Access and Opportunity in Education: Why it Matters

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Access and Opportunity in Education:  Why it Matters

By Shileste Overton Morris, Director, Center for Schools and Communities

The expectation of the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education was that all students, regardless of race, culture or socio-economic status would have equal access and opportunity in educational settings. However, more than 60 years later, the reality of separate and unequal still exists in this country, especially in education.

Education has claimed to “level the playing field,” but what if you never get a chance to play on the field, or sit in the stands, or worse yet, never know that the game exists? This analogy highlights why access and opportunity in education matters. Across our nation, students of color and students from impoverished backgrounds never have access to the vast educational opportunities that other students do, primarily because of where they live. For example, key findings from the Civil Rights Data Collection reveal that out of 7,000 sampled school districts, 3,000 do not offer Algebra II classes to high school students and more than 7,300 high schools serving 2 million students do not offer Calculus courses, clearly leaving a wide berth in the opportunities available to make academic success a reality for many.

One particular story from a teacher stands out for me.  There were two students. One was from a family and a district that provided a variety of learning opportunities, both in and out of school. The other student was from a family who struggled daily with finances and meeting basic needs and a school district that was fiscally under-resourced and understaffed. After a summer break, both students were asked what they knew about the word “Apollo.” The well-resourced student raised her hand and told the class about her family trip to Greece where she learned about the Greek god, Apollo, and she remembered studying the spaceship, Apollo, from her school’s summer learning packet. The other student sat in silence with no context for understanding the word.  Her summer was spent caring for her younger siblings and watching TV.  This stark contrast illustrates how having or not having access and opportunities in education matters.

Equal educational opportunity and access require that all students, regardless of race, culture or socio-economic status, have opportunities to engage in diverse and varied learning opportunities.  These opportunities should exist both in and out of school to ensure successful academics, fulfilling careers and productive adult lives as citizens of a global society.  Why?  Because it matters!

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