A Thing or Two: A Student’s Perspective of the American Educational System

Interested in educating and breaking down stigma within the public health community by communicating scientific ideas that urge for change, growth and empathy.

English felt like a foreign trespasser in my mouth. Its trail of new rhythms and words that felt rigid and unsettled in my throat made me desperate to improve. The weight of my accent lingered in my ears, and I remember the relentless pressure that pushed me to silently sound words with my tongue. I came to speak, taste, and feel the language twirl and seep through my voice. English was constantly battling for territory, conquering the land of my thoughts and memories, corrupting the past and censoring my knowledge of French. It made me lose sense of my origins, and years later, I would pursue opportunities to regain the first language that I’d fought so hard to lose.

The shame of my stumbling path to English proficiency originated in the educational system of the United States, and although I was provided the support and encouragement to excel at a language that my tongue was constantly rejecting, not speaking English formed a veil that divided me from my peers and teachers. I was in a self-made bubble of isolation in second grade, one in which French was the language of the nation, and English was but a riddle-filled mine. I didn’t understand instructions, basic rules, and social norms as none of those were translated to my understanding. I was shut out from an entire world of opportunity and communication due to my inability to speak the language. The United States makes it that you cannot learn nor grow without mastering the English language. The system forms an environment of hostility and lack of communication between non-English speaking students and native speaking students, creating lines of division that keep students united with people they find commonality with, and divided from those they don’t. It forms gaps of achievements and opportunities, and while most English-speaking students are placed onto a pedestal of possibilities, a large portion of non-English speaking students are instantly disadvantaged by a system that refuses to take them into account. School is an institution meant to empower and give entry to a realm of opportunity, permitting students of every race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and English proficiency to succeed, yet this sector of our educational system has failed us.

Students that do not speak English are not nearly as empowered or encouraged to pursue ambitious classes and extracurricular’s in comparison to their native-speaking peers. Instead, they are often placed in CP (college prep: standard level) courses when first entering high school, without the parents or students being consulted about the upper-level, more challenging classes available. They are not met with high expectations and not made to feel that they are entitled to a higher quality of education. The system has built this notion that intellect is derived from English mastery, when it simply isn’t so.

This growing disparity between students of lower incomes, non-native speakers and people of color, in comparison to students of privilege, is driven by the faults of the system, which unequally distributes opportunity to students of different circumstances:

ELL students in the state of Massachusetts have an overall graduation rate of 70.2% which is a great discrepancy from the overall graduation rate of the total students in Massachusetts at 89.4%,as of 2015, the state has demonstrated extreme success in terms of educational achievements overall. Senior Policy Analyst Colin Jones from the Massachusetts Budgetary Policy Center reveals that the state places at 12th for overall graduation rate in the country, but falls behind other states on ELL graduation, placing 28th.

ELL students are placed in segregated programs that cause for them to fall behind in other core academic subject that hinders their learning growth in comparison to native speaking students. The educational system of the United States needs to adjust to encompass the new image of diverse students that embody the American student population.

My parents too, experienced being students in the realm of the American world, they took on associate degrees at a community college (in the same concentration as they’d received their bachelors’ and multiple masters’ degrees in France) and night classes for ESL. We were left eating dinner at bus stops at night, all in the hopes that my parents would be further accepted into the job market of the United States and master the language that ruled it. They were in for a rude awakening, as they progressed on their education journey. As students, they felt the crossing line of rejection in the educational system of the United States, the feeling of resentment for not speaking English that stemmed from the system, and frustration with the slow process of acquisition. Their intellect and educational achievements were put into question and belittled in the hands of the United States; a nation unwilling to provide equal opportunities it boasts so openly.

Not speaking fluent English limited the available opportunities for me and my sister, creating a strain in communication between myself, my teachers and my peers. I remember seeking out ways to pursue the things that I enjoyed practicing at the time: drama and art. Yet, due to my restrictive circumstances at home: in which my parents worked long, arduous hours that deprived them of more than five hours of sleep, the opportunities were not made accessible. These conditions chained my sister and me at home, which was a burden felt most by my sister. My sister was driven by her love for sports, the restraints of not having a vehicle often left her having to walk in the dark from the long-distance of the school to our house. These silent circumstances that tailor to specific individuals and our person, human dilemmas must be addressed and acknowledged by the educational community of the United States. The educational system in America, has not yet learned to grow and welcome learners of different situations, but the system needs to change, it needs to know that bright and gifted students are among the groups of students that lack the privilege, and offer those students the ability to grow beyond the mastery of the English language.

Student representation at my school often does not depict the diversity and inclusivity that my school promotes. Our student body is composed of individuals of various circumstances of privilege and, yet our student representative positions are often filled and led by white peers in our school. Diversity is important, and initiatives should be taken in order to reflect the variety of students that my school represents. My school has built our pride and community based on the diversity of the students that encompass our student body. We hold clubs led by Latinx and black individuals that embrace and celebrate culture throughout our school, and although these clubs are successful at appreciating culture and forming an environment of acceptance, schools need to establish a way to empower non-English speaking students and students of color to hold representative positions as class or student-council officers or other leading positions that enable them to have a more widespread impact on their school community rather then letting students of privilege easily monopolize and dominate those opportunities.

The ability to have an impact on the school community isn’t exclusive to students. My school endured waves of instability throughout last year, facing unpredictable events that made our school community lose sync with each other. Experiencing the replacement of two principals in one school year, along with the replacement of a teacher was an oddly monumental moment in my life because, although the news coverage of the instability that occurred in my school painted an image of chaos throughout the school, I was able to see first hand, an image that was not depicted through the media: the strength of my teachers and the unity and impact that student voice and parental involvement can have in education.

My life has been driven and devoted to education; it is one of the most valuable assets I’ve obtained in life, to experience the beauty and complexity of learning is a privilege I am constantly thankful for having. My parents instilled in me this philosophy of the importance of school. Throughout my life, they illustrated their pathways of education and the power that education plays in one’s experience of the world, allowing for one to see beyond the films of their lives, to those of others; molecules and individuals, past and present, and I love nothing more than the service that education has provided me

Entering my freshman year of high school and witnessing the slow escalation of instability, was one that at first, I feared, watching an institution that was meant to educate me, spiral from its roots, startled me, but the experience unraveled the backbone of the Salem High community: teachers and students. The education that I received last year was of equal quality and worth as the one I’ve been offered throughout my life. My school persisted; the hardships, the anger, and sadness were all well represented throughout media, but what was not shown was how my school found a sense of community formed by the common thread of resilience. In fact, my school held together like a home, fought like a family, lost as we all do, but it persisted. I say, the educational system of the United States could learn a thing or two from us.