We all know that all schools are not created equal when it comes to access to resources. But educational resources aren’t just about material or course offerings. Sometimes resources–and a lack thereof–have to do with attitude resources.
According to Business Insider, no girls in Mississippi, Montana, or Wyoming took the Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science exam in 2013. What’s equally damning is that out of 30,000 students who did take the test overall, only 20 percent were female.
“Of course the rural girls didn’t take the test,” I told my husband after reading the article. “They probably didn’t have the opportunity.”
We know that all schools are not created equal–it’s why when parents buy a home, they scrutinize the school district.1 But when thinking about the stark discrepancies I encountered between my rural high school and the suburban high school from which I eventually graduated, to say they were simply different due to location just skims the surface. People talk about school resources a lot, but the issues at my rural school went far beyond having enough art supplies or computers to go around. We didn’t have AP classes, but we also didn’t have things like Honors English. We just had…English. If you were in 11th grade, you took 11th grade English, regardless of your ability level. Not exactly a buffet of options.
But resources aren’t just materials or course offerings. Sometimes resources–and a lack thereof–have to do with attitude resources. In my case, not only did the school lack material/personnel resources a school would need to offer classes like AP or Honors English, but the culture of the school was different, too. For an example, I will now turn to an exchange between RVANews’s former weather expert, Dan Goff (AKA WxDan), and myself. As we chatted over Ye Olde Twitter about this very topic, particularly rural education and STEM, I bemoaned my rural school that happened to be located near a NASA flight facility.
- WxDan: Out of curiosity, how many field trips did you take to [NASA center] while in school there?
- Me: hahahaha zero.
My school might have been close to technology, but you never would’ve known it going there.
Of course, now my job title has the word “technology” in it,2 but when I was in high school, I wasn’t pushed in that direction. And to be honest, I think the lack of pushing is a problem that’s equal to the lack of access to competitive classes. I wasn’t pushed at all by my rural teachers. The only time I remember the NASA center being talked about was when 9/11 happened and some people worried it might become a target. The idea of any of us high school students at this rural school actually working for NASA someday didn’t ever come up as a topic of conversation in any of my classes. Ever. Nobody pushed us to even consider it as an option.
But putting aside the pushing technology thing, I wasn’t even pushed to excel in the traditional courses I was good at, like English. Maybe they didn’t talk to me about these things because at the time I was dressed all in black, kept my head down, and was mediocre in most of my classes. But I didn’t start out my academic life at that school sullen and depressed and not trying. At first I was eager, doing extra work, turning things in on time, but as time went by, I dragged my feet. None of my teachers3 seemed excited about their subject matter, I was desperately lonely,4 and at some point I stopped caring about anything that didn’t interest me directly. I excelled in English and got top scores in my school, won art awards…and bombed my chemistry SOL.
My school didn’t offer any AP English classes, but I ended up taking an exam at a local community college to qualify for the course–pushed by my parents, not anyone at school. I aced the exam, but my score only earned me a spot in the class. To actually take the class, I would have to be driven an hour each way to and from the nearest community college every day with the only other person who took the qualification exam.5 Would the school really have been willing to foot the bill for a bus to go all that way for two students daily?
Well, turns out I’ll never know because I got lucky. My family ended up moving to Midlothian my senior year of high school, so I got to take AP English is a real classroom with a real AP teacher, and all was well. I pulled myself together, went to college, and I now have a successful career in libraries and technology. Happy ending, right?
Well, the truth is, it isn’t that simple. Sure, if we hadn’t moved, I might’ve been screwed out of excelling at something I had going for me–a subject that at least made me want to push myself. But it’s not like the change of scenery was what did it; I was still lonely, still sullen when I arrived at my new, suburban high school. Luckily, however, I found myself with a teacher who pushed me to do what she knew I could do. She was excited about her subject matter. She knew I was capable. She knew I could do great things, and so…I did them. That’s how I got lucky. I didn’t simply get hit the jackpot by transferring to a school that had better STEM opportunities. I consider myself just as lucky to have been pushed. I could have easily transferring to that same school and stayed completely unmotivated, but I got the kick in pants I needed–enough to get me where I needed to be later in life.
Had we stayed at my old school, I don’t think my ending would have been happy. I don’t think my story is unique, either. All those girls who didn’t take the AP Computer Science test in those more rural states? I see myself in them. I see girls being left behind, maybe not being pushed, and not being given opportunities to do so. And if they do seek out and qualify for those opportunities, will anyone be willing to help them get there–literally and figuratively? Again, I don’t know. Maybe. But I worry that the option isn’t pushed. And if it’s not, all those happy endings are being squandered.
All of this is to say I think we take it for granted sometimes that students should take accelerated classes to get ahead when sometimes that’s never an option even thrown out there to them. When competing for college admissions, is it fair for a rural student who never had the option to take even one AP course to be pitted against those students who took nothing but? Extra curriculars can help, but it’s hardly an equal playing field out there. If we place so much importance on accelerated classes, shouldn’t everyone have a shot at them?
In a dream world, yes, but it’s not happening right now, and my little article certainly won’t change that. However, any school can push a student to try harder, any school can say, “You are capable of so much more than you are putting forth.” If that hour-long bus ride is out of the question, or if it’s two hours, or three…at least foster the push. I only took the one AP class in high school, and I did just fine. It was the push to try that I needed more than anything. Even without that AP course, I would have been well served because I was challenged, and my teachers expected better work from me.
Taking an AP English or Computer Science class may be a pipe dream to those who aren’t attending suburban schools where they’re ubiquitous. But if they don’t have the luxury of easy access to AP classes,6 is anybody out there telling them about possible careers in the metaphorical NASA stations near their homes? Is anybody saying, “Look, kid, you can’t take these classes here now, but study hard, and it’s within your reach.” Is anybody saying to that sullen teenager, “You are not doing what you’re capable of doing”?7
STEM classes, AP classes, those are important, and ought to be accessible to more students. But that push…that might be just as important. And judging by that statistic showcasing how few women even attempted that AP Computer Science exam, we clearly need some beefing up in that area in general.
Photo by: Orange42
- My husband and I didn’t have kids, but when Byrd Park was up for rezoning, you better believe we went to those town hall meetings. ↩
- Although that’s about to change, and for a good reason: I’m moving back to RVA with a new title! ↩
- Except the Spanish teacher. Bless her for trying to get us excited about the only language offered at the school. But I wanted German! ↩
- I spent my weekends sitting on the roof talking to my best friend 7 hours away on the phone, as one does. ↩
- Also a girl. ↩
- And it IS a luxury. ↩
- Yes, my parents said this like the wonderful broken records they were. But when you’re sullen and 16, you don’t care what your parents have to say–at least, I didn’t. I needed someone else to say it. Until I transferred, nobody ever did. ↩