Editor’s note: This guest essay is part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Read more columns by local students here.
In every city, there is always that high school. You know what I mean. The high school that doesn’t have great sports teams. The high school that doesn’t have a lot of money. The high school that just doesn’t get enough credit for its hard work.
At the beginning of my junior year, I transferred to Kent-Meridian High School, a school whose reputation initially made my parents shake their heads. Rumors about high dropout rates and disciplinary issues abounded. But the first day dispelled all my reservations. Students included me, smiling while making eye contact. People invited me into their friend group and made me feel like I belonged.
While, in my eyes, Kent isn’t an overtly racist city, I still see the effects of ethnic stereotypes. Psychologists Claude Steele, Steven Spencer and Joshua Aronson elucidated the phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” That term refers to when minority students develop anxiety about negative stereotypes related to their identity that ultimately decreases their performance. This leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. One example: Researchers reminded women of gender stereotypes before administering a difficult math test — and scores were significantly lower than when they weren’t reminded.
After over a year at my new school, I now clearly see the gap between reputation and reality. This difference led me to reflect on the fairness of community members’ opinions and assumptions about the school and its students. It gets slammed for below-state average test scores. But for its low-income students — who constituted 73.4% of the student body last year — English Language Arts scores were about 5 percentage points higher than those of their peers statewide.
Is it fair to judge a school’s ability to take standardized English tests when so many of its students are English learners? How can we criticize the dropout rate when many students work demanding jobs to provide for themselves and their families? Rather than writing off an entire group of people as failures, why don’t we focus on supporting them?
People in my community do not see what I see. My peers have dreams of becoming policemen and politicians, nurses and neuroscientists. They want to change the world for the better.
But sometimes those same students don’t have the confidence to pursue their passions. Terms like “ghetto,” just one of the negative labels thrown around in conversations about my school, suggest students have poor academics and behavior. The sad part about it is these phrases have been said so often, some students have started to believe them. It’s heartbreaking to see my classmates start to give up because they think they aren’t “smart” or “good” enough.
One major reason I think the community doesn’t give my school more credit is because there are so many minority students. That’s a big advantage of my school: Conversations with my friends naturally include different perspectives, helping me and others become more open-minded.
Stereotype threat doesn’t just apply to students; it can affect everyone. From women with math to the elderly with physical fitness, it reinforces a vicious cycle in which people can start believing their stereotype even if it isn’t true. The only way to combat stereotype threat is to encourage the opposite of what the stereotype is saying. Simple, right?
Kids at my school don’t always have that kind of support at home because their families may be too busy trying to put food on the table. That’s where the community can step in.
It must “care more about this school because it needs a little bit more love,” said Daniel Drake, Kent-Meridian’s Associated Student Body president. At my old school, it was easy to get. Theater productions filled the auditorium. Community members participated in assemblies. Adults whose kids no longer attended the school watched football games. Students had good reason to believe they could do anything because the community invested in them.
How can you help support students? It can be as easy as showing up. Attend a play or concert. Take a few hours out of your day to cheer on the sports team. And if you’re in Kent, come to my school and check out the phenomenal Multicultural Assembly, where you can see displays of ethnic traditions. When community members show they care, the students begin to emulate that care. They can graduate from high school with a can-do attitude. It’s on us to help students succeed.
Jordan Cahoon is a senior at Kent-Meridian High School who enjoys sharing her love of learning and curiosity with others. She is inspired by diversity and hopes to advocate for universal education. Even as an aspiring engineer, she finds it important to be tied to the community to hear the voices of those affected by science.