Tonie Chase

Why is that at every step of my journey, I have had to search for opportunities beyond what was provided to me?
Tonie is a senior at Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn. She's headed to Boston College in the fall.

Tonie is a senior at Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn. She's headed to Boston College in the fall.

To whom it should concern:

Growing up in East New York, Brooklyn, my mom knew of one decent public school where she wanted to enroll me. This school was an 8 minute walk from my house, but it was “out of my district” so I couldn’t attend.

She found out about the Achievement First charter school network, “AF”, and in three weeks’ time we sat for the lottery calling. My number got called, my mom jumped with joy, and I shrunk into my seat with embarrassment. I was only 5, so I didn’t quite understand what this could mean, but to my mom, it like she knew AF could be my ticket to success. Other schools in my neighborhood were low-performing, and AF schools in other parts of Brooklyn were praised. I joined the first graduating class of the new East New York location.

The rules were strict and specific, literally down to the color of my socks. Nevertheless, my foundation at Achievement First helped me value education. Although my school was 100% black or Hispanic, and predominantly low-income, I don’t recall feeling disadvantaged compared to my wealthier, white counterparts, not that I met them, but I was aware of the achievement gap. I actually began to see my privilege of AF when I learned that we outperformed public schools on state tests. And even though we tested often, I didn’t feel like exams were shoved down my throat or that I was just learning to pass an exam and make AF look good.

Toward the end of middle school, my older sister told me that not all public schools were terrible and failing, so I decided I wanted to venture out and try something new. When I explained this to the AF high school principal in our interview, she kindly “warned” me that I would be better off continuing at AF. Then I found Benjamin Banneker Academy in the high school directory and read the description of the unique extracurriculars and academic programs. Other reviews boasted of the Afro-centric theme of the school.

Soon after I started freshman year, I realized the Banneker on paper didn’t match Banneker in real life. The directory outlines pre-professional tracks available to students, like pre-engineering, but some teachers at Banneker hadn’t even heard of this. Africa Tours had stopped running because of new pressure from administration, and the student government disappeared after elections.

Even though Banneker has a decent post-secondary enrollment rate, our actual level of preparedness for college is questionable. Getting good grades is mostly based on the completion of an assignment--not the quality or effort, which leads to an environment where students just want the right answers instead of trying to improve their skillsets.

I’m not saying all charter schools are better than all traditional public schools--both have their benefits. But why is that at every step of my journey, I have had to search for opportunities beyond what was provided to me? Why do I feel like my education was not sufficient without the competitive programs I found my way into? Why is my school’s end goal to prepare students for college, yet it instills qualities of mediocrity?