Every day in this country, scores of children persevere against incredibly negative odds. Their struggles are virtually unnoticed: their accomplishments are unheralded. But they survive and many succeed. In my new book, Voices of Determination I share the stories of ten young people who endured and overcame significant challenges in order to obtain their education. Each story is heart wrenching and inspiring. And each kid exemplifies that innate human quality found in all of us: the will to do better and to be better.
Among the kids I feature is Zina, an amazing young woman from Afghanistan, who migrated to the states with her mother and siblings once the Taliban took over the country in the late nineties. The Taliban killed her father and grandfather and took away her mother's college professorship. In fact, the Taliban instantly changed Afghanistan from a country with progressive views toward women to a country in which women were relegated to sexist policies found hundreds of years ago. All of the women in the country had to wear full body burkas and none could go to school or work outside of the home.
By the time 14-year old Zina arrived in the states with her mother and her siblings, she had not been in a classroom for six years and could not speak English. She landed in a traditional urban public school in which she received no instruction or help. In fact, since no one at the new school spoke her native Farsi language, she was told by her teacher to just stay in her seat and follow as best she could. She was never tested, never graded and never engaged. Eventually, she ended up in a charter school where the teachers went out if their way to help Zina learn. Through it all, her steadfast desire to be educated remained constant. Last year, Zina graduated from college and now works for the European Union helping oppressed women in her former country.
In my travels around the country, I have visited countless schools and spoke with scores of parents, teachers and students about their needs. I am convinced that our traditional one-size-fits-all model no longer works for all of our kids. Our diverse, ever changing student population requires dynamic, innovative and creative approaches necessary to meet all kids where they are. Our schools must adapt to the kids and families that come to them, as opposed to forcing these families to fit into an intractable system.
It is not always easy to make the case for change through policies written on a piece of paper. That's why stories like Zina's matter. As do the stories of the other kids profiled in my book. They represent just a microcosm of the stories and lives of thousands who are similarly situated -- ready to learn, but forced to navigate around life's challenges seemingly too much for kids to bear. As we debate education reform in America, it is important to be mindful of the real people with real needs who traverse the halls of our schools. These voices of determination must be heard by policymakers and school district leaders so that all students, regardless of their background, race or socio-economic status, have an opportunity to change their life trajectory and the experience the hope of a brighter future.