Growing up in the public schools of El Paso, Texas, Aurora Lora experienced first-hand the educational disparities that persist in our country. The daughter of a Mexican immigrant, Aurora encountered the reality that the United States’ education system, like those in most of the wealthiest nations, often provides the least resources and opportunities to the students who need extra help the most.
Aurora’s next first-hand encounter with these disparities came just a few years later, but this time she had the opportunity to do something about them. After a phenomenal four-year academic and leadership record at the University of Texas, which honored Aurora at graduation for her contributions to student life, she joined Teach For America. “Ms. Lora,” at the age of 23, stood before a room of fourth graders in inner-city Houston—most of whom could read and write only on a first-or-second grade level. As their teacher and leader, she showed her students that she believed in their potential and that they could succeed if they worked hard. Although others scoffed, she and her students set ambitious goals for their progress.
Armed with little experience but with the focus and determination that idealistic leaders bring to great causes, Ms. Lora went to work. She convinced her principal to let her run classes into the evenings two days a week, and then expanded those classes to five days a week. She held Saturday classes. Following her lead, the students—and their families—worked, and worked, and worked. They began to believe that they could in fact “catch up” academically, with Ms. Lora’s help.
Just eight months later, when the test scores came back, Ms. Lora’s students—ALL of them—had passed the state exam. Even Adrian, the student who had been handed over to Ms. Lora by another teacher with the admonition that he’s “too dumb” for fourth grade, passed the test. In fact, more students had passed the test in Ms. Lora’s class than had previously done so in the entire school. Ms. Lora had literally closed the achievement gap for her students. (The next year, the principal doubled the number of students in Ms. Lora’s classroom.)
After teaching at her Houston school for four years, Ms. Lora decided that she owed it to herself and her students to work to strengthen our education system on an even larger scale. Today, she is earning her PhD from Harvard University’s selective, four-student Urban Superintendent Program. “Ms. Lora” will soon be “Dr. Lora,” and will be acting on the insights and sense of outrage she earned in her classroom to improve the academic achievement of students in one of America’s largest urban school districts.
Aurora’s story is a testament to the power and impact that committed recent college graduates can have, even immediately, on the educational disparities that are our nation’s most serious domestic challenge.
In our country that aspires so admirably to be the Land of Opportunity, and that in so doing holds so much promise for its citizens and as a model for the rest of the world, the sad, persistent reality is that by the time they are just nine years old, students who live in low-income communities are an average of three grade levels behind students who live in high-income communities. This gap only becomes worse over time, and students born in low-income communities are ultimately seven times less likely to graduate from college than students born in high-income communities.
What Aurora and others have shown us, however, is that these disparities don’t need to exist. When children growing up in economically marginalized communities are given the opportunities they deserve, they can and do excel on an absolute scale. Yes, the gap in educational outcomes is an extraordinarily entrenched social problem—but a true movement of our generation’s future leadership can tackle it.
Educational inequity must be our generation’s civil rights issue. It needs the unrelenting commitment of the most talented and determined among you.
Wendy Kopp is the founder and president of Teach For America (www.teachforamerica.org).
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