We lived in the same apartment building, rode the same bus to school. English was not our parents’ first language. We learned and played, progressing through our elementary school years easily, oblivious to how our paths were beginning to split from our surrounding classmates. Despite the parallels in our lives, the barriers separating us from our white classmates began to grow more distinct. Many of my BIPOC classmates were placed in English as a Second Language classes, were falling behind grade-level standards in core subjects and were not provided with the opportunities to participate in clubs or sports.
My classmates, and countless others, are affected by the achievement gap: the persistent disparity in academic achievement between BIPOC or disadvantaged students and their white counterparts. It is better defined as the opportunity gap.
Although I was not placed in ESL or support classes, I began to believe that this separation at school was the norm. My peers were conditioned to believe they were not capable of higher achievement. And I began to believe the same about myself.
Data shows that the first three years of a child’s life are critical to their language development. According to the 30 Million Word Gap study, this impacts students whose parents are at a literacy disadvantage because they aren’t getting the same exposure to basic learning as some of their peers are at a young age.
Without a supportive, diverse community at school, cultural differences can lead to students feeling isolated. Their schools may not be environments that encourage their growth and push them out of their comfort zones. This can present itself through unconscious bias of teachers in classrooms — things like pronouncing a student’s name wrong or believing they are less capable of challenging work or leadership roles.
During my time volunteering at an affordable living community where many students’ parents immigrated to the United States and speak the same language, I’ve seen the community that’s been fostered and how important that is for students. It’s a community that many of them don’t have at school. Families receive support for their students in this community that their schools don’t provide, and students learn better in this environment.
So, how do we narrow — and hopefully someday eliminate — this opportunity gap?
Schools must think about resources and access. They need to ask students of color what they would like to see and what is important to them — communicating not only directly with them, but their communities.
BIPOC communities need to be included in the dialogue for change. Efforts should be made to include families in the process, be it parent-teacher conferences or engagement in the PTO. They should be encouraged to run for school board or community positions, bringing their diverse perspectives into the conversation. What’s most important in creating this change is to meet people where they are. If families are not able to provide transportation for their students to attend tutoring sessions at school, bring it to them. If immigrant parents aren’t informed about their students’ school curriculum, provide them the resources to understand it. Bring in BIPOC staff but also provide culture and bias training to white staff.
Closing the opportunity gap is not a one-size-fits-all narrative — students and communities have individual needs, and it’s up to schools to work with BIPOC communities not only to meet these needs, but empower students to reach their full potential.