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A High School Diploma, Even For A Valedictorian, Will Never Be Enough

Boston Latin School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston Latin School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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I recently met Sheldon for breakfast at McKenna’s in Dorchester. Over pancakes, we caught up on life, work and our plans to make a podcast. Sheldon and I have known each other since the first day of school in September of 2004. He was a member of the first cohort of students I ever taught at the McCormack Middle School, a Boston Public School.

I often say that Sheldon taught me more about what it means to be a good teacher than any teacher preparation program possibly could have. He was a brilliant and angry sixth grader, already having learned — multiple times over — the painful lessons that young black men in our society are taught about how the world perceives them, and what the world expects of them.

Sheldon challenged me to be the best teacher I could be for him, and I failed. Miserably. I couldn’t see past my own insecurities to help him navigate his own. But in the years since, I’ve learned what it means to truly be present for a young person as they develop. What it means to be a part of their safety net.

Sheldon and his peers ... have taught me a lot about the work required to weave a solid safety net under our young people...

When Sheldon was struggling with high school Spanish, we met for tutoring sessions on Saturday mornings. When he decided to apply to private high schools, I wrote his recommendations. When he struggled to navigate the drastically different culture of an elite prep school, I was his emergency hotline — the person he could vent to about the micro- and macro-aggressions he faced on campus. When he decided to “take a break” before going to college, I stayed in his ear about the value of higher education.

And when he finally applied and was accepted to college, and needed a loan for the down payment, I made the no-interest loan, confident that he would pay me back. And he did.

The latest series from the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe looks at the fate of the city’s valedictorians. It implicitly assumes that the need for a safety net ends when a student earns a high school diploma: admission to college is the ultimate prize. By the Globe’s reasoning, if students get that far, there should be no reason why they wouldn’t achieve their dreams, and the failure of students to do so is an indictment of our public school system.

I’m a 15-year veteran of BPS. It’s true that the series identified some of the major flaws in a system where 25 percent of the highest performing students are segregated into three high schools, and where too many high school students are not getting access to college-preparatory MassCore curriculum. But it missed the bigger structural inequities that many of our students confront throughout their childhoods, after graduating from high school and even after earning a college degree.

A high school diploma, even one earned by a valedictorian, does not erase a history of homelessness. It does not erase the effects of trauma. It does not miraculously mitigate the challenges of living in poverty. When our young people graduate, too many assume our collective work, as a society, is done. Sheldon and his peers have taught me that the work is far from over.

“There is no safety net for the poor in this country, and not even in a city as resource-rich and as beautiful as Boston,” author and Harvard professor Anthony Abraham Jack told the Globe.

Sheldon and his peers, many of them college-educated, working professionals, have taught me a lot about the work required to weave a solid safety net under our young people. The kind that so many affluent students already have because of their parents. And the kind that would make it more likely that our students could achieve the goals they set for themselves at high school graduation.

We need every college-bound high school graduate in Boston to be paired with a college-educated mentor who has traveled a similar path, and who will stay involved in their lives until age 25.

First-generation college-goers need access to low- or no-interest emergency loans during college, as well as during their transition to the workforce. A health emergency becomes the reason why too many young people don’t end up finishing college. The inability to cobble together first, last and security deposit for an apartment has become too big a barrier for those willing to take the risk of moving to a new city for a job.

If we want our young people to succeed ... we have to acknowledge that structural inequality exists...

We need a hotline that our young people can call when they have financial questions about loans and taxes. We need paid internship opportunities in the public sector to support students during the summer, and forge career pathways. We need more networking opportunities, organized by the city, to encourage employers to hire Boston grads. We need more affordable housing to make Boston financially viable for young people who are working or attending graduate school.

Some of these supports exist in pockets, either through longstanding teacher-student relationships, or through a web of unaffiliated nonprofits. But none operate at the scale necessary. Boston needs a comprehensive set of programs needed to keep all our young people on the path to financial independence and security.

If we want our young people to succeed — and not just the valedictorians, but all of our high school graduates — then we have to acknowledge that structural inequality exists, and that education alone will not be enough to surmount the challenges young people face as they navigate college and their early careers.

We can build a safety net for our youth. Being honest about the pitfalls, and planning for the ways we can support youth in overcoming them, is the first step.

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Neema Avashia Cognoscenti contributor
Neema Avashia teaches Civics in the Boston Public Schools.

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