First Person

Diversity is more complicated for me than my teachers and peers realize

I am the only Mexican girl in my class.

I have been the only Mexican girl at school since 6th grade. I stand out in my largely-Dominican neighborhood and school, Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School. As my mostly white teachers try to bridge the cultural gap between students and teachers by using examples from Dominican culture in class, they have also widened a gap between me and my classmates.

Washington Heights, where I live, is predominantly a Dominican community, though in my daily life I also see some other kinds of Hispanics as well as Orthodox Jews. My school, WHEELS, is 97 percent Hispanic, and within that, about 95 percent are Dominican. 

Some people don’t realize that the category “Hispanic” includes people from various countries and backgrounds, and they assume that since my Dominican classmates and I are all Hispanic we must automatically be alike.

Growing up surrounded by Dominicans gave me insight into a different culture, but at school I feel like an outsider in a building full of people who understand each other because they shared a common background. I remember sometimes bringing in Mexican food for lunch and having to hear remarks about how weird it looked. Even the way I speak Spanish is different from the way they spoke, and my classmates sometimes make comments during Spanish class about how “Mexican” I sound.

The real world connections my teachers make in class always seem to connect to the Dominican Republic. As an expeditionary learning school, WHEELS has a very hands-on curriculum, driven by real world connections. In my opinion, the point of the hands-on curriculum is to try to involve all students in order to make sure we all understand what is going on. But instead of making me feel included, the examples my teachers give often make me feel left out and uncertain of my position in the classroom. It’s as if the teachers have classified their students as a certain group of people, and I am excluded from that category.

I remember feeling hopeful each year when Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday, rolled around. I thought one of my teachers might mention the holiday so others could learn something about my beautiful culture. They never did, and I felt so disappointed walking home after school. I just wanted others to learn a little more about me and my culture instead of me always learning about theirs.

For example, when we were learning about black heritage in U.S history class, my teacher, who is of Dominican descent, talked about his grandmother’s complicated relationship with the label “African-American.” Most of the students understood what he meant, but I did not and am still confused and don’t feel like I learned from the example. What frustrated me wasn’t the example itself, but the assumption that everyone in the class would understand it because of our heritage. 

I’m a very active student in the classroom, so I think the teachers recognize that I’m there and that the examples didn’t include me. But since most of my classmates are Dominican, I think my teachers chose to use examples that would help the majority of their students better understand the material.

I love my school, but I wish it were more diverse.

Some people don’t consider diversity in school an important issue. For example, when I told one of my Dominican classmates that I was writing about diversity, she replied “‘Why? That’s not really a big deal to me.’” She might not see it, but I think more diversity in schools–both in terms of the examples teachers give, and the makeup of the student body — would help all students, not only students like me who feel like the odd ones out.

When I use the word diversity, I mean not only the broad categories of black, white, Hispanic, and Asian, but also the many groups within each of those categories.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2043 no single ethnic group will make up a majority in the United States. America is becoming a more diverse society, and all schools–public, private, and charter, should be safe and encouraging environments where students can learn to work with people from diverse backgrounds. That would make us feel more connected to our classmates and prepare us for real-life situations.

I think teachers should consider all students when choosing what examples to share with the class. Real-world examples can help us understand the material, but teachers should make sure all students’ cultures are represented. One way teachers could do this is by encouraging students to make and share their own connections between their cultures, the world around them, and what they’re learning in school. That’s the kind of change that would have transformed my experience as a student and helped all of my classmates learn more as well.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.