Rigorous education standards alleviate income inequality in schools

John R. Rogers High School in Spokane, Washington is on a mission to decrease the gap between the number of students from high-income and low-income families who go to college, according to a report by The New York Times published earlier this month. The district has undertaken vast changes in the last five years to correct the education inequality that persists in public high schools, and has produced tangible results. More challenging — but also more encouraging — academic environments could be key to helping students, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds, to access higher education.

Lori Wyborney, the principal at Rogers High, encouraged tougher schedules and more rigorous classes in an effort to increase low-income students’ prospects for attending college, and took it upon herself to personally convince students to take Advanced Placement classes. Already seeing improvement in student performance each semester, Rogers High channeled a vision for low-income students that gives hope to poor students across the United States.

In 2014, 65 percent of students from Spokane high schools who did not receive reduced-price lunches continued on to higher education, compared with 48 percent of students from Spokane high schools who did not. The national average demonstrates a larger gap, with 48 percent of reduced-lunch price students in the United States going on to post-high school education, compared to 81 percent who are not on a subsidized lunch program.

This gap stems from students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, including fewer extracurricular opportunities, inability to pay for college or register for standardized tests, language barriers and, of course, less access to tutoring services. Rogers High has attempted to overcome lack of opportunity by providing additional resources, paying for testing and educating low-income students about available scholarships.

At Rogers High, Wyborney implemented a heavier curriculum and nixed unnecessary and less challenging classes. By pushing students who may believe that they would be unable to succeed in AP classes, Wyborney makes the possibility of college not just a hope but rather a tangible goal.

Regardless of academic performance, Wyborney believes these challenging classes develop skills needed by future college students. Wyborney regularly meets with assistant principals and charts down the progress of individual students. If the administration believes that a student could be successful in a more difficult class, they pull aside the student and directly encourage them to try the class.

Students who feel they now have an academic goal will spend more time studying and partaking in extracurricular activities, leading to lifestyle changes. When a school environment is academically driven, those who take challenging courses create a ripple effect in which students see their fellow classmates achieving previously inconceivable goals. By the time these lower-income students reach a university or community college, they are more prepared and able to handle the load of college classes.

Still, additional measures must be taken both by Rogers High and other schools around the country. While completing more challenging curricula and partaking in AP classes help these students’ chances of college admission, success within these classes is integral. Additional tutoring is expensive and unrealistic for low-income students. This could create imbalance within the classroom and may lead to lower grades among lower-income students. While encouraging students to take AP classes can make them feel more competent and capable of attending college, there are other students who may struggle to keep up, fall far behind and be discouraged on their path to higher education. Schools must match increased pushes to take advanced classes with increased access to tutoring and academic resources.

That being said, Wyborney’s plan to tackle academic disparities in economically diverse school districts is a step in the right direction to combating inequality. Treating students as individuals and investing time to better their academic future must be a priority among administrations of public schools across the nation. At the end of the day, confidence in individual students’ potential is among the most important things a school can offer its students ,regardless of how much or little funding it has.