Harrison Peters is superintendent of the Providence Public Schools and a member of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit, bipartisan network of diverse state and district education chiefs.
More than six months into the nation’s response to COVID, we can all recognize that we are living in unprecedented times. However, a belief that the challenges and gaps we’ve seen exposed in America’s public schools were caused exclusively by the coronavirus pandemic ignores the lived reality of Black, Latinx and immigrant students.
Across the United States, students of color have to navigate a completely different system than white students, but they’ve never been given a pass. Structural racism has left them with a system that expects less from them than their white classmates. This unconscious bias results in lower graduation rates, more suspensions and a less likely pathway to college. That performance gap is compounded by other pandemics of inequity in health care, wealth, housing, transportation and access to basic infrastructure like broadband internet.
When I first arrived in Providence in early February, COVID wasn’t the focus of every conversation and I knew even then that equity and access needed to be my top priority to rebuild a school district that had earned national headlines for failing low-income students of color for decades.
During those first couple of weeks while getting to know the district, I was drawn to one particular student’s story. Genesis Lugo immigrated to Rhode Island in seventh grade and faced significant institutional barriers that have become too familiar for too many students. Still, she set her goals beyond the immediate need to learn and understand a new language and culture. She set out to address the pandemic of inequity head on. Ultimately, she graduated as the valedictorian of Central High School, the city’s largest high school — a school where 94% of students are students of color, 37% are multilingual learners and 86% receive free or reduced-price lunch.
The Providence Public Schools didn’t give Genesis a pass. She defined her own path to succeed and exceeded the system’s expectations of her. Too often we hold students like Genesis up as inspirations, but we fail to see that their success comes in spite of, not because of, the structures that were built around them.
Education is a path to a better future, but an individual education on its own is not a guaranteed ticket to justice. Like Genesis, the trajectory of my life changed dramatically because of the opportunities I had in the classroom. Those opportunities often come to folks who look like me because someone takes an extraordinary interest in helping us individually. That kindness and generosity makes a difference for one person and one family, but it does little — if anything — to address systemic challenges. Celebrating individual acts of kindness whitewashes decades of failure that have allowed institutional racism to metastasize in our schools.
No one is going to get a pass in life because they grew up during a pandemic or they grew up poor. Nor should they.
That doesn’t mean our standards should be used as an excuse to keep ignoring the inequitable structures that have been holding students back for far longer than we’ve been talking about and responding to coronavirus. We have to take action. We can commit to hiring more Black and Latinx teachers. We can promote more leaders of color so students can see themselves at the front of the room. Congress can put partisan differences aside and pass a meaningful and impactful COVID relief bill that includes real funding for infrastructure that expands access to broadband and devices so no child’s future is lost during remote learning.
As hard as it can be to be optimistic in this moment, I have hope that education is the one institution that can fix what’s broken in our nation, but only if we confront, address and eradicate the pandemics of inequity within that institution.