By Gabe Abdellatif, Youth Leader Finalist
In the spring of my junior year of high school, I planned a meeting with my guidance counselor. We were set to go over my college application plans in preparation for the upcoming school year.
I had planned extensively for this meeting, spending hours researching different colleges and universities around the country, taking notes of my favorites. I entered his office excited to start planning for my future.
As soon as he began to read over my list of potential colleges, the tone of the meeting shifted completely.
He told me: “Gabe, I don’t know about some of these schools, I think they may be too competitive for you. You would probably be better off pursuing safer options.”
I was at a loss for words. I was about to enter my senior year with a strong GPA and a substantial resume; I felt like I had a shot at most of the schools on my list. Clearly, he didn’t.
Racial Bias in Teacher Expectations
Conversations with other students of color on my college campus have shown that my experience with my counselor is relatively common. A recent study published in the journal Education Next found that, on average, teachers expect 58 percent of white high school students to obtain a four-year college degree (or more), but anticipate the same for only 37 percent of black students.
The study concluded that negative expectations from teachers influences students’ self perception and academic performance, and it can potentially hurt their chances of one day attending college. This is especially troubling in the United States, where according to U.S. Census Bureau data about teachers and counselors: 70 percent of high school counselors are white, and over 80 percent of high school teachers are white.
I can’t say for sure if race was a factor in my own guidance counselor’s lowered expectations of me, but I do know that these demographics put students of color at a significant disadvantage when considering the important role school faculty play in students’ academic engagement and success.
Luckily, my guidance counselor wasn’t the only one giving me advice.
The Need to Invest in More Relationships
After that discouraging meeting with my guidance counselor, I turned to my parents, a trusted teacher, and my friends. They encouraged me to take a chance and apply to those competitive schools. Because of their encouragement, I applied to and now attend my dream school, Pomona College.
But I know how lucky I am. For some students, there was nowhere else for them to turn. And in some cases, it doesn’t just mean they don’t apply to college. It means they don’t graduate high school at all.
The 2014 report Don’t Call Them Dropouts found that student-staff relationships can have a major effect on whether or not a student finishes high school. Of the young people surveyed for this report, 41 percent indicated that the reason they returned to school was that someone had encouraged them. The data also indicated that students who reported that they had a teacher or faculty member who cared about them were 45 percent less likely to leave school.
The consistent theme between this study and my own experience is the feeling of not being seen by school professionals no matter how hard we tried to engage, as well as a reluctance to reach out to teachers or administrators for help, fearing that our pleas were landing on deaf ears.
What Schools Can Do
Schools need to allocate funding for increased staffing, so all teachers and counselors can effectively pay attention to each student without overburdening themselves. They should also increase extracurricular and afterschool opportunities for students struggling in school, so they can develop stronger relationships with their peers in a safe and positive environment.
Above all, school administrators and teachers must take steps to show students how much they care. There’s no telling how the positive actions of one teacher or counselor could change a student's life for the better.
Gabe Abdellatif is a first-year student at Pomona College, where he majors in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He was also a 2017 America’s Promise Youth Leadership finalist.