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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dobie: A senior's alluring accomplishment

Kwasi Enin, a senior at William Floyd High

Kwasi Enin, a senior at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach, was accepted by all 8 Ivy League schools. Credit: Johnny Milano

Beyoncé posted a video of him on Facebook. Jimmy Fallon mentioned him in his monologue. Newspapers worldwide wrote about him. It was that kind of story.

Kwasi Enin, a 17-year-old senior from William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach, had been accepted into all eight Ivy League universities.

It was an amazing accomplishment, and Enin and his family were appropriately celebrated.

Some of the trappings made his tale even more alluring. Enin is black. He is the son of two immigrants from Ghana. He lives in Shirley, a community of modest means, and attends school in a high-needs district. All of which plays against stereotypes of who gets to attend the nation's most prestigious academic institutions.

That's led to two very different appropriations of Enin as a role model.

One group bathes in the reassurance it sees in his success. As economic inequality and insecurity grow, as people feel like the pathways to success are shutting down, as millions of parents fear their children's lives will not be better than their own, Enin represents hope. It can happen for us, too.

Another segment of society latches onto kids like Enin for more cynical reasons. To them, he proves their belief that any struggles or comparative lack of success among immigrant or minority or poor or otherwise marginalized people are because they lack a strong work ethic and a sense of personal responsibility. Look at Enin, they say. He made it. He rose above his circumstances. He's the evidence it can be done.

Each, alas, is an illusion.

The reality is that the path to the meritocracy is not open to everyone, that the triumph of one doesn't mean the system works for everyone, and that the exceptional always will rise. With more difficulty and harder work in some places than others, yes, but the exceptional will rise. In many places, though, only the exceptional can break out. And it's the others we need to worry about.

Huge swaths of people still play against a stacked deck.

"They say that person did it, so can the other ones. It's not that simple," said Dafny Irizarry, president of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association. Her students in predominantly Hispanic Central Islip are among those trying to buck the odds.

Consider: By age 3, children in low-income families hear 30 million fewer words than kids in more affluent families, leading to a persistent achievement gap. Elementary and middle schools do little to close those initial disparities, according to The Education Trust, leading to "troubling" gaps in achievement by high school. At that level, 1 in 3 white and Asian students perform in the top quarter of students, compared to 1 in 9 Latino students and 1 in 17 black students.

The litany of obstacles is familiar. Language barriers. Economic barriers. A lack of resources, from lab facilities and computers in some schools to books and desks in some urban settings. Parents uninvolved in their children's education, whether from working two jobs or some other reason. Kids who work full-time themselves.

Enin brought his intellectual gifts to the table, and benefited from nurture and support. Both parents are nurses, and taught him to strive for excellence. His extended family has a long history of higher education success. He had good teachers and mentors at William Floyd. The result: a teen who sings and plays viola, throws the shot in track, volunteers at Stony Brook Hospital, excelled on many AP exams and scored 2,250 out of 2,400 on the SAT.

By all means, let's toast Kwasi Enin. He's an amazing kid.

But let's not forget about the many others who aren't quite that, and need all of our help.