This is the story of four different public schools – all in New Jersey – but none exactly the same. Public education has been a major factor in my life since grade school. Before I arrived in the United States in the summer of 2002, I was a student in a private Catholic school in Colombia that my parents — my mother a dentist, my father a civil engineer — paid for. But, coming to the United States changed everything. I started living in my aunt’s studio apartment in Twin Rivers, NJ., in a community of townhouses and apartment units. There, I went to a nearby public school called Perry L. Drew Elementary School.
Comprised of mostly working-class Americans, Perry L. Drew had a large population of underrepresented students of color. In fact, so many Latino and black students lived around the area that white and Asian students had to be bused in from another area of the town. I started english as a second Language classes, a class in which many Latino students ended up. Little by little, I improved my English speaking skills and moved out to the regular classrooms.
My second grade class took place in a semi-classroom: I remember that there were no real walls between classrooms – only thin, movable ones. That meant that noises from the other classes could easily be heard and would sometimes disrupt our own attempts at learning.
But what I really remember learning was the importance of standardized testing. While the statewide New Jersey Assesment of Skills and Knowledge only lasted a week, our third-grade class spent a disproportionate amount of time studying for it. The apparent importance of this test was heavily emphasized to us. In fact, I felt personally affected by what should have been just a test score. Though my math score demonstrated proficiency, a less-than-stellar grade in language arts seemed to destine my third-grade self to a lifetime of struggles in English and literature classes.
Later in the year, we moved to Cranbury, NJ., and my mother began working as a nanny for an affluent family in the town. Although Twin Rivers and Cranbury are only ten minutes away by car, the two towns were and remain extremely different. Cranbury was quintessential white suburbia – quiet with a centralized Main Street and a lake in the middle of town – nothing like Twin Rivers.
Situated right next to the Cranbury Town Hall and the Cranbury Public Library,. The Cranbury School had impressive facilities housed in a red brick building with a high facade, while Perry L. Drew had some grass and a playground, Cranbury had five soccer fields in its backyard. Solid walls composed the interior, and the school had computer labs filled with new Macs – enough for all of its students.
It did not take my full two years at Cranbury to realize that I was the only Latino student in the school. Although I mostly enjoyed my time with the other students, I often got into arguments. Sometimes, I felt out of place and did not want to go to school at all, especially after the recession — that’s when the insults and accusations about my father being an illegal immigrant began.
Still, I kept going to Cranbury since its teachers and courses were better than my previous public school. The teachers cared about my learning and pushed me to become a better student. In fourth grade, I was offered to take an advanced mathematics course. This was the public school that had enough resources to allow me to advance my hunger for learning. I found social studies to be especially interesting; I learned about the Lenapo tribe and the Native American history of New Jersey.
But when I moved back to Twin Rivers again, I reluctantly returned to Perry L. Drew. While there had been improvements since I had left, the disparities between the two public schools were very clear. Flipping through my worn-down math textbook, I remembered everything in Cranbury being distinctly new.
For middle school, I went on to Melvin H. Kreps, which brought together students from Hightstown, a middle class town, and Twin Rivers. Thus, our school represented the middle and working classes. But, as expected, most of the students of underrepresented minorities came from the lower socioeconomic background. It was during middle school that I saw the hopelessness and anger that some students felt. These students had rough beginnings and needed more resources, but they were stuck in a tricky situation. Their inability to perform well on standardized tests caused them to believe that they were inherently stupid. Not everyone had a Cranbury, where there were plenty of resources to go around and few feelings of helplessness.
With strict rules and security guards, Melvin H. Kreps punished its students with in-school suspensions, a form of discipline which stuck students in a classroom with schoolwork but no peers to socialize with – a form of solitary confinement.
My final school was Hightstown High School where I spent my freshman year before coming to Andover. Luckily, I was blessed to have parents that pushed me to succeed in the classroom. Inspired by their own hard work and labor, I placed in all Honors classes, which had the most competent teachers and most resources and supplies. But looking around, I was usually the only Latino in my classes despite Hightstown’s sizeable black and Latino populations. But I persisted: I couldn’t fail because my parents sacrificed their entire lives to move me to the United States and to take advantage of all the resources this country had to offer.
I could see why my parents — and countless numbers of other immigrants — would believe that the United States had the best opportunities for me. In many ways, with its technological progress and superpower and first-world status, it did and does. But my experience found the public education system rather lacking. For whites, there were the best books and computers – the Cranburys of the nation. For underrepresented minority students, oftentimes the only things available were second-hand texts and flimsy walls. Education is supposed to be a tool for social mobility, but oftentimes, public schools only perpetuate and exacerbate the same problems.