ByLora Kelley
Kinyette Henderson, KIPP NJ Middle School Teacher

America’s teachers are on the front lines of connecting young people to opportunity, in the form of learning, employment, and emotional and physical health.

But teachers too often are working within structural inequalities that impede many students from achieving their potential. These issues begin with pollution and the stresses of poverty, and extend to economic segregation and inadequate school funding.

We were seeking a direct view into how much such factors determine outcomes for America’s young people and the role that schools play in helping overcome them. We asked teachers in cities across the country to share the experience of how the neighborhood that children are born into affects their futures. Over 500 teachers wrote in.

All of the teachers we heard from went out of their way to praise the hard work and talents of their students. But each also discussed the challenges that students in low-income schools face that students in wealthy ZIP codes do not, including one tied tightly to place: high rates of asthma due to living in polluted areas.

In their own words, here are eight public school teachers on the question of how where students are born shapes their lives. All photos were taken by the subjects or people close to them. These accounts, drawn from interviews and submissions, have been edited and condensed.

“I can say that I literally was in their seats.”

Kinyette Henderson, Newark

Middle school English

I returned to work at the middle school I went to.

I’m going into my fifth year teaching seventh-grade English and language arts at a charter school in Newark. In terms of demographics, I teach 100 percent students of color. Eighty-five percent of our students get free or reduced lunch. Those are pretty typical demographics for the inner city.

There’s just a connection I have with kids teaching in a classroom where I also had seventh-grade classes. A lot of kids find it interesting that I went there. It’s another level of support and trust.

For my students, it’s really hard to see people who come from neighborhoods that look like theirs doing different things, or having a career, or having gone to college or different things like that. But with me, they’re able to attach that life path to someone who grew up in the same area as them. It makes it a lot more immediate.

Students from low-income areas don’t have the same ability to see and experience the same vision of life as their richer neighbors. I could be a really, really, really smart kid, but I may still lack certain opportunities that my white counterparts may have been afforded because of their neighborhood. If I grew up where my neighbor was the C.E.O. of a company, that may give me more access to something that’s not necessarily tied to my academic ability.

A lot of people have the goal, especially if they live in the inner city, to be successful so that they can get out. A lot of people don’t think about the second part of that, which is if everybody just leaves, the place doesn’t get any better.

The opportunities I have had absolutely went beyond the opportunities that my parents got. And what I can say is that none of that was easy. I’ve learned so much on my journey since leaving Newark. I have to now bring that back.

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