Coco Rhum

While many of my peers have been unjustly left behind, I have not.
Coco is a student at Beacon High School in Manhattan.

Coco is a student at Beacon High School in Manhattan.

When I was in first grade, I was assigned the task of writing about what I wanted to be when I was older. I wrote: “I have a dream that one day girls can be president. Because girls are just as good as boys. I am going to study to be the first girl president.” You could say I had big dreams then and still do. I have had the privilege of being able to imagine a world for myself where I am living a life governed solely by my desires, to imagine a world where I am doing something significant. 

Let’s go back to the first grade, to that same girl dreaming big. My single mother, a phD, both told and showed me that I could be my own boss, that the world was mine for the taking. My zip code landed me in an an elementary school with abundant books and arts and friendly faces welcoming me each morning. My first grade teacher Hillary fostered my curiosity and love for learning and helped me to see that I could dream big. Meanwhile, the Democratic primary for the 2008 Presidential election was approaching. I distinctly remember sitting on the classroom carpet playing a game with a boy in my class, but instead of being Coco, I was Hilary Clinton, and my friend was Barack Obama. Whoever won our game, we said, would win the primary. I guess we all know who won the game, but I still recall feeling empowered by seeing female representation in politics. Sometime later, after she did not win the primary, I wrote that I would be the first female president. A multitude of factors, none unrelated to my privilege, were at play and helped shape that dreaming-big little girl. 

This same privilege that made me dream big in the first grade has led me to opportunities and advantages; I have taken AP classes, have had multiple internships, have played sports and participated in clubs, and have my own desk in an art studio in school. I have has the best of the best and that is because I have had the privilege of navigating through the New York City public school system with the upper hand. While many of my peers have been unjustly left behind, I have not. When I was born, my mother moved to District 15, in part because of its schools. I attended a lovely and well resourced elementary school. It was over 75% white – five times the city average. In middle school, my privilege paved path continued as I attended a screened school in District 15. My middle school was similarly coveted, and similarly well-resourced. It was almost 60% white. And then came high school. 

New York City’s high school application process is notoriously complex. But for me, it was smooth sailing. I knew the “good” schools to apply to- these were the schools that I put first and second on my list, I knew how to speak thoughtfully about myself for my Beacon interview, how to unscramble a paragraph for the SHSAT and I knew how to pirouette for my LaGuardia audition. I worked hard, but I had already been on a path that meant that I was advantaged. The public high school that I now go to, which, when I applied, had screens for grades and test scores, a portfolio submission, and an interview portion, has an acceptance rate that is lower than Harvard’s and an annual Parent Association budget that is nearly half a million dollars. It is 50% white. 

I have not been left behind. I have been at the forefront, I have dreamed big, and I have fulfilled my dreams. My experience is not the norm, though. At each of the three schools I’ve attended, less than 30% of students have qualified for free or reduced price lunch –– in a system where 75% of students qualify. All of my schools have been majority white in a system where just 15% of kids are white. The New York City public school system is segregated and its resources flow to schools like mine. Schools that are highly white and highly affluent .

What we see here is a system that contains vast disparities and inequities. What we see is a system that leaves students behind. Those students mainly being low income students of color. What we see here is unjust and intolerable and unacceptable. For a city that prides itself on its diversity, for a school system that is public and therefore claims to provide equality on that basis, what we see is that we have failed and continue to fail students every single day while we let them get left behind. What we see here, we can no longer let happen.