I continue to unpack my identity as a young Nigerian-American woman and product of the Hempstead school district. These labels help mold my character and grow deeper in meaning with every experience.
But I have yet to reconcile my experience in the district. I can’t ignore the racial strife, the way that some students gravitate toward low standards, and the moral implications of decisions by the Board of Education that impact learning. Still, the circumstances in Hempstead provide opportunities to improve education through industry, accountability and solidarity.
How does the district shift from a culture of academic and institutional complacency to one of excellence? If students pass classes but not state exams that align with those classes, then something is amiss. To help students academically, the district might incentivize hard work, encourage peer tutoring, and look to successful education models in districts with similar demographics.
The district must consider attitudes toward education. The mindset of “just meeting the mark” among students, teachers, and administrators promotes a cycle of underperformance and mediocrity. There are remedies: The district could place students in successful environments with people who look like them to build confidence and expand mindsets, such as businesses with professionals who have gained financial success and upper-level positions. If the district does not emphasize exposure to academic opportunities, students will be unable to set goals that transcend the community. It must diversify offerings beyond its annual career day.
Also, the district must work hard to expand options to reach more students. Peer tutoring promotes learning. Students would benefit if the district encourages top students to tutor classmates. Currently, Hofstra University students assist Hempstead students after school through the Liberty Partnership Program. Additionally, Hempstead graduates return to help students with subjects such as calculus. In the middle and high schools, the Gear Up program includes Nassau Community College students providing assistance.
Last, the district must reshape attitudes toward failure. It tends to favor intervention when’ it’s already too late, especially when students have not met graduation criteria. Instead it should emphasize prevention, because educators and administrators who let students cut corners become enablers. If the school district encourages students to strive for the “bare minimum” in terms of tests scores, then students will settle for below-average grades and lack the drive to push themselves academically. In the future, students will need the discipline to challenge themselves as college students.
Hempstead is a suburban school district. Black and Hispanic students who are low-income make up most of the school population, and they experience tension among minorities and gang violence in the community. Still, these factors do not define students’ success and the school district’s potential. The district could appoint a group of students, teachers and administrators that regularly visits successful school districts with similar makeups. The group could share its findings with the community at board meetings to help identify new methodologies and practices. In all, it could restructure the system to address the various needs of students. The district has students, educators, and administrators who value and support progress. How do we make them a majority and give them a voice?
It starts with opening dialogue among stakeholders and holding each other accountable. The district must look past its members’ social, economic and political differences. If it desires to grow as a community, Hempstead must encourage solidarity, foster unity and promote diversity and inclusion.
Mokutima Ekong, Hempstead High School’s 2017 valedictorian, is a freshman at New York University majoring in business.