Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
William is a 7th grader who attends a suburban middle school. His school has well-equipped classrooms staffed by certified teachers. Every child has the appropriate textbooks and school supplies. The majority of the children at this school work at or above grade level; they scored well above the state average on standardized tests. Plenty of extra help is available for those who need it. The school received an 8/10 rating on the education.com site and a B on the OK state school report card. William is hoping for a basketball scholarship to OU or maybe an out of state college. It’s likely that William will graduate high school, like 95 percent of the students who attend his school (10 percent higher than the state’s average).
“Sure I’m going to college. Almost everybody here is planning to go to college,” William reports.
William’s cousin Christina lives about a mile away – just far enough to be in a different school district. The school building looks nice but some students share textbooks because there aren’t enough to go around. In Tina’s school only 61 percent of students scored at grade level on standardized tests (the state average is 75 percent). There are few supplies in the cupboards. An armed police officer is on permanent duty in the school. Kids who run afoul of the rules are often taken out of the building in handcuffs. Teachers ask Facebook friends for assistance in purchasing books for English class, supplies for the chess club, or awards for dedicated students. Tina’s school has a rating of 2/10 from education.com and an F in Oklahoma’s state ranking system.
Tina plans to finish high school, which distinguishes her from the 34 percent of her classmates who will not graduate. Even if she does graduate, the lack of advanced placement and higher-level courses will place her at a disadvantage compared to students from better performing schools. Christina and her fellow students receive little help in planning for or getting admitted to college. Fewer still are academically ready for college. Many require remedial classes at a 2-year college before they can begin to tackle the courses required for graduation.
William and Christina are members of the same family. Both sets of parents are strongly supportive of their kids’ educations. They live close to each other in similar neighborhoods, yet their educational experiences vary widely. Students at William’s school have a good chance of graduating from high school, going on to college and pursuing profitable careers. Christina’s classmates’ fate is likely to be somewhat different; a full 1/3 of students at her school fail to complete high school and only a handful of the graduates go on to a 4-year university. William lives in Edmond, an affluent suburb of Oklahoma City. Christina attends an Oklahoma City public school that serves some of the city’s poorest zip codes.
The disparities in educational opportunities between two public school students who live within a few miles of each other is striking.
The biggest single factors that decide what neighborhood (and therefore which school district) one lives in are race and income. Higher-priced real-estate is typically situated in better school districts. In fact, school ranking is a driver of real-estate costs. African Americans, Hispanics and indigenous people are more likely to be poor, and most poor people of color live in neighborhoods that are populated with people like themselves. Although racial segregation has declined statewide in the last decades, around half of African-Americans in Tulsa and OKC live in segregated neighborhoods.
In the words of Dr. David Grusky of Stanford University, “This is a country that commits to the principle that everyone, no matter how rich or poor their parents might be, should have the same opportunities to get ahead. … Opportunities are bought and sold on the market. That you have to buy a high-end fancy house in a fancy neighborhood to get access to great public schools… That’s not right. That’s not how this country was supposed to have been run. It is supposed to be that anyone could have opportunity.”
For these young Oklahomans and the other children of our state, the opportunities of the American Dream exist, but only if you live on the lucky side of an imaginary line.