I first met with a group of 10th-grade honors students, all black or Latino. They are the current students of Tim Reid, my own beloved chemistry teacher. As the school’s most academically engaged kids looked up at me warily, I set aside many of my questions and let them talk about life in this time and place, about being 15 or 16. I told them I, too, sat where they sat.
I remember well being that girl, the one determined to sail past the obstacles, eating dinner by candlelight because my mother had paid my deposit for college rather than the month’s electric bill. I smiled at the memory, at the unflappable reflections of myself staring back at me in that classroom. These students have ambitions, clear and real, but may also face obstacles that go beyond school funding. The crushing weight of just getting through daily life while economically stressed is difficult to articulate unless lived.
As with any conversation about education in lower-income areas, underfunding is seen as the source of most problems, especially by students. Joy commented that “we’re in an AP class without textbooks and we have to photocopy them, which sucks.” Kenny, whose quiet and methodical observations often grounded the discussion, noted that, “Throughout my life I’ve only heard of budget cuts from schools, I haven’t heard of any raises or more funding.” Boatemaa commented that, “A majority of the people in this town need a free lunch and so we don’t have a lot to offer [financially] … we don’t have a lot to offer, and yet they want to take so much from us.”
Boatemaa’s remark led to a few rounds of “we don’t have a lot to offer” being repeated, its meaning having subtly changed over the course of the conversation. Less than is such a recurring theme in the lives of some students that it all too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The students also expressed frustration at their limited agency, a feeling of disconnect from those individuals making consequential decisions that affect their everyday lives. “I think that the people who make the decisions about the budget have never stepped foot in a classroom as an educator,” Sandra said. “I feel like they shouldn’t make decisions on what we need to spend money on if they have never spent a day with us.”
That these students may have internalized insecurities is not surprising given that they must balance immense academic expectations with fewer resources, and often little access to the arenas in which they are expected to compete. As honors students in a district facing hardship, they all expressed pressure to perform even as kids in other districts are presumed better, with many first-generation immigrant kids feeling that their parents’ hopes and dreams rested on their success.
The nuances of working with kids in a higher-needs environment are all too familiar to administrators as well. East Hartford Schools Superintendent Nathan Quesnel and EHHS Principal Matt Ryan separately affirmed many of the insights that I could intuit as an adolescent but could only articulate as an adult. Both Quesnel and Ryan readily acknowledged the challenges—some academic, many not—that the district faces when compared with its wealthier neighbors. Oftentimes, social or emotional needs, such as fear stemming from an unstable home life, must be fulfilled before academic disparities can be tackled. Ryan also said the entrenched stereotypes of poverty can hang over the classroom: “Our kids come to us with a variety of needs, and they start way behind the starting line where a more affluent child is starting from,” Quesnel said. “[It requires] advanced teaching to get a child through fear, trauma, potential substance abuse in the home, or the instability of transiency. Then you start talking about the academic needs.” Ryan, in a separate interview, echoed that sentiment: “The number one misconception is that the kids are tougher or that with that ‘toughness’ comes they are less than,” Ryan said.“It should be, if I come from a place of poverty, I just need more help … I just need more steps to get there.”