Combatting Educational Inequities by Seeking the Best in All Kids

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. Ann Ziker, YES Prep’s Chief Advancement Officer, is the guest author of our second installment. As Chief Advancement Officer, Ann works to build a robust network of community champions and investors. Ann received her B.A. and doctorate from Rice University. Prior to working at YES Prep, Ann worked as the founding Managing Director for Education Pioneers-Houston.

Ann with her daughter, AllisonTypically, the first thing I do when I get home from work is open my daughter’s daily report from her teacher. On the school’s neat behavior tracker tool, the same themes recurDisruptive. Lack of focus. Struggles to self-regulate. Inability to stay seated. Talking while teacher instructs. Excessive prompting needed to complete work.   

Along with the natural rush of emotions that accompany the knowledge that my daughter is facing challenges at school, I also must confront on a near-daily basis sobering truths about how her academic and life outcomes might change if she were growing up in different economic circumstances, or with black or brown skin instead of white. In this blog—where I will offer more reflections than solutions—I will describe how the experience of parenting a child with learning differences has redoubled my commitment to our philosophy of “all means all” and our values of equity and social justice.  

I carry with me the knowledge that if my daughter Allison were a black or brown boy growing up in an underserved community, she might well be a kindergartner who has been suspended or even expelled.  Last year in the U.S., an estimated 6,700 preschool students were suspended from school, and thousands more kindergarten and first-grade students were expelled. These exclusionary discipline strategies have a starkly disproportionate impact on African American and Latino boys as well as children with special needs.  

Reading these figures, it is impossible not to wonder how much the same behaviors have different intentions ascribed to them, depending on the race, gender, and socioeconomic status of the child. When a white girl like my daughter resists complying with classroom directions, teachers may see this as an unacceptable distraction to the learning environment, but rarely as a threat to safety or a show of open disrespect. The stark disparities in discipline data strongly suggest that even 5-year old black and brown boys are not afforded the same grace.  In other words, deeply entrenched biases and mindsets are likely at play when adults make judgements about which behaviors are innocuous and which are a menace. 

Mindsets and bias also can influence whether educators attribute non-compliant behavior to circumstances or to congenital shortcomings in the child and/or family. In the specific case of my daughter: She had a neurological condition at birth, and ultimately was diagnosed with ADHD and autism around the age of 3. The imprimatur of a medical diagnosis means that teachers detach her behaviors from judgments about her character, her culture, or her learning potential, whereas often the same behaviors in Latinx and African American children may be interpreted as an innate flaw in character, culture, or home environment. Brilliant research by pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris (check out her thought-provoking TED talk here) and cognitive scientists strongly suggests that the trauma of growing up in poverty can yield the identical behavioral challenges—such as impulsivity and difficulty with emotional self-regulation—that are textbook characteristics of ADHD and many autistic children. Yet we don’t give children who grow up in poverty a medical label, making it altogether too easy to conclude that they are simply “bad kids” or kids who aren’t motivated to learn. 

Mindsets, of course, are not the only factor at play:  I am acutely aware that my access to resources has dramatically altered my daughter’s opportunities. Even our ability to secure an official “label” for my daughter’s needs involved extensive navigation of complex diagnostic processes, not to mention significant expense.  Nowhere are the effects of educational inequities more pronounced than with our children who have special cognitive and/or social-emotional needs – where money and access unlock services and early interventions that are, quite literally, life-altering.   

I offer the story about my daughter not to suggest that her experience can be generalized to our students (on the contrary, if being a mother has taught me anything, it is that every child’s needs should be considered on their own terms). Rather, my daughter’s experience is an abiding reminder of the way privilege and race can shape long-term outcomes for students—and a powerful force in my commitment to our philosophy of “all means all.” 

Along with her atypical development and often-trying behaviors, my daughter also has some extraordinary strengths. She taught herself to read prior to age four, can memorize the spelling of a word after seeing it just once, and can sing on perfect pitch. Yet I have met far too many educators—including, I am sad to say, special-needs educators—who still deemed her “not a fit” or “too needy” for their programs. After months of visiting schools, I finally found one that had the only quality I truly cared about: educators who will believe fiercely in all students and see their strengths even when their behavior makes it painfully easy to dismiss them as too challenging. This ability to seek the best in all kids may be the most powerful strategy we have to combat educational inequity.   

I welcome comments, questions, and reflections from the YES Prep community, and I wish everyone a restful break.   

Ann 

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