"Ms. Baker, why are you teaching here?" one student, whom I'll call Solomon, inquired during one of our after school tutoring sessions. "You went to college," he continued unabashedly. "Um…couldn't you find a job anywhere else?"
I remember these words from one of my don't-beat-around-the bush, inquisitive fifth grade students like it was yesterday. And to be honest, my presence at Caldwell Elementary School wasn't the chosen career path for most of my peers. I graduated from a highly ranked university with a degree in English. I considered law school or a PhD program in English before ultimately choosing to join the national teaching corps, Teach For America. I'd committed to teach for two years in a low-performing public school in an economically depressed neighborhood that was notorious for crime, high school drop-outs, and the birthplace of gangster rap -- Compton, California.
I struggled with the words to respond to Solomon's very pointed question. "Well," I mused, "I heard a rumor that the smartest kids in the world were at this school, so I wanted to be here with the geniuses," I stated, hoping to further reinforce the high academic expectations I had for my students -- despite how far behind many of them were. Solomon looked at me for a moment and then he burst out laughing. He was not convinced of my words in the slightest. "Aw c'mon Ms. Baker, nobody thinks we're smart! If they did, they wouldn't give us this broken down school and these ratty old books. You don't even have enough paper and pencils for us!"
As a first-year teacher, I was shocked that a ten-year-old was fully aware of the implicit disparity in our country's two-tiered public education system. He wondered why someone like me -- an African American who had graduated from college and "made it" -- would ever choose to teach in his low-income public school. He implied that I had a myriad of more lucrative, and more worthy, options. Solomon scoffed at the idea that other people thought he and his classmates were intelligent. And he completely understood that his school lacked the basic resources and facilities. Most disturbingly, Solomon connected society's low expectations for him as the reason why his school didn't have the necessary supplies. After all, he seemed to suggest, why would our nation bother wasting resources on students who weren't smart enough to succeed in the first place?
Having spent the last 15 years working on the movement to eliminate educational inequity, I now realize that my insightful fifth grader's assumptions weren't surprising. What other conclusion could he make in a country where nine-year-olds in poor communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in wealthier communities? What else should he think about a nation where only half of the 14 million students from low-income communities ever graduate from high school and only one in ten ever graduate from college?
It was quite logical for Solomon to conclude that society didn't expect much from him and his classmates in Compton. As a result, he didn't expect much from himself either. As his teacher, it was my job to shift those expectations so Solomon and all my other students could reach their full potential. We worked incredibly hard that year and it was thrilling to see Solomon, and the majority of my fifth-graders, excel at high levels that others might have thought impossible. Because of the tremendous growth I saw in my students, I am forever convinced that the problem of academic disparity is completely solvable.
The academic achievement gap, in a well-resourced country like ours, is a tragic moral injustice that should move people of faith to action. As Christians, let's take stock of how we're working to eliminate this problem. Are we encouraging our most talented college graduates and young professionals to teach in schools like Solomon's? Are we mobilizing our church communities to volunteer, tutor, and provide much-needed supplies to under-resourced schools? Are we mobilizing on behalf of students like Solomon to demand that lawmakers create policies that will improve the quality of their education?
The Bible is pretty clear about our responsibility. God says that all children were created in his image, so we should believe every child has unlimited potential. God says that children are incredibly precious to him. And God tells us to eliminate injustice. It's time for Christians to take a stand on behalf of the ‘least of these' in our nation's low-income public schools. Solomon and his classmates are waiting for us.
Dr. Nicole Baker Fulgham is the Vice President of Faith Community Outreach for Teach for America.