A few weeks ago, two of my friends and I decided to skip class. (Sorry mom!) After all, our teacher hadn’t prepared a lecture or any assignments to complete that day, we’re seniors, and we really wanted milkshakes. As we walked down the stairs to the parking lot, one of the security guards yelled at a girl standing by the vending machine to get back to class, while the three of us casually walked past him. As soon as we left the building, one of my friends said, “This is so fucked up. We’re literally the ones skipping class, and he doesn’t say anything to us.”
I go to a magnet school in Austin. We share our campus with a low-income public school, so the building is home to two separate schools. Austin has an extremely racist history, which includes severe segregation and red-lining, and my school still reflects this: every day, hundreds of mostly white kids drive to the other side of town to go to the magnet school in a mostly Black and Hispanic neighborhood. Over 90 percent of the students that attend the magnet school live in high-income areas (and Austin is already one of the most expensive places to live in America). Our rival high schools’ favorite “joke” is that the magnet and public school are still segregated. It honestly isn’t that much of a reach to call the school segregated; the magnet students have separate classes on the top floor, while the public school students’ classes are downstairs. We’re separated by an actual floor.
The girl I mentioned earlier by the vending machine was Black. Yet, my friends and I, who are white or white-passing (I’m biracial but pass as white) and were quite clearly committing the more severe offense, got off completely unscathed. The security guard did not see the situation; he only saw the skin color.
It’s clear that I benefit from the situation at the school. The disparity is painfully evident. I have multiple academic counselors assigned to me, free test prep, teachers with advanced degrees; you name it. Everything in the education system is designed to positively benefit students like me, who are fortunate to grow up in high-income areas with abundant resources. The same privilege is not given to the low-income students of color that I share the very same building with every day.
I worked with a student at a low-income elementary school and, after spending a year with my student, I was a bit heartbroken. He’ll be in third grade, and he can’t read anything except his own name. By contrast, I could read relatively fluently by the time I entered kindergarten. All of the cards had been stacked against him to access a great education. Based on what he shared with me, his parents both didn’t have a lot of money, were separated, and didn’t speak English. Language skills, like reading and writing, are most crucial to learn before first or second grade, and successful intervention after this period is pretty difficult to achieve. This is unfortunately the story for many kids that don’t grow up with access to resources. This results in huge gaps in education between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. In my own life, within the struggle between the two schools, this issue is amplified. The students in my magnet school are admitted by application, and a student that hasn’t been given access to an advanced education can't be a competitive applicant. So how are these students supposed to catch up when, at every point of their education, they are left even further behind?
Nearly every system in place in the United States has been influenced by privilege and prejudice, especially in my city. Austin has an ugly gentrification habit. Nearly every area that had once been culturally thriving and diverse is now being flooded with, well, rich white people. This was also the genesis for how a wealthy magnet school wormed its way into sharing a building with a low-income public school. My graduating class, the class of 2020, will be one of the last before my school moves campuses. Our school district decided that our school will move to and gentrify yet another area in the Eastside of Austin, the poorest area of the city. It's truly unfair that privileged students like me continue to take space from less privileged students.
I cannot say that I have a clear solution. Racism is a problem that runs deeply through the veins of this country. This situation can be traced back to discriminatory rules that were put in place to systematically disadvantage those who are not white. Because the disparities between high income and low income people and white and non-white people are so ingrained in our society, dismantling them is going to take fundamental change.
It's easy for me to sit here and write over and over again how unfair this is, or even just to use it as a reminder to be grateful for what I’ve been given. It’s even easier for me to do absolutely nothing, since I’m not the one who loses in this situation. But this is not a case study in gratitude. I know that it’s my obligation to pursue justice. Every day, I’m uncomfortable with how my privilege advantages me; I can use that discomfort productively. What I know now, undeniably, is that I need to be doing more. I believe that education is a right for every person on this earth, and it’s not something that should be determined by race or how much money a child’s family makes. Because of my family’s situation and everything that I had access to growing up, the message to me was clear: my circumstances will never hinder my education. It’s overwhelming to imagine the possibilities for this world if every child could be told this.
Today, education equates to abundant freedom and opportunity. If tikkun olam is something that we believe in fully, every second of every day and in every aspect of our lives, then our work will not be complete until every student is empowered with an equitable education. The world is littered with injustice and tragedy, but slowly, we can begin to repair it.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Pollack, Maddy. "Magnet School." 23 December 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 10, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/magnet-school>.