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A City Education: An Inauguration Day Reminder That We Need Social Justice for Students

America's founding principles are noble, but the harsh reality of what students are up against to graduate from high school is not justice.

In our A City Education series, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.

With Inauguration Day upon us, Election Day seems like a distant memory, but just last November, the entire nation was abuzz with political tension. The school I serve in as a City Year corps member, Normandie Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, was no exception.

That day I noticed the difference as soon as I walked into the fifth grade class I serve. My partner teacher took a rare break from her academic routine to talk about California’s Proposition 30, a ballot measure that, if passed, would provide much-needed funding for public education. She explained that if the proposition failed, school district budgets would be cut and, as a result, Normandie's students would have fewer days of instruction.

With longer breaks in mind, a few students cheered. The teacher paused, looked around the classroom, and made it clear that students in other schools spend significantly more time acquiring valuable knowledge and skills. She then asked everyone to think about what it would be like to compete against those students later in life. By the end of the discussion, no one was cheering.

It might seem like a harsh lesson for 10-year-olds, but it was a necessary one. City Year works with schools in low income communities to combat the dropout rate, so the students we serve often know more people who've gone to jail than people who've gone to college. No student should take his or her education lightly, but our students face more barriers to success than children who come from higher-income families—and their margin of error is smaller, too.

Proposition 30 ended up passing on Election Day so we're no longer in danger of the school year potentially ending in May. Now Inauguration Day—a time that reminds us of the great principles America was founded on—is tomorrow. My students get a daily reminder of those principles when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance and say the final lines, "with liberty and justice for all." But the unfair reality of what they are up against to simply graduate from high school will not change unless we demand social justice for all.

City Year corps members turn our quest for social justice into action through mentoring and tutoring, but our commitment goes beyond that. We strive to help students take charge of their learning and we present school as more than something to slog through—it’s something that can inspire lifelong passions and transform lives.

Most of all, we want our students to recognize their own courage. We know that even if their circumstances aren’t ideal, they’re strong and capable enough to push through. The sooner our students see their education as a tool for equality and empowerment, the better off they’ll be—and the better off their communities will be.

Different teams approach this challenge in different ways. My teammates and I agreed to never ask our students if they’re going to college. Instead, we ask them where they’re going to college. At another City Year partner school here in Los Angeles, John H. Liechty Middle School, several corps members hosted Future Club, which gave students a space to talk about what they wanted their futures—and society’s future—to look like.

It's amazing what a change in attitude does. Jake, a student in Normandie’s afterschool program, used to lie about finishing his homework. One day, we had a conversation about what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he dreamt of being a writer, and of being the first person in his family to attend college. Now, whenever I see him goofing off, I remind him of his goal. He could still use more discipline, but he no longer hides his homework.

Los Angeles, like every American city, is a place of contrasts: It's home to students who have all the support they need and students who barely have enough to get by. The students we serve may come from low income homes but they are full of potential and they deserve a shot at the American Dream, too. We're here to make sure they get it.

January is National Mentoring Month. Click here to add becoming a mentor to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Photo courtesy of City Year Los Angeles

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