy for Math, Engineering & Science (AMES) is consistently recognized as one of the top 5 high schools in Utah by US News and World Report.
AMES, a public high school who accepts students by lottery, helps students succeed in a system rife with inequities by leveraging what matters most in education: rigor, relevance, and relationships. Despite the implementation of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, The Common Core, and millions spent on accountability assessments Utah’s achievement gap between white students and minorities remains stubborn.
According to a Utah State Board of Education report on the achievement gap, 70.5% of white students score 18 or higher on the ACT while only 39.4% of Pacific Islander students, 35.5% of Hispanic students, 29% of Black students, and 28.8% of American Indian students reach that score.
These achievement gaps are real, and they start young. Third grade literacy rates are telling: 54.6% for white students, 49.7% for Asian students, 29.0% for Pacific Islander students, 27.1% for Hispanic students, 28.6% for Black students, and 20.4% for American Indian students.
The odds are stacked against my students because more than half of my students are minorities. AMES has an enrollment of about 500 students: 47% white and 53% minority. And yet 80.7% of our students score 18 or higher on the ACT.
The summer of 2020, complete with global pandemic and heightened awareness of racial inequities, has given us a unique opportunity. Winston Churchill who steered Britain through World War II once said, “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”
This is our moment. Are we ready to sacrifice and inconvenience ourselves for each other? Generations of Americans before us have risen to meet and conquer overwhelming challenges. They selflessly sacrificed and paid the price so they could reap the reward of citizenship. Our challenges may be new, and we should give serious thought to what we want the new normal to be.
Gov. Gary Herbert, State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson, the State Board of Education and school districts throughout the state need to look at the faces of their students. They need to look at data staring them in the face when making decisions with colossal consequences.
Schools will not be uniformly affected by reopening. Schools like AMES with high minority populations who are already committed to leveling achievement gaps could bear an unfair share of the burden. COVID-19 affects minority populations disproportionately. The Utah Department of Heath reports that Hispanics and Latinos account for more than 40% of total COVID-19 cases while only making up 14.2% of the state’s population. Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders have the highest death rate while making up 1.6% of the population.
Students and families who already face the greatest odds in the classroom are being asked to take the greatest risk in returning to school. Teachers and schools committed to fighting already daunting odds could be excessively impacted.
We have not adequately dealt with inequities in the classroom before now. Is our “new normal” going to be adding additional burdens to the most disadvantaged?
Knowing what we know about how the virus disproportionately affects minorities do we expect that schools in the same district will be impacted the same by reopening? We know that high schools in the same district achieve vastly different academic outcomes.
Take for example Skyline and Kearns, both part of Granite School district. 77.9% of Skyline students scored 18 or higher on the ACT, but only 37.8% of Kearns students reached the same score. Skyline and Kearns demographics are also quite different. 84% of Skyline students are white and 6% are Hispanic. 45% of Kearns students are white and 43% are Hispanic. What the results of reopening these schools will be remains to be seen.
Herbert and local leaders must bear responsibility for the exacerbated inequities their stubborn push to reopening schools will birth.
There are no easy answers. No simple solutions. How could there be? This is no normal time. But our students deserve more than an obstinate push to reopen at any cost.
Right now, it should be all hands-on deck utilizing every effort to help all students succeed until schools can safely reopen.
At the bare minimum we need to offer a plan that acknowledges the inequities that already exist.
This is our moment. Let us meet it with undaunted courage. We have a responsibility to each other that is more visible now during these storms than it has been in decades. We can live up to the legacy of previous generations and lay a solid foundation for those that come after us.
In his first Inaugural Address, Barack Obama said, “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”
Mistakes will be made. Let us make them while we err on the side of science and doing what is best for all students and families. Let us spend these final days before the school year begins investing in our students so we can leave them with the impression that we are willing to do whatever it takes to help them succeed.
Gary Bigelow, Murray, teaches English at The Academy for Math, Engineering & Science.