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Every kid deserves opportunity

June 20, 2016

The hours spent afterschool and during the summer can be radically different for kids from lower income families than for wealthier kids. Summer camps, music lessons or organized sports are often out of reach for these families, even with sliding scales and scholarships. While summer camps aren’t usually labeled as “learning” opportunities – that’s exactly what they are: opportunities for kids to build teamwork and collaboration skills on the field; critical thinking skills as they learn to build a robot or rig a sail. These opportunities are not equally available to all.

The gap in opportunities between low income and higher income families is widely recognized as the precursor to an academic achievement gap, and the gap has been getting bigger.

Like the gap in income, the opportunity gap has widened over the years, and it’s particularly apparent during non-school hours. “Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extracurricular activities, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.” 

Students whose families can barely afford extracurricular activities at all simply don’t have the same opportunities as students whose parents pour thousands of dollars into enrichment.

Many youth serving organizations work to fill the gap, taking on the second shift, between 3 and 6 during the school year to support working families and provide opportunity – but the demand outpaces supply. Ellie (not her real name) was one child who benefited from a low cost afterschool program. She struggled in school. Teachers saw her as aggressive, some noted her inability to read social cues and they began the process of obtaining special education services for Ellie. But in her afterschool program, co-located at the school, Spanish speaking staff members figured out that Ellie’s academic and behavioral challenges were stemming primarily from her difficulties with English. With a proactive partnership between the community-based afterschool program and the school, Ellie was able to get the language support she needed—and now she is flourishing. Ellie is just one example of how high quality afterschool and summer learning opportunities help kids reach their full potential.

Community based organizations are often better positioned to truly understand the challenges young people are facing, reach out to them in a culturally relevant way, and ensure that all the children served will grow socially, emotionally and academically.

Seattle has the fifth highest achievement gap between white students and black students in the nation – and the largest gap in the state (Seattle Times, May 9, 2016). While these gaps are persistent and pervasive across the city and nation, the re-segregation of Seattle’s schools in the years after bussing, has concentrated low income youth of color in particular schools in the South end of Seattle, and in pockets across the city. While children from more affluent, and often more white neighborhoods achieve at greater rates, lower income youth have fewer opportunities at school and in the community to help them get ahead. The problem is systemic.

If we are to have any chance of narrowing the gap in academic achievements and outcomes, we must address the gaps in opportunities and learning experiences to ensure youth of color, and low income youth, have access to out-of-school and community supports that help them build relationships, confidence and the skills they need to navigate school and life. Additional supports that higher income kids and families take for granted. Equality of opportunity is what allows every student to reach their full potential. Equity demands that those who need more support have more support.

It is time that our city, state and nation recognize that all kids are our kids. As Robert Putnam stated in his 2015 book Our Kids, “This is not the first time in our national history that widening socioeconomic gaps have threatened our economy, our democracy, and our values. The specific responses we have pursued to successfully overcome these challenges and restore opportunity have varied in detail, but underlying them all was a commitment to invest in other people’s children. And underlying that commitment was a deeper sense that those kids, too, were our kids.” 

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