I have always been inspired by the work that my sister does, but I had never fully understood her work or, more importantly, why she does it. Now that I am serving with College Possible, a nonprofit dedicated to college access and success for low-income students, I am lucky that I have had the opportunity to share in some of the work that she does.
My sister majored in Education at St. Olaf College. During the summer, she worked with Upward Bound, and most of her students came from refugee backgrounds. During the school year, she worked for Educational Talent Search and was a director for Reaching Ours Goals (ROG), a program that worked with a local high school to provide bilingual educational support to students, most of who were latino/a and many of who were undocumented or whose parents were undocumented. Because of their undocumented statuses, many students did not think that college was an option for them when the federal DREAM Act never passed and before DACA was an option. This is one thing that my sister had mentioned to me, and it influenced my decision to serve with College Possible, an organization that is able to serve undocumented students with college aspirations.
Working for these programs and meeting these students strengthened my sister's belief that cultural competency was extremely important for any educator or educational program. At ROG, many of her students felt targeted by the educational system. The school board held meetings at 2 pm on weekdays, which further alienated lower-income students whose parents were not able to take time off of work to make their voices heard. One memory that stuck out to her was that a latina student was suspended from school for wearing a pink bandana as a headband, but many white students who were farmers tucked bandanas into their overalls. My sister found a gang consultant to work with the school in order to create policies that addressed actual gang activity. She worked with this same gang consultant on ways to help her students feel included in ROG, even if they didn’t feel included in their school community. The group made sure to mix-in cultural events as a part of their curriculum, and they created culturally relevant questions for standardized test practices. At the end of the program, students reported that they felt more connected to their communities.
After college, as part of a service year, my sister ran a GED program at a homeless shelter in Newark, New Jersey, which has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country. Attempts to start a GED program at the shelter tried and failed three times to get any program to stick. For three months, my sister tried to use the existing materials and course structure to teach in a large classroom setting. However, the students were on very different reading and math levels and new students joined every week, which made it difficult to teach a large group of students. Additionally, the GED books that had been donated were not navigable for students who were not used to a formal education system—many of them had dropped out during middle school.
My sister suspended classes for two weeks and created individualized course work for first-grade level through ninth-grade level math and reading abilities. She used donations to buy the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), which she had all of her students take when they began the class. She could then give students the coursework for the grade-level that they tested at, with a roadmap for where they would need to be in order to pass the GED. With appropriate course material for each students, they students were able to set their own educational goals and study on their own. When students wanted helped, she was able to give one-on-one help. That year, GEDs earned jumped from 1 to 25. Those students were then able to come volunteer and provide additional one-on-one support, which made the curriculum more sustainable.
While she has done a lot in the five years since her year of service in Newark, I can tell that her interactions with students who felt let down and left behind have greatly influenced her career choices, and they have influenced mine as well. While the models she used might not work in other places or on a large scale, differentiated learning makes a huge difference for students who have been failed by their past educational experiences and have not followed a traditional educational path.