First Person

Our star student was honored by Michelle Obama, but he felt like a fraud. Now, we’re rethinking everything

PHOTO: Generation Citizen

On a Monday in January 2015, we were thrilled to find out that Anthony Mendez would be First Lady Michelle Obama’s personal guest at the State of the Union address.

Anthony had been a star student with Generation Citizen, the nonprofit where we serve as the CEO and a board member. The news felt like validation that our program worked — it had propelled a young person from not caring about politics to being a political star. Anthony was about to show its power to the entire country.

But the reality differed from the narrative. We didn’t know it then, but Anthony was actually about to drop out of college. He spent his moment in the sun feeling like a fraud — an experience he recently detailed in a powerful piece published on Vox.

We’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the ways we used Anthony’s success to our own benefit. We’ve also spent time thinking about Anthony’s own feelings of shame at not being able to cut it in college, despite years of hard work.

We recognize now that our own glamorization of Anthony’s story demonstrates something subtle and dangerous: our collective tendency to elevate exceptions to the results of inequality in our society. This is a call for others in positions of power to question how we tell those stories.

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Generation Citizen is an organization that works to make politics real for young people. Over the course of a semester, students in New York and elsewhere choose local issues they care about and take real action. They present issues to community leaders. They ask local council members to push legislation for body cameras to curb police brutality, advocate for increased funding for teen jobs, and talk fluently about the school-to-prison pipeline. Our goal is for young people to recognize their own voices by using them to make a difference in their own communities.

We work with thousands of students each year, but Anthony, who is from the Bronx, was a stand-out. After his semester with Generation Citizen ended, he traveled to Albany to lobby for a bill we were pushing, received one of our fellowships, and interned with a City Council member. Before long, he became the face of our program. He was charismatic and articulate, and his passion for politics as a young person embodied everything we believed in.

As soon we found out that he would be at the State of the Union, the organization sprang into action. We sent an alert to let all of our supporters know that Anthony was the First Lady’s guest, and sent press releases to reporters touting Anthony’s experience as an example of Generation Citizen’s impact.

That night, our team watched President Obama’s address. As the cameras panned to the First Lady, we saw Anthony sitting directly to Michelle Obama’s right. The smile we knew so well was beaming at millions of American households across the country. He was a star — our star.

Anthony called us that night, thanking us for the opportunity and telling us how excited he was. “I’m going to be back here one day,” he said. We didn’t doubt it.

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Anthony Mendez, left, appears with First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union in 2015.
PHOTO: The White House / YouTube
Anthony Mendez, left, appears with First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union in 2015.

Over the next few months, Anthony’s story became Generation Citizen’s story. We used him in our materials we sent to our biggest donors. He was the keynote speaker at our Civics Day, regaling other students with stories of meeting the president and walking through the West Wing. And Anthony, by all outside appearances, continued to prosper. He started school at Hartford College and visited the White House again to talk about “beating the odds.”

In August, Anthony came back to visit us. But he wasn’t there to celebrate his latest success.

It turned out that, in a story all too familiar for first-generation college students, Anthony had been struggling mightily. He was not adjusting to college life and not receiving adequate mentorship. He’d almost failed out of college his first semester. In fact, on the night of the State of the Union address, his grade point average was 0.8.

He told us that, two days before the invitation to the State of the Union, he had been crying on the phone with his mom, thinking he would have to drop out of college. He prayed that night. And when the White House called with an invitation to the President’s address, he thought it might have been an actual response from God.

Hartford had no warning that one of their students would be a guest of the First Lady, and officials were further baffled when they checked Anthony’s academic record. When he returned from the nation’s capital, Hartford’s leaders, including the president of the college, met with him to provide support. Because of his academic standing, he technically should not have been invited back for the second semester.

Just like everyone who meets Anthony, though, the entire administration was taken by his charm and his efforts to engage with his studies. They loved him, and did everything they could to help him succeed. They boosted his financial aid. They provided tutoring. But nothing worked. His GPA continued to falter, and Hartford eventually asked him to leave.

How do we reconcile the fact that Anthony was our organizational success with the reality that he ended up feeling like a failure?

And what does it mean that we propped him up and essentially exploited him — as so many nonprofits do with the individuals, mostly poor and people of color, who go through their programs?

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Most of us enjoy a real-life Horatio Alger story in which someone, especially a young person, rises above the direst of circumstances to assume a position of fame or wealth. Such stories affirm the idea that hard work and a strong will are sufficient to overcome otherwise insurmountable obstacles, including centuries-old systems of oppression.

They also give life to the seductive myth that those who have not risen above their circumstances have only themselves to blame. The rags-to-riches story makes invisible the power of privilege and the devastation of systemic oppression.

Even well-meaning defenders of a democratic and inclusive society are susceptible to the appeal of a story of a nearly impossible triumph over great odds. They are drawn to the notion that a moment of stardom, or a powerful single act directed at a young person born into discrimination and oppression, is sufficient to set her or him on a path of triumph.

Remember, for those who labor to mitigate the effects of poverty and injustice in the lives of the nation’s youth, the rewards are few. And so when it seems a victory has occurred, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to crown a new superhero — without realizing that could give new life to a myth of rugged individualism that makes young men and women of color believe they alone are responsible for their perceived failures.

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Anthony’s story contains some of these familiar themes.

On the surface, his State of the Union invitation appeared to be the opportunity of a lifetime for a young Latino man who grew up in poverty in New York City. Anthony had “made it.” In reality, the limelight thrust upon him, and the responsibility to represent the elevation of young people like him, was premature.

It is important to keep in mind what identities Anthony did and did not bring with him to the State of the Union Address. He did not enter it having accomplished an outstanding feat like Malala Yousafzai, who understood the source of her oppressed status and courageously stood up against it, carving out an identity in the process. Anthony did not attend with the identity of a Muhammed Ali, who too had confronted his own oppression and forged his own identity as a black man in America through that struggle.

Anthony had worked hard. But he came to this major event primarily as a star-struck attendee, grateful to be invited. Anthony was there because someone else had determined that he symbolized hope for a more inclusive and democratic America.

We must acknowledge that at its core, bestowing the status of superhero upon someone is in itself an act of oppression, denying him or her the opportunity to claim one’s own humanity through purposeful struggle. That status also means that, when Anthony did fail, it was perfectly logical for him to blame himself.

Anthony will always bear responsibility for his life and his decisions. But life has not been difficult for him because he was not smart or had not worked hard enough. His failing out of college was certainly not because of a lack of desire.

Students like Anthony do not realize that segregation and poverty mean that they have had grossly inequitable opportunities to learn. It’s heartbreaking to think that, as he sat next to the First Lady and worried about having to leave college and being “found out,” he blamed himself for systems in place long before he was born.

To be clear, the First Lady is not a villain in this story, and we don’t think Generation Citizen is either. We see now that our response wasn’t wrong, but it was premature, and perhaps naive. It came from the need to validate the hard work of building a democracy, brick by brick and youth by youth. Reflection by both parties may reveal that we may have needed to raise Anthony to superhero status to validate our work more than Anthony needed this experience.

His story has made us ask important questions. How can we tell the story of Generation Citizen with integrity while still proving that the program works and attracting resources? What does success for us, and our students, actually look like?

For now, we hope that Anthony’s life story is one of success — of his own definition. Our job is to try to tell Anthony’s story with all the dignity and veracity that it deserves. We have not done so yet.

First Person

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.