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Low-Income Students Deserve Quality School Options in Own Communities, Pair Argues

By Morgaine McIlhargey |

 “Leave to Succeed” is the mindset that for students in low-income areas to secure a successful future, they must attend school in a more affluent neighboring community.

Nancy Gutierrez and Roberto Padilla

Presenters Nancy B. Gutierrez, CEO and president of The Leadership Academy, and Roberto Padilla, superintendent of the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in Newburgh, N.Y., argued that Leave to Succeed harms the students and the school systems they leave.

The two pressed their case in their session “Defying the Leave to Succeed Mindset” at the AASA national conference on Thursday, Feb. 18.

“We need to be able to recognize it, see it and disrupt it in real time,” Gutierrez said.

Both spoke of their personal middle school experiences as minorities in low-income cities, where students were encouraged by well-intentioned adults to attend boarding schools and programs in other districts and states.

“Sometimes it comes from the very people that love us the most,” said Padilla, New York state’s 2021 Superintendent of the Year. “These are people who are well-intentioned. They want to support us. They have nurtured us. They have inspired us. And they themselves are not cognizant of this phenomenon. They think they’re doing the right thing.”

While the advice to students may be sincere, acting on the advice is harmful to the identities of the individual students and minority communities as a whole.

“It perpetuates the dangerous notion that proximity to whiteness, whether it’s gained through specialized classes, school admissions processes, or segregated neighborhoods is key to attaining success,” Gutierrez said. “We are basically trying to say, ‘There are a few really good, really smart kids from this predominantly Black or brown community. Let’s save them.’”

To address this issue, Padilla and Gutierrez advocate for greater acceptance of these communities as worthy and as places where students can find academic success. Children should feel as though they have options.

“We have an obligation to not only name [Leave to Succeed] but also assist leaders in communities and in school systems to redefine what success looks like,” Padilla said. “It’s not about getting into the specialized class alone. It’s not about trying to find the cheapest house on the other side of the railroad so you can get into a more affluent neighborhood so you can go to a better school. We are trying to ensure that there’s not a badge of honor in leaving, but there’s a badge of honor in serving, whether you’re bringing your home community with you wherever you go or you return home like we did.”

(Morgaine McIlhargey is a junior magazine journalism major at Syracuse University and an intern with AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

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