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Adjusting mindsets: The promise of New London students

A recent report released by the P-20 Regents Council of the Connecticut State Board of Education found that only 34 out of 119 graduating students from New London High School's class of 2004 had enrolled in a two- or four-year colleges. Of those, only 19 graduated. If that didn't cause you to blink twice, it should have.

Most concerning at the moment is that the dialogue around post-secondary options for New London students has changed. We've entered a stage where observers conclude that, because our students are not going to and finishing college, they must not want to go to college.

Instead of focusing on what the education system can do to address this problem, we've shifted the blame to students. If we aren't blaming students, we point our fingers at the proverbial excuse for urban education problems - poverty. Conversations are saturated with the notion that because children are poor, they must not want to go to college or they won't succeed in education until they are no longer poor.

Rhetoric runs rampant stating that given the socio-economic challenges New London students face in their lives, we can't expect them to have such aspirations. We automatically subscribe to the notion of deficiency before we mention one word about a student's strengths. Furthermore, the issue is compounded when we succumb to the idea that success in urban education is a mystery that has yet to be revealed in 2012.

But there is hope.

We can look outside New London to schools like Hartford's Capital Preparatory Magnet School, where 61 percent of the student body receives free or reduced price lunch, yet 100 percent of their students are moving on to four-year colleges and universities. Outside the walls of schools, organizations like College Visions in Providence are helping first-generation and low-income students graduate college at a rate of 70 percent. These programs show us we can be doing more for our students. They give us strategies and challenge us to do better. Most importantly, these examples illustrate that if we give our students the same access and opportunities afforded to their suburban counterparts, they can achieve at the same level.

The purpose here is not about highlighting specific programs; instead it is to adjust our perspective. It is about changing our mindsets when discussing education in New London and how we as a community can address the challenges our students face. In order to move our education system forward, we must reject the notion that poverty defines the direction of our students.

While it is important to understand the impediments that poverty presents for school children, it cannot and must not be the broad-brush excuse as to why our students are not achieving, both in K-12 and post-secondary outcomes.

If we know strategies are working to help students go to and graduate from college from just these two examples, there must be best practices that can be applied to other areas in our education system. But primarily, we must start by adjusting our mindsets about the aspirations and potential of low-income students - they have the desire and ability to succeed at high levels, no question.

If we continue to submit that poverty is the unconquerable opponent in urban education, then we should lock up all the schools and send everyone home. That, in essence, is the message we are shouting when we use poverty as the scapegoat. Instead, let's challenge this tired excuse and genuinely believe that our students can succeed regardless of their socio-economic background - it can make all the difference.

Chris Soto is the founder and director of New London's College Access Program.

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