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Closing The Opportunity Gap, with Reid Saaris

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Closing The Opportunity Gap

Today on the podcast, we’re joined by education leader Reid Saaris. He’s the founder of Equal Opportunity Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that students of all backgrounds have opportunities to succeed at the highest levels. We can work together and work towards Closing The Opportunity Gap.

He is an Echoing Green, a Draper Richards Kaplan, and a Stanford Social Innovation Fellow, and has advised federal, state, & local leaders, teachers, philanthropies, companies, and universities on topics like justice, impact, data analysis, communications, and learning. 

His most challenging and meaningful professional experiences have been as a classroom teacher. He’s the author of the new book THE KID ACROSS THE HALL. Today we’ll be talking about why what is often called the achievement gap in schools is actually an opportunity gap, and what teachers can do about it, starting immediately.

You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Who is “The Kid Across the Hall”?

Closing The Opportunity Gap

Growing up, there were two “kids across the hall” in Reid’s life. The first was his foster sister, who moved into the room across the hall in his childhood home. Watching his foster sister’s experiences in education taught him early lessons about how differently people can be treated by our education system. He recognized even at a young age that she was being treated unfairly, despite her capabilities.

The next “kid across the hall” was Reid’s best friend. They were best friends until they reached high school. Reid’s family guided him to take advanced courses. His friend didn’t have the same level of guidance and support to follow the “college track.” He was put in lower level classes, just “across the hall” from where Reid was taking challenging classes that helped to prepare him for college and life after high school.

Reid has dedicated his professional life to fight for opportunities for kids, despite their backgrounds. He now partners with schools across the country to advocate for other “kids across the hall” who may not have people in their corner to fight for their opportunities through their education. 

The Opportunity Gap

We’re all familiar with what’s often called the “achievement gap” that seems to exists between students when it comes to their grades or scores. But Reid would suggest we all consider what’s behind those grades and scores. What opportunities may students be missing out on that could be causing the “achievement gap”?

Addressing this lack of opportunity can help close the so-called “Achievement Gap,” which is really an opportunity gap.

Closing the Opportunity Gap

As Reid has experienced time after time through his work, when students are given great opportunities, they can achieve great things. When faced with a student who expresses a desire to challenge themselves, it’s important for teachers to look past things like their past performance, their GPA, etc. to allow them the opportunity to prove themselves.

By setting aside preconceived notions about the abilities of students, teachers can offer students a life-changing experience to change their future. Making all students aware of opportunities to enroll in advanced courses will spark creativity for teachers and students alike and be a great step in closing the opportunity gap. It’s easy to assume students are aware of programs like A.P. and I.B., and aware of their benefits, but that is often something that comes along with having parents who benefited from these programs or who at least fully understand the school system and its offerings.

Schools can start by looking at the rates of students who are taking AP classes and seeing what disparities exist. Then they can make sure all students have the same level of encouragement to participate in upper level classes. All students should be provided with the information about these classes, how to access these classes, and what these classes can do for them in their future.

What Can Schools Do?

Historically, in many schools, the grades students earn are a direct funnel into the AP or other advanced classes. Yet most teachers believe that motivation is key to success in these classes, not just previous success. The good news is that motivation and passion can be encouraged and cultivated in all students, regardless of their previous grades.  

Schools can redesign their systems to be more inclusive to increase the number of students who are represented in advanced courses. Some thoughts to consider when looking at the students enrolled in AP or advanced courses in your school:

  • Are you getting students who come from all backgrounds in your advanced courses?
  • How can you change policy in your school to ensure you’re being more inclusive?
  • Are all students welcome to sign up for advanced courses?
  • Are you reaching students who are the first in their family to pursue college?

These are just a few questions to help guide your next steps in bridging the opportunity gap that may exist in your school.

When you can involve more kids and more perspectives into your courses, you’ll be providing a richer experience for all students. This can be a challenge when you’re unsure if students have the preparation they need ahead of time, but learning is about incorporating difference and diversity in our minds. Including kids of all backgrounds will help make every class more powerful. ALL students (and teachers) will benefit from this type of learning experience.

How can Teachers help Close The Opportunity Gap?

After you’ve identified where you might have opportunity gaps, it’s time to develop clear guidelines and expectations to close gaps that underrepresented students may have coming into your advanced classes. You can help by making the “insider’s scoop” clear and transparent for all students, whether they’ve been exposed to advanced resources in the past or not. Try to help all students coming all backgrounds feel included. Be sure to recognize their improvement over the course of the year when awarding points.

Let’s finish by reviewing some key action steps:

  • Ask, how many kids of different backgrounds are being overlooked? Start by taking a look at the demographics of your school and then the demographics of your advanced courses.
  • Set goals to close those gaps within a year.
  • Have conversations with kids. Talk to students about the courses they’re taking next year and work to make all students aware of the opportunities that they have in your school.

A word of warning – once you’ve realized the impact of closing this opportunity gap, you’ll have a different understanding of what’s possible. It’s addicting and you’ll be looking to make everything more equitable in your school! (It’s a good kind of warning!).

Connect with Reid

Closing The Opportunity Gap

Reid founded – and led for 10 years – Equal Opportunity Schools, a non-profit that’s moved 100,000+ students up to college-level learning opportunities.

As CEO, he built the staff to 65 and raised ~$50 million.

During his time leading Equal Opportunity Schools, they advised and supported more than a thousand school, district, and state leaders to ensure students of all backgrounds could access an excellent education in their schools.

Check out his new book, The Kid Across the Hall. It’s available from Stanford University Press and can be found from most major book sellers. 

To follow along with his journey, visit reid4waschools.com. He’s currently running for Washington State Superintendent.

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