How Much Has Your ZIP Code Determined Your Opportunities?

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How Much Has Your ZIP Code Determined Your Opportunities?

In “‘Without Fixing Inequality the Schools Are Always Going to Struggle’,” Lora Kelley shares the responses of eight teachers to the question: Do children’s ZIP codes at birth determine their futures?

We were seeking a direct view into how much such factors determine outcomes for America’s young people and the role that schools play in helping overcome them. We asked teachers in cities across the country to share the experience of how the neighborhood that children are born into affects their futures. Over 500 teachers wrote in.

All of the teachers we heard from went out of their way to praise the hard work and talents of their students. But each also discussed the challenges that students in low-income schools face that students in wealthy ZIP codes do not, including one tied tightly to place: high rates of asthma due to living in polluted areas.

Jay Wamsted, a high school math teacher in Atlanta, responded to the question by saying:

Past and present racism still determine too much of my students’ futures. Race shapes the map of Atlanta. These school zone lines were drawn by race and are still drawn along neighborhood lines that are tracked by race.

I teach in southwest Atlanta. Most of my students are black. Almost everybody receives free or reduced-price lunch. There’s a public high school two ZIP codes over in a whiter, richer part of town. It would be our rival high school if it existed in the same world as us at all. But it doesn’t.

I have taught many children that fought their way through and have gone on to do amazing things. Many wonderful, brilliant kids have come to my school. But those stories just happen less than the stories that would happen in the wealthy part of town. If you look at all the metrics, like test scores, high school graduation, college graduation, future employment — all of that just tracks worse for students in my ZIP code.

Maya Brodkey, a high school English teacher in Oakland, Calif., responded:

I’m a third-generation teacher. As a white teacher with a master’s degree coming from a middle-class background teaching in this neighborhood, the narrative that I got fed about teaching here was, Oh, education is the great equalizer, right? That’s the narrative that we have as a society: If you work hard enough and you study in school, you can be successful. And then coming into my school, I’m like, Oh, well, that’s a lie, right? I have kids who work incredibly hard. And I have kids who have the academic potential to do incredible things, but they have to work 40 hours a week to help support their family.

Even if my students were geniuses receiving a top-notch education, that doesn’t change the fact that they live in a two-bedroom apartment with 12 other people; that they hear gunshots every night; that they have a parent in jail or ICE detention; that they don’t have food at home. If students’ basic physical and emotional needs aren’t met at home, how can they succeed academically? We need a stronger social safety net: We need to eradicate, or at least alleviate, poverty to give students like my kids a chance at “making it.” I think we need to guarantee a right to good, stable housing. The pressures of gentrification are really huge for my students and their families. Some families have had to move, and now those students wake up at 3:30 a.m. to commute to school with their parents who still work in Oakland.

My kids aren’t starting at the starting line. They’re starting from 100 feet behind the starting line. And the fact that they make it to the finish line at all is a testament to how incredible they are. My students are incredible in the resilience that they show.

Amir Tehari, a high school economics teacher in Sacramento, said:

I think it’s important to look into the fundamentals of the students’ environment from an environmental science perspective. Are there heavy levels of lead exposure from lead paint? What is the pollution exposure in the area? Because there is a lot of scientific evidence that high rates of pollution and things like lead paint can be really detrimental to a student and a student’s learning.

Ivy Lin, a high school science teacher in the Bronx, responded:

If I could wave a magic wand, I would make internet access available to all of my students. I also really wish the schools my students attend had less teacher turnover. Students have told me that a lot of teachers who work in the Bronx tend to leave. I feel like the stability of having a group of adults whom they can trust kind of guide them through the four years is important. I have been teaching in the Bronx for most of my 12-year career.

Teachers, students and parents try their hardest in the Bronx. In fact, I’d wager to say that students here try harder than the average suburban student. But there are so many students who get bogged down by homelessness, poverty, domestic violence and other issues in their immediate environment. My students work very, very hard.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • How has your neighborhood affected who you are: your identity and your worldview? What about where you are from has allowed you to excel? Have you ever faced challenges or limitations because of where you live?

  • How does where you live connect with other parts of your life and well-being, such as your health, access to health care, housing and internet access? How do those other factors connect to your education and ability to do well in school?

  • Imagine some ways your life might be different if you lived in another kind of neighborhood — for example, if you had more or less outdoor space, with better or worse schools, more or fewer environmental health problems, depending on your circumstances.

  • If you live in the United States, see how opportunities in your area compare to those in other parts of the country. Enter your county in the field that says “Choose your county” in this Opinion piece. What do you notice as you scroll through the various graphs?

  • Do you think it is possible for all young people to have the same high level of opportunity? What changes — structural or societal — would have to happen to make that possible? What barriers stand in the way of equal opportunities for all young people?


Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.