In the movies, the hero is a reflection of the triumph of individual character over the challenge of circumstances. As a society, we have internalized our love for this theme so much that we look for it in our everyday lives by ascribing this narrative to our personal and professional success. In embracing this idea, it is also easy to transpose the lack of will and character as individual flaws directly correlated with marginalized communities. 

There is a terrible risk in the misapplication of implicit theories of intelligence—such as “growth mindset” and “grit”—and overemphasizing that individual academic achievement can be solved through motivation and will. When these theories are misapplied to become the dominant narrative, we are more likely to overlook the problematic omission of equity in educational access. The history of systemic exclusion to equitable access to resources, opportunities, and services due to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and English language fluency gets put on the back burner as a passive consideration rather than the driving force for supporting our students to rise to their ambitions.

Data Dive

The connection between college and career access to educational support for Black and Latinx students is reflected in the data reported in the United States’ largest educational system in New York City. Civil rights data from the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) 2017 profile on the New York City public school system shows that Black and Latinx students, who make up 23 percent and 40.9 percent of all enrolled students, respectively, are less likely to be in gifted and talented programs, take AP exams, and be offered classes such as eighth-grade algebra, physics, calculus, and IB in comparison to their white and Asian counterparts. The New York City public school civil rights data also shows that, in some instances, white and Asian students are twice as likely to have access to these programs.

The appearance of Asian-identifying students having more access to college readiness programs than their Black and Latinx peers is further nuanced by socioeconomic differences among Asian families in cities such as New York. According to 2018 information from the New York City Council Data Team, 41.2 percent of Asian students are likely to attend schools where 75 percent of all students experience poverty. While Asian students make up the majority of the students in most of New York City’s specialized high schools, fewer than 50 percent of students attending specialized schools in general experience poverty, as stated in the New York City Council data.

Asian students living in closest proximity to poverty can lack access to the most rigorous academic high schools compared to other Asian students and families with greater socioeconomic capital. Ultimately, a student’s proximity to poverty is still one of the strongest indicators for how limited their options are in learning and postsecondary readiness; the closer they are to poverty, the fewer options they have in going to the schools with the necessary resources to lift them out of poverty, trapping them in cycles of limitations and unmet needs.

Taking a Broad View

When we look too closely at individual traits, the inequities of access embedded in our systems become harder to see. When we treat racial groups as monoliths, we also miss seeing the complexities that help us provide specific and individualized support to students with varying needs. As school leaders in charge of creating the conditions and pathway to postsecondary access, we must inquire about how the long-term and systemic decreased access to college and postsecondary preparation contributes to the achievement gaps we see in underserved and misrepresented communities.

While access to postsecondary and college readiness programs in schools is characterized by an underrepresentation of Black and Latinx students, involvement in disciplinary responses—including suspensions and expulsions—is disproportionately overrepresented by Black students. According to the ED’s 2017 Civil Rights Data, Black students in the New York City public school system make up 42.7 percent of in-school suspensions, 50.2 percent of out-of-school suspensions, and 54.5 percent of expulsions, while only representing 23 percent of all enrolled students. These disciplinary actions often remove students from their in-class instruction and make loss of education a consequence for a disciplinary code infraction. 

Fostering Equity

As education leaders, we must debunk the problematic double-standards of success and indicators for wellness in access, treatment, and outcomes. Here are several ways school leaders can take both the individual and the systemic lens to create the most equitable conditions for all students—but especially Black and Latinx students—to thrive in your school environment and progress toward their postsecondary and career goals. 

  • Identify and foster a community of parents, guardians, and adults who understand and practice unconditional positive regard with all your students. When your students know you care for them before they achieve anything, it helps them understand and internalize that your care for them is not conditional to whether—or how well—they achieve (or what they achieve). Additionally, unconditional positive affirmation of their existence and their identity gives your students a sense of safety that they can be fully themselves with you and be supported. Many studies have shown that unconditional positive regard in adult-youth relationships serves as an effective protective factor that mitigates other risk factors.
  • Hold every student—but especially Black and Latinx students—accountable to their own learning and post­secondary goals. Create the relationships and the environment of support where students are held to high expectations and where they are also highly supported. As an extension to unconditional positive regard, this means that you need to support students and challenge them at the same time. Faculty and administrators must move away from using good grades as a proxy for success or overall wellness. When your Black and Latinx students make a mistake or fail, you should meet them with accountability and the encouragement to reflect, grow, and learn instead of outsized and disproportionate disciplinary action. Punishment will more likely deter students from trying again or inadvertently nudge them to aim lower than their potential to avoid disappointment and punitive consequences. 
  • Fortify the connection between wellness and learning. Students need to have physical, emotional, and psychological safety in place to be fully engaged learners. As school leaders, you have the power and authority to fortify this connection by ensuring the physical condition of your school, the school culture that you nurture, the nutritious meals they eat, and the faculty and staff you hire to teach all contribute to every student’s safety. To ensure that every student gets access to build wellness into their lives, make your wellness supports accessible to every student through a designated class or period during the school day. Avoid feeding the narrative that only struggling students need to access counseling or wellness supports. Normalize wellness for every student at your school.
  • Build your students’ critical consciousness of other external and societal factors that make their achievement specifically and extraordinarily difficult. When students are provided the historical context for why they have less equitable access to resources and opportunities due to the history of racial injustice in this country, it helps them separate their individual accountability from deep societal inequalities. This type of consciousness does not provide an excuse for mistakes and failures. Conversely, it helps students differentiate their personal contributions to successes and failures from the conditions that prevent them from succeeding at all. This critical consciousness affirms their lived experience and holds them accountable to their own goals without overstating the role of their individual character and aptitude.

To prepare historically underrepresented and underserved young people of color to thrive in postsecondary and career settings, school leaders must listen intently to them and center their voices while unconditionally affirming their identities and experiences. To nurture the next generation of self-determining young adults, schools must create the conditions for students of color, but especially Black and Latinx students, to set ambitious goals, to fail safely, to be held accountable for their actions without the fear of disproportionate punitive actions, and to be treated as whole learners with physical, psychological, and cultural needs.

Carl Jackman, LMSW, is assistant director of wellness support of The Opportunity Network in New York City. AiLun Ku is president and CEO of The Opportunity Network.