By Sharon Scranage Romeo

In a master’s program for education, a student asked me on the first day of class, “So what is your main focus when it comes to education?”

“Highlighting and developing giftedness for students living in poverty,” I said.

“That’s rare. That must be difficult for you.”

“No, highlighting and developing gifted people from poverty can be done; you’ll see.”

“No, I mean finding a gifted person in poverty.”

I wanted to be angry, but in truth he was stating an idea that is embedded in our educational system, though most do not want to admit it. While 79 percent of students born into the top income quartile in the U.S. obtain bachelor’s degrees, only 11 percent of students from bottom-quartile families graduate from four-year universities, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity. The cost of education is one factor that undoubtedly creates a disturbingly high barrier to entry, but if all we have to do is throw money at the problem, people living in poverty would all go to college. So with all of the grants and scholarships for people living below the poverty line, why aren’t more attempting and finishing college?

If society undermines and underestimates the poor, why wouldn’t the educational system? As a teacher in a public school who works with our underserved student population, I speak with parents and teachers in other districts that do not have a high ratio of poverty. They are quick to empathize with me, using such phrases as “it must be so hard,” and “I could never do that.” But when I talk about the advanced work these students do in reading, science, math and writing, they are quick to disbelieve. They say things like, “Are they reading the real books?” or “How wonderful … but are they really doing advanced math?” When I speak about our teachers and our amazing students and the work they do, they politely smile in disbelief, signaling the end of the conversation, or they say, “Well, you’re from one of those rich districts with all of that government money—they should be doing well!” Anything to deflect the notion of a student living in poverty being able to compete, through determination and hard work, with a student from privilege.

Maybe it’s time for us to acknowledge that underestimating a student directly or indirectly for 12 years before college can take its toll. Maybe it’s time for our educational communities, teachers and parents to believe in the brilliance that can be attained for our students in poverty. Curricula that focus on strategies for our impoverished students without underestimating them and mentorship programs in which the information is available for all students would be a great start. Yes, it requires money, but as always, the greatest learning boils down to the culture of the classroom, a great curriculum and the relationship between the teacher and the student—a relationship that does not underestimate students but elevates their potential regardless of their socio-economic level.

And maybe we as a society should listen to a little more to those who are successful in reaching underserved students to maximize their potential. They are the game changers in the culture of entitlement embedded in our educational system.

Sharon Scranage Romeo Named Orange County Teacher of the Year for 2016

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