The Must-Have School Supply for Girls: Educational Access

08/10/2011 02:38 pm ET | Updated Oct 10, 2011
  • K. Sujata President/CEO, Chicago Foundation for Women

Back-to-school chatter is already building in Chicago. Whether it's the length of the school year, Mayor Emanuel's children attending private school or the state's huge cuts to education, debates are as hot as the summer temperatures (which, as the Chicago Sun-Times reports, is having its own debilitating effect on summer school students).

However, in the discussion of education reform and politicking, one facet is missing: access. Putting aside issues of curriculum or school board policies, it's unfettered access to educational opportunities that matters most to youth -- especially girls.

One bright spot for educational access is the Illinois DREAM Act, signed into law by Gov. Quinn on August 1. This sets up a private college scholarship fund for Illinois immigrant youth -- documented and undocumented (Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has more information and resources).

Before students can have unhindered access to education, they need a safe environment in which to learn. Bullying and harassment aimed at students with actual or perceived LGBT identity can result in physical attacks and hate crimes or, tragically, depression and suicide. The Illinois Safe Schools Alliance was instrumental in passing the Prevent School Violence Act last summer, which finally defined bullying in Illinois law and created the School Bullying Prevention Task Force. The Task Force's May 2011 report (PDF) recommends data collection, professional development and "overall school transformation in order to create ideal conditions for development and learning." The impact of the legislation will become evident from the data in the coming years. It is imperative for advocates to ensure that the legislation is implemented effectively.

Similar issues face young women who are victims of sexual or dating violence. Even if the victim reports an incident to school officials, they can exacerbate the problem by focusing on the victim more than the perpetrator, refusing to accommodate a victim's need for distance from the abuser or attacker or, all too commonly, disbelieving the victim altogether. The negative impact on the student's education and future don't need to be spelled out.

Anti-violence intervention and prevention programs aimed at teens (and educators), such as Between Friends' REACH program, are integral and should be built into the curriculum at every school. On the policy side, advocates are examining shifts in procedures and guidelines for schools through the Ensuring Success in School Task Force, spearheaded by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

This Task Force also looks at issues faced by young women who are pregnant or parenting. These students face a multitude of barriers to access, including dropping out but also so-called "push-out" when child care and health problems cause mothers to rack up tardies and absences that result in expulsion. Literature for All of Us hosts book groups for young mothers to create a safe, supportive environment for them and encourage a love of literacy that will keep them in school. Participants also build self-esteem and develop better coping habits -- crucial skills for parents as well as students.

The final barrier, perhaps the toughest of all, is poverty. While education can help young women succeed in life, they need to have their basic needs met so they can learn effectively and attend school regularly. A federal study defined "high-poverty schools" as having at least 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Students at these schools are less likely to graduate and attend four-year college than their peers. Using the Illinois State Board of Education's latest data, approximately three out of four Chicago schools (public and private) qualify as high-poverty.

This statistic points to a major issue for poor families: nutrition. Even with free meals at school, almost 400,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts -- areas without mainstream grocery stores, mainly low-income neighborhoods -- and 100,000 are children, according to researcher Mari Gallagher (PDF). On the bright side, this is a 39 percent decrease since 2006 (when Chicago Foundation for Women helped fund some of the original research), the Chicago Tribune reports. I applaud Mayor Emanuel for continuing this work by working directly with grocery retailers and allowing the fast-tracking of new stores in food deserts. After all, without adequate nutrition, how can children pay attention, let alone succeed, in the classroom?

It's clear that broader problems of women's economic security, such as the persistent wage gap between men and women and the lack of women (particularly women of color) in burgeoning tech industries, cannot be addressed without examining educational equity. For girls, that means examining the root causes and identifying the barriers in their lives that keep them from attending -- and enjoying -- school.