In our BOLD Commitment to EQUITY series, members of Team 2020, our Executive Leadership Team, share how their work helps to eliminate educational inequity to advance social justice. Nella García Urban, YES Prep’s Chief Program Officer, is the guest author of our fourth installment. As Chief Program Officer, Nella leads our programmatic efforts in teaching and learning. Nella earned a B.A. from Rice University and a M.A from Sam Houston University in Education Leadership. In 2013, Nella was named a Pahara NextGen Fellow with the Aspen Institute, a program for leaders in education reform with a diverse perspective.
I came to education while I was a student at Rice University, working as a reading tutor at our flagship campus, YES Prep Southeast. I can vividly recall the classrooms I observed, where students were deeply engaged in academic content, collaborating on solving problems, and focused on college success. Hands were in the air, pencils were moving and students were motivated to learn. This was so distinct from my own experience growing up in the rural Rio Grande Valley, that it struck me at my core. In much of my K – 12 education, academics were not the focus and often, the social aspects of school were prioritized over learning and academic growth. In some cases, little was expected of students of color in rural communities outside of technical school or other non-academic avenues. Transitioning to college was incredibly challenging, as I was not nearly as prepared as my peers for the rigorous nature of university academics. But in that moment at Southeast, the experience of observing students who looked like me in a college prep environment resonated with me deeply. I knew then that there was no other path for me. To be fulfilled in my work and in my life, I needed to work towards educational equity alongside talented and driven leaders. Today, 15 years later, I am fortunate enough to still work for YES Prep, a school system dedicated to advancing educational excellence for all students. As I reflect on where we have been, and envision where we are going, it is highly apparent to me that we must push ourselves to model what we ask of our students and continuously improve our practice.
Earlier this spring, I attended the week-long Standards Institute, an immersive training, on how systemic racism and bias impact curricular choices, teaching practice and leadership of academic programs. This opportunity shaped my thinking and approach to the work we do.
From this intense learning opportunity, I’ve arrived at the belief that labeling students, while at times efficient and helpful in differentiating, can be a hindrance to educational equity.
One ubiquitous aspect of education is that we tend to group students both in practice and in our language. For example, all special populations have labels: SPED, ELL, LEP, 504, GT, etc. This practice in many ways is intended to protect students and ensure they have access to the right supports to make them successful. At the same time, labeling has negative consequences, specifically creating an opportunity for stereotype threat (where the receiver of the label believes less about their abilities and, therefore, performs with that limitation in mind) and for educators to limit their belief in student capabilities.
Instead of using language such as “low kids,” we can better represent what is truly possible in our language. I’d offer using “students who have not yet mastered this content” or “currently struggling and on the way to mastery.” While this may require more words, the shift pushes us to operate with greater possibility. You can probably recall the teacher that spoke greatness into you and communicated that you could achieve more than you ever imagined for yourself. That teacher filled you with a possibility that was not limited by a label. For me, that was Mrs. Michelle Everett, my AP Language teacher. Even when I struggled, she reminded me relentlessly of what was possible for me. Without her unwavering belief in my aptitude, I would have not aspired to be an English major and I likely would have considered giving up when my peers in college were more prepared for rigorous academic and complex texts. My hope is that all of our students hear language of possibility from their teachers.
Rigorous Academic Access
Since the conference, I’ve also been wrestling with the idea that educational equity can be achieved through rigorous academic access, as well as the interventions necessary to close critical gaps.
Until recently, I did not truly understand how essential it is for students to be exposed to rigorous academic content, even if certain indicators tell us they are not yet ready. It is the act of not exposing our students to rigorous content without appropriate scaffolds that prevents access, which is instrumental in promoting academic struggle. The opportunity to be challenged, to be in a state of productive struggle, to force our minds and efforts to stretch, is important for all students. This is why “AP access for All” efforts are significant in the pursuit of educational equity. Access to these courses will increase college readiness in the long term.
This is not at all to dismiss that students may struggle at times, or that it is not incredibly difficult to scaffold material for diverse learners. It is one of the most daunting tasks in teaching. At the same time, exposure to challenging academic tasks for all students is part of ensuring equity. We cannot block the opportunity for students based on where they currently are, assuming that they will never be ready for rigorous academic coursework. We increase educational equity when we communicate to students that yes, it may be difficult and, by utilizing strategies for academic access and success, learning and growth is not only possible, but probable.
As with many aspects of education, so many things are easier said than done. I, however, know that I am not done learning how to find ways to ensure students can struggle with academic material and find success. I hope you are not either. Avoiding assumptions about student ability without providing access or opportunity is a good first step. Become aware of your language, and ask if there is a way to convey possibility for all students, rather than using a label that creates a limited expectation for what students can do.
At YES Prep, we are not done improving our programming to meet the needs of all students because we have not reached the level of success our students deserve. We are not done, and I am not sure we will ever be.