Jessica Pérez’s high school guidance counselor told her not to bother applying to Georgetown because it would be too hard. From her freshman year in high school, the odds were stacked against her – most of the faces she saw in the hallways would not even make it to graduation. Pérez was one of the few to beat the odds.
Pérez (COL ’13) graduated from Garey Senior High, a public school located in a low-income area 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University listed it as one of America’s 1,700 “Dropout Factories,” a title reserved for high schools in which less than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year. This distinction applies to more than one in 10 high schools across America, according to the Associated Press. For David Guggenheim, this is one in 10 too many.
Guggenheim’s documentary “Waiting for `Superman,'” now playing in select theaters, has sparked a discourse on the need for education reform in the United States, an issue that hits close to home for a handful of Georgetown students.
The documentary examines the story of five families struggling to ensure a better education for their children. These five children represented the thousands of faces of students, like Pérez, who grow up in areas with low-performing schools.
“My high school was classified as an improvement school with only a  percent retention rate,” Pérez said. “There was no support coming from my high school. Like these students [in the film], I had the support I need at home. Yet, what about those people who have no support system at home? Why should others be cheated of a college education?”
The U.S. Department of Education’s recent study reports that in 2008, about 28 percent of high school graduates from high-poverty schools attended a four-year institution after graduation, compared with 52 percent of high school graduates from low-poverty schools.
Justin Pinn (COL ’13) explained that the standards set at his public high school in Springfield, Ohio, were low and, like in the film, students were placed on tracks based on prior performance and perceived ability.
“In my state, about 40 percent is what you need to pass the [Ohio Graduation Test] in math and science,” Pinn said. “That just shows where our standards were. In middle school, most people were passed on, but when they got to high school, credits and passing mattered . most people got stuck on that bridge to nowhere.”
Pinn said that while his school did offer a partnership with a joint vocational school, it was not emphasized enough and was touted as a route for “nobodys.”
“I don’t believe college is right for everyone, but I saw the door shut on a lot of people. They just sat in the back of the class and faded into the background until it was too late, just because they weren’t deemed college material,” Pinn said.
Even for Pinn, the low standards set him behind.
“In my high school I was the top of the top, but when you put me on a national level I was way behind. . [The school] kept the bar so low,” Pinn said.
“I believe our school’s standards were low because the teachers found themselves teaching to a test and not to the individual needs of students, which only needed you to pass a very minimal amount of material. However, there were a select few teachers that did go beyond the call of duty – and I owe my being [at Georgetown] to them.”
The low standards set by many inner-city public schools are a concern for many students whom statistics predict will not graduate.
One of the film’s trailers presents striking statistics of the 1.2 million students that drop out of high school each year: “These dropouts are eight times more likely to go to prison, 50 percent less likely to vote, more likely to need social welfare assistance, not eligible for 90 percent of jobs, are being paid 40 cents to the dollar of earned by a college graduate, and continuing the cycle of poverty.”
These statistics, along with personal experience in the public school system, are creating a discourse at Georgetown for a nationwide education reform.
According to Pérez, an education reform is necessary because it is unfair that students who try to get a good education cannot because of the school’s lack of resources.
“In California we have recently had so many budget cuts that a third of all the teachers in my school district were let go,” Pérez said, adding that a boost in funding must be the first step in improving schools. “Education is key in this country and yet more money is going into the prison system.”
Pérez also said that it’s time for a switch in the barometer that often measures student success. “Test scores are not everything. You cannot just judge how a student is doing based on a number. We need to makes these improvements and eventually all of our high schools can compare to these magnet schools. Our education should not be placed on a lottery.”
Philip Bachas-Daunert (COL ’13) attended Paul Laurence Dunbar, a public high school in Lexington, Ky., that he described as being in the upper-class part of town. Through this experience, he could see firsthand the inequalities in resources between his school and other high schools in the city.
“The teachers are in the places where the kids will mostly likely succeed,” Bachas-Daunert said. “I went to the best high school in the area . the other high school in a lower income area got the worst teachers and the worse facilities. The kids who really need the help don’t get the help that they deserve.”
This sort of neglect may put students at a disadvantage, but Georgetown has made an effort to compensate for the failures of public high schools. The university actively works to expose children from lower-income areas to the university, as well as to recruit student applications.
In the 2009 Diversity Initiative report on Admissions and Recruitment, the working group observed that Georgetown’s recruitment success has had a direct correlation to the prosperity of the university.
“We came to see that, overall, Georgetown has developed one of the nation’s most successful programs of student recruitment and selection,” the report read. “Perhaps no sustained achievement has been more central to Georgetown’s standing as a top-25 research university.”
The university accepted the admissions working group’s recommendations last spring and has since been working to institute them, such as the creation of an Advisory Group to the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, composed of students, faculty and staff.
Next week, the university will welcome students from D.C. public high schools for “College Awareness Week,” a college exposure event which will provide the ninth grade visitors with several on-campus activities including a campus tour by a Blue & Gray Tour Guide. Cameron Williams (COL ’11), president of Blue & Gray, said that student volunteers have responded favorably to the event.
“We have a lot of students who are excited about the visit, and a lot of [tour guide] volunteers,” she said.
University officials have backed initiatives like “College Awareness Week” as numbers for minority and need-based admittances have dropped off in recent years. The Georgetown Scholarship Program and the 1789 Imperative especially have sought to provide a significant amount of financial aid to students in the future.”