Kudos to CNN and Soledad O’Brien for enhancing their “In America” series with an “Education In America” focus. This month’s series, “Don’t Fail Me,” follows three high school students in different parts of the country—Arizona, New Jersey and Tennessee—as they prepared for the FIRST Robotics Competition. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” and this nationwide contest combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology.
In the series, Soledad follows Maria Castro, Brian Whited and Shaan Patel as they prepare for the finals in St. Louis, Missouri. Not only do the three students represent different geographic regions, but they also represent significantly different cultural and academic paths.
- Junior Maria Castro attends an inner city high school in Phoenix (with a 95 percent Latino student population), where the average family makes less than $30,000 a year. More than half of the students at Maria’s school have failed the statewide test in reading and math.
- Senior and self proclaimed “nerd” Brian Whited lives in a middle class suburb of in Tennessee. He is enrolled in all honors classes and is a member of the National Honor Society. Yet, his school offers no AP classes, which threatens his dreams of entering a top engineering school.
- Sophomore Shaan Patel lives in Montgomery, New Jersey—an upper middle class neighborhood where the average income is more than $200,000 a year. The town could be considered a hub for large tech and pharmaceutical companies, and Shaan is already taking AP courses and has a host of after school activities.
“Why isn’t anyone challenging me?!” That was the heart’s cry of Maria Castro. Of the three students, her experience most closely mirrors the challenges that many African-American children are facing within their own school systems, and who also epitomizes academic ambition. At Maria’s school, half the students don’t pass Arizona’s proficiency exams, which means they don’t meet the bar for basic knowledge in math, reading and science.
At home, Maria is the sixth of seven children. Throughout the course of their academic experiences, all of her siblings eventually descended from honor roll students to high school dropouts. Her entire family expected the same outcome for Maria as well. Her parents are like those of most of her peers: working-class immigrants who have survived by working in food service or landscaping, who have made a living without higher education and who believe their children can get along that way as well.
In fact, through tears, Maria told Soledad a heart-wrenching story about overhearing her father speaking with one of her favorite teachers at her quinceanera — her 15th birthday celebration. The teacher was raving about Maria’s dreams and strong academics. Her father’s reply: “It’s just a matter of time before she fails. It doesn’t really matter what she does now, she will eventually give up.”
Hurt and shocked, Maria used that statement as motivation. She quickly determined that she wasn’t on track to take the classes necessary to be as competitive as other applicants before the end of her senior year. She took initiative, engaging 31 other students and petitioning for months for an accelerated math class combining Algebra and Pre-Calculus. Eventually, she found funding and an instructor for the class.
Singlehandedly, Maria plotted her path to get the courses she needed to attend the college of her dreams…without the help of her parents. Now, that’s academic ambition!
How many parents and students are similarly mapping out the course for their futures? How many are thinking ahead to identify potential obstacles in their path to college? How many are even thinking intentionally about college? According to the documentary, not many. Minority dropout rates hover around 40-50 percent and, by 2050, minority students will be half of U.S. school children.
These facts should matter to all of us! Academic ambition matters for our students and for our country! Of 34 countries, America ranks 17th in science and 25th in math. Last year, with unemployment rates soaring across the country, more than two million high-paying, high-skill tech positions went unfilled because of the lack of skilled American talent.
Maria, Brian and Shaan should be applauded for their academic ambition. At a time when being intelligent is considered “uncool,“ these students went against the grain. In my eyes, they are the potential for America. Gone are the days where post-secondary education is optional and working at the local plant can offer stability.
So what can we do? As parents, it is our duty to expect our children to be successful and to inspire higher academic ambitions. It is our responsibility to help them map out their futures, and to understand the importance of doing so – values plus expectations equals motivation. While Maria’s story is an inspiring one, it’s also a sad one. Just imagine how different things might have been if the environment in which she navigated at home, school, and in her community expected more of her, offered more guidance and more support.
Start by setting high expectations and asking questions, early and often, such as “Where do you want to be after you graduate from high school?,” “How do we get there?” How can our children prepare for greatness and success if we are not expecting, challenging and inspiring them all along the way?
Check out the full documentary, “Don’t Fail Me: Education in America” on YouTube: