Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The 1954 ruling deemed segregated schools unconstitutional, saying "separate but equal" would no longer suffice because "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
The United States has seen massive transitions and transformations since then, and we as a nation often like to think we've made gigantic strides in the right direction.
A new report released Wednesday by the non-profit Communities in Schools, however, indicates the nation still has a long way to go before it can truly say all children have equal access to education. More to the point, CIS indicates there's still a lot to learn in terms of the larger issue at hand.
The CIS report challenges the takeaways from last month's 2014 Building a GradNation report. Released by Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center, America's Promise Alliance, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, the GradNation report spotlighted strides made in the U.S. graduation rate, which is reportedly at an all-time high of 80%. Though the gains gave the nation an opportunity to pat itself on the back, CIS argues that there is still a disconnect when it comes to minority students.
“Even though 80 percent of students in the U.S. are graduating, that still leaves more than one million students – disproportionately poor African American and Hispanic – with no cap, no gown and no opportunity," CIS President Daniel Cardinali said in the report. "Poor children often lack a variety of non-academic supports that their more affluent peers take for granted, such as eyeglasses, medical care, food, clothing, shelter or even a caring adult in their lives, making it nearly impossible for them to focus on the academic subjects required for graduation.”
And this lack of non-academic needs is exactly what CIS focuses on. For the past 35 years, the non-profit has offered wraparound services beyond traditional academic supports in an attempt to lower dropout incidents and increase graduation rates.
With that in mind, the Communities in Schools report highlights some unexpected reasons why students drop out of school — reasons that go beyond the common assumption that the material is too difficult or students are bored. Flipping the script, CIS emphasizes five areas where persistent inequality has shifted the playing field.
1. Students are hungry. Hungry children can't focus on school, extracurriculars, or their future, CIS says. According to the National Center for Education Statistics and School Nutrition Association, in the 2012-13 school year, 19,700,000 U.S. students received free or reduced lunch. While the program provides lunches, and sometimes breakfasts, CIS argues that a student's lunch on Friday may be their last full, balanced meal before school again on Monday. This lack of consistent nutrition can have detrimental effects not just on a child's health, but on their ability to concentrate in school.
2. Students are limited by poor eyesight. It's often assumed that students are able to see the blackboard or the letters in a textbook, and that if a child has poor eyesight, the solution can be easily remedied through a trip to an ophthalmologist. However, this is not the case for all. Trips to the eye doctor are a luxury that not all families can afford. When a student struggles to see, they struggle to succeed academically, which can in turn lead to feelings of inadequacy that result in poor achievement and, ultimately, dropping out.
3. Students lack adequate clothing. Having proper-fitting, weather-appropriate clothing is a must for a child's health, well-being, and self-esteem. Unfortunately, not being able to afford these necessities is a reality for many students. Lacking such basics can wear on a child and, over time, affect their feelings of self-worth and what they believe to be possible.
4. Students are homeless. According to the American Institute for Research, over 1.6 million children (1 in 45) are homeless. CIS contends that if a child is worrying about where they will be sleeping at night and whether or not they will have shelter, chances are school may not seem as important or be a top priority at all.
5. Students don't have safe or reliable transportation. Walks through dangerous neighborhoods or a lack of transportation options can be a hindrance and deterrence when it comes to attending school.
Ultimately, the organization is arguing that leveling the academic playing field can not be the only concern when it comes to creating equality for all children. This focus on addressing underlying poverty is in line with the thinking of education historian Diane Ravitch, who argues the United States has a poverty crisis more than an education crisis.
"Our schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children's ability to learn. Children who have grown up in poverty need extra resources, including preschool and medical care," Ravitch wrote in her book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."
As the nation commemorates the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it is important to question whether everything possible is being done to ensure equality. And if not, are we looking in the right places?