My first three days in Kentucky have been an incredible experience. I want to get into details, but first I want to recap what I’m doing here with Teach For America, and what Teach For America aims to do as an organization dedicated to eliminating the achievement gap in the US.
Teach For America is a nationwide non-profit dedicating to the elimination of educational inequity in our system. Teach For America employs bright, passionate leaders, often college graduates and young professionals, and uses their enthusiasm and innovation to tackle the gross educational disparities faced by children in low-income schools. Corps members have a direct and measurable impact on the lives of each and every child in their classroom. Moreover, as a corps united at the national level against educational inequity, they challenge the notion that the quality of a child’s education should be determined by the average income of their zip code; instead, they stand for the principle that all children should have equal opportunity at a great education.
The statistics surrounding the achievement gap are stunning. In schools located in low income areas, students are not offered the same competitive education as their peers. By the time children are in fourth grade, they may be up to three grade levels behind their high-income peers. This means that while students in high achieving schools may be reading on the level of Harry Potter books or other extended chapter books, their low-income peers may be still reading picture books. As the curriculum builds and expands on fundamentals, these students continue to be left behind. Only 50% of these students will graduate from high school, and those who do will read on average on an 8th grade level. Only 1 in 10 of these students will make it through college.
Kentucky’s statistics look a little more challenging than the nation’s average. In statistics rating graduating students’ readiness for college or career after graduating high school, Kentucky ranks 50th across all states and DC (Only Mississippi ranks lower). Much of the drag on these statistics comes from Eastern Kentucky, an area rich in history and culture but with great economic disadvantage and limited opportunities for upward mobility. In many cases, the region experiences a “brain drain” where the most successful and bright students leave the area seeking opportunity, as nearly all of the job opportunities in this area center around labor-intensive coal mining, which brings along with it many environmental health problems such as black lung and chemical leaching. However, as marginalized as many in these communities may seem to be, we’ve personally experienced a great deal of hope in the region. We have met with many community leaders who share incredible stories and great perspective, who love this area and have great hope for its future. I would say that from my perspective, these communities are very passionate about their heritage and their families, and we see that expressed in strong family values, strong religious ties, an unshakable spirit and sense of humor, and a strong foundation in the expression of history and heritage through folk arts and music.
The region itself is so beautiful. When driving here on tuesday, I drove up I-23 in Virginia. After climbing a huge, low grade hill, I saw a little sign that said “Welcome to Kentucky”, crested the hill, and saw the road drop into a valley so beautiful that I immediately had tears rolling down my face.
Everyone that we’ve encountered has been incredible. There are 30 of us Corps Members here, and each one is such a strong person and a strong leader. Each person brings such different experiences and skills to the cause. I’ve been so blessed to meet each person, and I really look forward to getting to know everyone better over the next coming weeks and years. Moreover, everyone that we’ve encountered in the community has been so welcoming and supportive. Last night, we went to a local folk festival and square dance, and when the leader announced that our group was at the event, the whole place gave us a big round of applause and was cheering, and throughout the night we all had so many people approaching us to welcome us and thank us and ask about our history and motivation. Even when we were square dancing, I had some partners who asked, “are you one of the teachers?” and when I answered yes, said how happy and proud they were to have us here.
The arts and cultural expression here is a topic I could talk about for hours, but I will save that for its own post. One really great organization in the area is Appalshop, an arts organization that uses multidisciplinary approaches to support and preserve the stories, culture, and tradition of this area. They are famous for their documentaries, made in response to the many negative images and stereotypes about ‘hillbillies’ that appear in major media productions. We visited with them for a long time on Wednesday, and I was so impressed with the work and cultural preservation going on there. Check it out at www.appalshop.org
Tomorrow, we leave for our training in the Mississippi Delta. Wish us all luck!