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21.1 Miles: A Distance that Dictates Student Achievement

December 3, 2013 7 minute Read by Kalen Lewis

21.1 miles separate Highland Park High School and my alma mater Lakeview Centennial High School.  It’s less than a 30-minute drive, but the gap in academic performance that exists between the two schools and their districts puts them worlds apart.  According to the George W. Bush Institute’s Global Report Card (GRC), Highland Park ISD outperforms 89 percent of our international competitors in Math and 91 percent in Reading.  Highland Park High School is rated the 17th best high school in Texas by U.S. News and World Report, and 88 percent of its students take at least one AP exam. 

My former high school is part of Garland ISD.  The GRC reports 51 percent of school districts throughout the world outperform Garland ISD in Math, while my former district ranks better than only 54 percent of districts globally in Reading.  My high school does not come close to making the U.S. News and World Report’s best high schools list and ranks in the 63rd percentile statewide.[1]  That is the difference 21.1 miles make. 

As an alumnus, I am proud of the recent positive trends in Lakeview’s student achievement data, but I am still left to ask: How can less than 30 minutes in a car dictate one’s ability to compete in our increasingly global economy?  Importantly, these short distance student achievement gaps are affecting our entire country’s ability to compete globally.  Today’s release of the Program for International Student Assessment Results (PISA) indicates we are performing below the international average for Math and Science, and only slightly better than the international average for Reading.  Like my alma mater, our country does not come close to making the “best” list in any subject.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I have been afforded, especially attending Southern Methodist University and the honor of interning for the George W. Bush Institute’s Education Reform Initiative.  But considering the issue of educational inequality, I must be honest and state I often think about what my life would be like if I had attended school 21.1 miles in a different direction.

I grew up in a single-parent home and moved from city to city until my family settled in Garland when I was 13.  My mother received a G.E.D at age 17 and worked various jobs to provide for me the best she could.  Growing up, some years were challenging, and others were less of a challenge.  At a young age, I learned the importance of attending and graduating from a respected university.  Put nicely, it meant the key to the door of opportunity.  Put frankly, it meant not having to worry about my bank account every time I wanted to eat and being able to look at my belongings as something more than possible sales for the next rent check. For me, going to college was not a choice – it was my only option.

As such, I did whatever it took to graduate high school on time and earn college acceptances and scholarships.  Through hard work, I graduated from Lakeview with honors in 2011 and proudly entered SMU that fall.  Even though my high school is considered “Academically Acceptable,” fewer than half of my peers were prepared for college in either English/Language Arts or Math when I crossed the stage on graduation day.[2] I wonder what their lives would be like if they attended school 21.1 miles in a different direction.

For the less than half of my class considered “prepared” for college, many of us learned quickly that a college acceptance was the easy part, as attending high school in a district that is academically outperformed by roughly half the world makes college considerably more challenging. Consider that only 34 percent of low-income students enroll in college and from this already low number, only 11 percent of us actually graduate.[3] When I entered college in 2011, a study by CNN found a nearly 50 percent gap in earning a college degree between high and low-income students. 

Through hard work, SMU’s work study program, and support, I will be one of the lucky few low-income students who beats the odds and graduates from college this coming May.  But my story should not be 21.1 miles west of the norm. I share my story not to garner sympathy or to downplay the success of students in high-performing districts – they earned it.  I share my story because there are millions of students like me, and unfortunately too many whose stories have much worse endings. I know it does not have to be this way.  I also know that our international standing depends on it not being this way.

On behalf of students like me, I ask that you hold us to globally rigorous standards – the same high standards that schools like Highland Park set for students.  We are capable of meeting them.  Give the schools we attend great leaders; they make a huge difference (a major reason for Lakeview’s upward trends is its school leader, a man whose dedication to student success I am eternally grateful for).  Provide us with high-quality teachers and give them the professional development needed to let us succeed.

Finally, don’t just hold our teachers and schools accountable for success; hold each and every one of us accountable.  Ultimately, academic success is our responsibility.  We want to be held to account for it.  Push us, drive us, and let us know through these actions you believe in us.

21.1 miles to the west should not determine one’s life trajectory.  Provide every school with the same structures as schools like Highland Park High School and it no longer will.

Kalen is the Bush Institute’s fall intern for the education reform initiative.  He is a senior at Southern Methodist University.