Your finish line and mine

June 20, 2020

As+part+of+the+Student+Diversity+Initiative+at+Jefferson%2C+Kaur+%28left%29+poses+for+a+club+photo.+

As part of the Student Diversity Initiative at Jefferson, Kaur (left) poses for a club photo.

I once told a friend that I’m on free lunch and she burst out laughing and asked me why. We go to a school where less than 2% of the students receive free or reduced lunch. 

As a kid, my family moved a lot. My dad was out of the picture for several years and my mom worked long hours. I was a shy kid and not exactly a star at school. It was hard for me to pay attention to what we were learning. My parents didn’t know anything about the school system or how it worked. I was so jealous of all the kids who said their parents helped them with their homework. I hadn’t even known that parents could do that. 

Of course, I didn’t get into the Advanced Academic Program (AAP). I was very confused about the whole thing, but I figured that I just wasn’t all that smart. I was okay with that, because I viewed my General Education (Gen-Ed) instruction as very, very good. I’d heard somewhere that Fairfax County was super rich, so I figured that my education was top-notch. 

Imagine my surprise when I came to Jefferson and heard about my new classmates’ middle schools. Some talked about having two Jefferson information sessions. I thought my school was filled with clubs, but these kids seemed to have had more than 50 to pick from. They were all prepared and seemed to pick up what we were learning right off the bat. When I asked them how they learned so quickly, they gave me confused expressions. “Didn’t you learn this in middle school?” they’d say. 

I told them how in my classes, I saw a kid throw another kid headfirst into a trashcan, and how the most advanced we’d gotten in classroom instruction was fill-in-the-blank worksheets. To my surprise, their mouths fell open. I had expected them to reciprocate with stories of their own classes, but instead, I was met with the realization that my education was not, in fact, top-notch. 

As a low-income student, Kaur often feels that her chances for success at Jefferson are much lower than her peers.

The surprise didn’t really begin at Jefferson, though. The day before the eighth grade science Standards of Learning (SOL) exam, I sat in on the AAP science teacher’s review session. That was the best day of school I’d ever had. I learned so much and it was so easy to pay attention and stay interested, because of how much more I was being challenged. But it was a bittersweet day, because at the same time, I was shocked at how much more in-depth and effective AAP instruction was. I couldn’t believe what I had missed out on. I was supposedly smart enough to attend Jefferson, so shouldn’t I have been smart enough to receive AAP instruction? 

Fairfax County is indeed very rich, with its $3 billion budget, but the bulk of that money goes to schools with few low-income students. I learned this in middle school, when I asked one of my teachers why we were so obsessed with SOL exams. She’d spent so much instruction time emphasizing Virginia’s SOLs. And she wasn’t the only one. All of the schools that I’d attended before made an equally big deal of the SOL exams. My teacher told me that schools with higher SOL scores receive more funding. I was flabbergasted to hear this. Shouldn’t it be the other way around, since lower-income students tend to perform worse on standardized testing than their higher-income counterparts? Shouldn’t those with lower test scores have more access to resources? I guess having students falling behind is okay, because the test scores of the richer kids could save face. 

A program that tests the intelligence of students in elementary school will not select the brightest students, but rather, the most privileged. It’s no surprise that students who are Black, Hispanic, learning English, on free/reduced price lunch, or disabled are underrepresented in the program. Essentially, anyone who isn’t adequately privileged doesn’t stand a chance. 

During Jefferson application season, the AAP kids were very surprised that I was applying. They told me how they were much more likely to get in. I’ll admit that it made me quite smugly happy when those same kids didn’t receive admission and I did. 

But I shouldn’t have been happy, because Jefferson has been somewhat of a nightmare. I thought that going to a school with so many opportunities would be one of the best things to happen to me, but Jefferson only widens the gap between low-income and wealthier students. I once asked my friend how she’d taught herself to code so well and she told me her parents had placed her in several summer prep courses focusing on Java and Python. I put in twice the effort only to get half the results that other people get, simply because I have less money.  

Many students are able to complete prestigious internships at places like the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I remember scouring the spreadsheet with the list of summer opportunities and being so confused. How do people get their parents to drive them all the way to DC or Maryland every day? And then, as I glanced at the cost column, stunned to see numbers in the thousands, I realized that their parents probably bought them cars. 

Another day, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, I saw posts about a program that allowed students to do volunteer work in Peru. I clicked on the link and immediately closed the tab once I saw the price tag. Jefferson makes getting into college especially harder for low-income students. You are competing against students whose resumes are vastly more padded than yours, when the largest difference between you and them is money. 

I once mentioned how badly I needed to find a job, and when my friend asked me why, I remembered all the times I’d been laughed at for being poor and kept my mouth shut. I do a lot of STEM outreach programs, and when the kids tell me that Jefferson just doesn’t seem like the place for them, I think about moments like that. And that’s because they’re right to feel that way. I had no idea how demoralizing Jefferson would be to low-income students, and as a low-income student myself, I can’t honestly recommend attending this school if you come from a low-income family. 

Jefferson made me feel like I didn’t have a right to my own heritage, because all the Indian kids I know have parents with degrees from top colleges that push them towards the same level of success. My parents are the exact opposite – they don’t have college degrees, their careers are in retail, and the only thing they want for me is to not “get kicked from store to store like [they] did.”

This is the mindset that low-income students develop – why try if it won’t get me anywhere?”

— Gurleen Kaur

The most important thing I want you to take away from this is that the finish line is a thousand miles farther for low-income students. I was the only FCPS applicant that wasn’t in AAP that was offered admission for my class. When taking a look at the linked spreadsheet, you can see that only one student who wasn’t part of AAP, during my admission year, was offered admission to Jefferson. As a low-income and Gen-Ed applicant, I had an education nowhere near that of most other applicants and had to scramble to find resources. There was so much more I had to learn and figure out. My belief in myself was nonexistent because nobody thought I would receive admission, and adjusting to Jefferson was much harder for me. It’s not fair that I had to work so hard while others didn’t, and I wish I hadn’t. Jefferson destroyed my already lacking confidence and identity. 

This is the mindset that low-income students develop – why try if it won’t get me anywhere?

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