School & District Management Opinion

Obama’s Free Community College Plan, Is It Enough?

By Starr Sackstein — January 16, 2015 3 min read
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Education should not be something willing candidates should have to pay for.

So much inequity already exists on the primary and secondary levels based on geography and socieconomics that it’s about time something gave on the post-secondary front.

President Obama’s proposal to offer free community college or technical training to everyone is a tremendous step in the right direction providing many capable people with new opportunities, but does it go far enough?

In many countries education is free and equal for everyone. Teachers are revered and learning is a basic human right in places like New Zealand. This is not the case in the United States.

Too often, the least experienced teachers are placed in high needs schools and resources aren’t allocated appropriately.

Conversely, the best resources go to the privileged few who have the money to live in high income neighborhoods, as is the case in New York where I grew up and work.

As a student, I was fortunate enough to grow up in the Five Towns on Long Island. Tree lined streets. Resources and high competition for the best schools in the nation. Sheltered from the realities of even neighboring communities, I took for granted that schools were not created equally.

It wasn’t until my first teaching job in the inner city, only a few miles from where I grew up where I truly experienced the inequities.

Driving into Far Rockaway, most of my friends and family were concerned about my safety, but I assured them that I was okay. The school was largely underfunded with minimal programs that kept kids engaged in learning. In the three years I was there, we were put on and taken off the impact list (one of NYC’s 12 most violent schools) and put on the SURR list.

Coping with the realities of my students’ lives was challenging for me because I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I felt guilty about the fact that I grew up so close by and had so much more than them.

Once the school went SURR, we were expected to teach scripted lessons which didn’t do the students any service. So I was forced literally into greener pastures, getting a job in another affluent district on Long Island.

The politics of this new school were very different. Despite more money and resources, the school was not a good fit for me. It often saddened me, however, that the students at the second school had so much more than the kids who went to my first and barely survived.

Back in the city now, but in Queens, somewhere in the socieconomic middle of the two other teaching experiences, my school attracts kids from all over the city. Because NYC is more flexible with where kids can attend, there are some more advantages than just being in a zoned school.

But we still face many challenges. Money makes it impossible for us to be fully staffed. So my class sizes are large and I teach many preps. I work hard to give every student what he or she needs and provide all of them with a worthy education that prepares them for college if that is their desired path.

This new free community college opportunity may very well make college a real possibility for some who may not have otherwise considered it. Opening new doors for possible future growth as well. But it doesn’t address the broken earlier public education system that already doesn’t do justice to people in need.

Still I worry about what happens to the kids who want to go farther, but are stunted by the realities of their economic situations. Craving the opportunity to give each of these kids more because they deserve it, just like the kids on Long Island and everywhere else.

Free community college is a start and I hope it happens, but it isn’t enough. How can level the playing field more for all capable candidates? Please share your thoughts.

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