By Samantha Lurie
Samantha Lurie, an Earlham College graduate, was a 2008 Teach For America corps member in St. Louis. She will be entering her sixth year of teaching in the fall.
One could argue that there is no better picture of an educational opportunity gap than in inner-city St. Louis. Having taught here for five years, I’ve seen firsthand the poverty, crime and broken systems that many of our “at-risk” students face.
My students’ socioeconomic statuses, educational performance, disabilities and other factors have created an extreme exposure gap. Many of them have never had the opportunity to see life outside of their own city block.
While the opportunity to travel internationally is one that is offered to high school students across America, it had not been an opportunity offered to students at the school where I’ve been teaching for the last five years.
In April 2012, I set out to change that reality for a group of students in my biology classes. I created the Show Me Costa Rica Project to take students typically labeled as “at-risk” on an educational exploration in Costa Rica for one week during spring break.My hope was that experiencing an environment outside of their own would broaden their view of the world, and thus, broaden their view of themselves. The relentless work these students put into the program had an invaluable payoff.
One of the most touching turnaround stories from the inaugural year of the Show Me Costa Rica Project is that of my tenth grade student Charles. A year prior to the trip, Charles’ sister–our school’s valedictorian—had been murdered, leaving him in a state of desperation. At such a painfultime in his life, Charles was searching for a sense of community and hope. He used the Costa Rica trip as a positive incentive to persevere through his pain, bonding with our group over six months of meetings, fundraising missions, educational benchmarks and a week-long experience in Costa Rica.
Charles’ mother, Ms. Walker, played an essential role in helping us achieve our goal. Ms. Walker demonstrated her commitment to this program by attending every parent meeting and always arriving early to set up the concession stand for the St. Louis Rams and Cardinals games in which the parents worked to raise money for our trip. Charles’ trip was so much more than his first plane ride and first international trip; it was a life-changing statement that his community believed in him and that he could believe in himself. By the end of the program, Charles had raised his 2.3 GPA to a 3.0. For Charles and his mother, this project represented their reintroduction back into the community after the tragic loss they had experienced.
Not only had Justin never traveled outside of St. Louis, he faced another set of challenges in being raised by a single mother who is deaf. Because his native language is sign language, Justin did not learn to read and write until he entered school, which set him behind academically and socially. Over the course of the Show Me Costa Rica Project, Justin went from feeling major anxiety in class when asked to read out loud to feeling confident enough to read a speech in front of more than 100 people at fundraising events as a result of the encouragement and support he received from fellow program members.
Based upon Justin’s academic profile alone, he may not appear to be a top candidate for a selective academic opportunity. However, this experience allowed him to move outside his ordinary surroundings by exploring new cultures and encountering a whole new world that he never knew existed. As I watched him transform, he opened up my eyes to how students facing extreme academic challenges can grow when given a unique opportunity.
The group of students selected for the Show Me Costa Rica Project brought different levels of skill, experience and preparation into a mixed ability group. Justin empowered his fellow group members by demonstrating leadership and bravery. Every student in the group was nervous to give a speech in front of a large audience of potential funders. Justin took a risk and led the group by being one of the first to give his speech. Justin’s speech did not go as smoothly as he would have liked the first time but he was personally committed to improving and not giving up which inspired his fellow group members. Justin’s ability to utilize his peers’ support instead of isolating himself proved to me the positive impact an inclusive group of students can have on each other’s personal and academic growth.
Perhaps the greatest academic transformation of the Show Me Costa Rica Project came from my student Taylor, who entered the program with a 1.7 GPA. After battling negative peer pressure and switching high schools after her freshman year, Taylor still struggled her sophomore year at our school. As her junior year approached and she was accepted into the Show Me Costa Rica Project, she was motivated to make a change. She committed to attending school regularly and completing quality assignments in order to achieve the grades she was capable of. Taylor earned a 3.4 GPA as a high school junior, making her eligible to apply for college – something that hadn’t been a realistic consideration previously.
It is amazing how an international experience can change a life. Through this project I have witnessed a group of young people whose lack of exposure limited their perspective on what was possible, transform into young leaders with broad views of a world and a conviction that they can succeed through hard work, despite their obstacles.
Though it’s not a magic bullet and my students will continue to face structural inequities in pursuit of their goals, they have taught us all that one key to closing the opportunity gap is seeing opportunity where there appears to be none and believing that “at-risk” students are really “at-promise” students who are very much worth the risk.
The Show Me Costa Rica Project is an initiative designed to help close the exposure gap for high school students typically labeled as “at-risk” based on socioeconomic statuses, educational performance, disabilities and other considerations. The project takes students on an educational exploration in Costa Rica for one week during spring break. Samantha Lurie developed the program with the goal of building community and broadening the worldview of her students in order to prove that they are not “at-risk,” but rather, “at-promise.” The first trip took place in March 2013 with 10 student participants who, along with their parents and the support of an inspired group of community members, raised $27,000 in six months in order to fund the trip. Plans have been put into place to continue this project with a new group of students for the 2013-2014 school year. The first group of students will serve as mentors for the new group. For more information, click on http://www.teachforamerica.org/blog/riskor-promise.