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Creating Equity in the ‘Land of Opportunity’

According to a fascinating new article in the Atlantic Monthly, San Jose used to be a launching pad for the American dream, a place where immigrant families gathered, drawn by affordable houses and abundant economic opportunity, and worked together to help their children succeed. The article cites a landmark study released in 2014 by the economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Harvard University and University of California – Berkeley, which showed that “a child born in the early 1980s into a low-income family in San Jose had a 12.9 percent chance of becoming a high earner as an adult” which gave those children a better shot at prosperity than their parents, and put the city’s children in a better position than even those from progressive cities like Boston and on par with affluent countries like Denmark and Canada.

However, the article goes on to share what so many of us already know: San Jose’s low-income families today are in a rougher spot. This is due to trends that affect so much of our country, including sharp increases in the cost of living, particularly housing, and stark income inequality that widens the gulf between the affluent and the poor. As the article puts it, “San Jose used to have a happy mix of a number of factors – cheap housing, proximity to a burgeoning industry, tightly-knit immigrant communities – that together opened up the possibility of prosperity for even its poorest residents. But in recent years, housing prices have skyrocketed, the region’s rich and poor have segregated, and middle-class jobs have disappeared. Given this, the future for the region’s poor doesn’t look nearly as bright as it once did.”

I’d like to think we’re flipping the script here, by zeroing in on a piece of the puzzle that The Atlantic considers for only a single paragraph: the quality of educational opportunity. It cites fewer children from low-income families enrolled in preschool, and the disparity in spending between the region’s wealthiest district and its poorest. “The pathway from one to the other is not as neat as it was in an earlier era,” UCLA sociology professor and author Manuel Pastor tells the magazine. “Now, people wind up being boxed into poorer neighborhoods and poorer school districts.”

For the past 15 years, I have been an educator in San Jose’s low-income communities. I have seen the pathways out of poverty narrow. But I have also seen exceptions to this alarming trend. In the past few years, several of my first graders from so long ago have moved on to four-year universities. These students are a testament to the transformative power of an excellent education.

At Rocketship, we have been working alongside other community organizations, parents, districts, and charter schools to create an entire ecosystem of quality, public schools in San Jose. Over the last seven years, the tide has shifted here toward putting more of our low-income children and English language learners on the path toward a better future. Thanks to the efforts of local educators and community organizations like People Acting in Community Together (PACT), the number of charter schools serving San Jose families has more than doubled since 2009, with 38 new charter schools opening in those seven years for a total of 67 charter schools here today. Together, these schools are propelling more than 30,000 students toward a high school diploma and a college degree that will open up doors to solid jobs and rewarding careers. (The California Charter Schools Association estimates that over 5,000 more students are estimated to be on wait lists, hoping for a chance to enroll or waiting for more such schools to open.) Due to this ecosystem of choice and charter schools, we are seeing local districts like the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District continue to improve student achievement and others like Franklin-McKinley School District partner with charter schools in a commitment to improving college readiness for all our students. Moreover, English language learners and students in poverty are now realizing remarkably significant gains in both reading and math – the equivalent of more than a month of additional learning in both reading and math, according to a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University.

We expect that these initial results will continue to strengthen and extend over time, as increasingly well-prepared students make their way into our middle and high schools. The area’s business leaders are giving back to the community directly as well. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings just launched a new $100 million fund to support education in Silicon Valley. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan committing much of their wealth to education investments and technologies. Facebook has also donated engineering talent to local charter school developer Summit Public Schools for building out a sophisticated new “personalized learning platform” that is also being used for free by dozens of schools and districts, including Burnett Middle School in San Jose, through Summit’s Bootcamp program.

I am confident this will translate into many more high school graduations  for students who will be the first in their families to attend college and achieve their ambitions. I look forward to attending those celebrations every year for many years to come, as do all my fellow educators working across San Jose. Our collective work will help transform San Jose back into a city that can deliver the American dream to the children and families who most need that hope.

Preston co-founded Rocketship Education in San Jose in 2006. Prior to founding Rocketship, Preston was founder and Principal of L.U.C.H.A. Elementary School, part of the Alum Rock Unified School District in San Jose, CA. After its first three years of operation, L.U.C.H.A. was the fourth highest performing low-income elementary school in California. Preston began his career in education as a Teach for America (TFA) Corps member at Clyde Arbuckle Elementary School (CA). In 2003, Preston was named “Teacher of the Year” at Arbuckle and was also nominated as one of six finalists for TFA’s Sue Lehmann award, given to TFA corps members with the highest classroom academic gains in the nation. Preston is also an Aspen New Schools Fellow.

Follow Preston on Twitter: @prestondsmith 

Published on March 8, 2016