November 7, 2013

The Importance of Being Fearless

By UW Dream Project
DFER Logo

Photo via DFER.org

The following post is by Manmeet Dhami, Dream Project alum, Teach for America alum, and current Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) Policy and Advocacy Fellow with the Washington State Democrats for Education Reform. She shares her experience of finder her passion and the potential of our education system.

As a life-long resident of the Puget Sound region and proud 2011 graduate of the University of Washington, I have experienced first-hand both the strengths and shortcomings of our public education system. I grew up attending schools in the Kent School District in Washington and spent four years in college volunteering in Seattle-area schools through the University of Washington Dream Project, a program that assists low-income and first-generation students through the college admissions process. During my time with Dream Project, I worked with students like Berhanu*.

Berhanu, a refugee from Ethiopia, woke up at 5am every morning just to make it to school by 7:45am. He was a great student with excellent grades that was determined to go to college. While mentoring him during his senior year, however, we realized that he didn’t meet the minimum foreign language requirements to apply to many competitive four-year colleges. Upon graduation, Berhanu was forced to spend the summer taking a foreign language class at the local community college so he could attend college. Despite all his hard work, Berhanu had to spend additional days in the classroom playing catch-up. As a low-income and first-generation student in Washington, his greatest challenge became navigating the American education system.

I didn’t grow up thinking I would become a teacher, but my experiences with the Dream Project in Seattle-area classrooms so profoundly impacted me that in June 2011, following my graduation from the UW, I joined the Teach for America corps in Houston, Texas.

I was lucky enough to be placed at a school in one of our country’s top performing public charter schools networks, YES Prep. And, within my first few days as a sixth grade reading teacher, I realized that YES Prep was unlike any system I had experienced in Washington.

My school had its fair share of challenges. The majority of our students were from low-income families and a large percentage of our sixth graders were English Language Learners (ELLs), but this isn’t what made my school different. My school was different because despite these challenges, all of our students were going to graduate with all the requirements necessary to gain acceptance to a four-year college.

At YES Prep Public Schools all students are required to take the SAT exam and at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course, and all students take the required classes needed to enter college. In fact, 100% of our students are accepted into college. On YES Prep Senior Signing Day, high school seniors are treated like star athletes. Alongside their families and in front of thousands of other students, teachers, and supporters, YES Prep Seniors commit to graduating from the college of their choice. YES Prep serves as a proof point for what’s possible when low-income students have access to an excellent education.

While teaching in Houston, I thought a lot about the students I worked with back home in Washington, and how many of them had to play a constant game of catch-up. I wondered what their lives would be like if they never had to play catch-up in the first place. What if schools like YES Prep—ones that ensure kids have all the necessary requirements to attend college and work hard to prepare them for a bright future—were the norm? What if every student in Washington, and across the country, also began the sixth grade knowing that they would one day walk across the stage at their own college graduation?

Successful schools like YES Prep don’t happen by accident. They exist because of fearless leaders, both inside and outside the classroom, who are willing to disrupt the status quo. Change requires a certain level of fearlessness and a willingness to acknowledge that what’s best for our kids might exist outside of our comfort zone. It requires trusting our students and their ability to rise to the high expectations we set.

It is this belief that led me to apply for a LEE summer fellowship with the Washington branch of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). I knew that at DFER, I would be working alongside other like-minded Democrats who also understand the importance of being fearless. Kids in Washington have borne the burden of educational inequity for too long. They deserve leaders, both in their schools and in Olympia, who are willing to take a firm stance on issues like teacher accountability and school choice, even when it might not be the most politically popular thing to do.

As I wrapped up my summer with DFER-WA, I reminded myself of all the work we have left to do here. We don’t have schools like YES Prep yet, (The Washington Public Charter Schools Initiative, I-1240, became a law in late 2012) but I have no doubt that we will one day soon. Statewide, the leaders of organizations like DFER, Teachers United, and the Washington State Charter Schools Association are leading the way for education reform in Washington. Countless teachers, principals, superintendents, and education reformers are willing to fight the good fight, no matter what the cost, because they too are nothing short of fearless.

*Name changed to protect student’s identity.

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