An Open Letter to Legislators

Today, I am writing to you about a significant wall that some of our students are facing. I know, walls are a popular debate in Washington D.C, but this isn’t that kind of wall. It’s the wall of paying for college. It seems that we have built a state system that limits college to only the wealthiest students and families.

As a teacher I have a unique perspective on this wall and a firm understanding that one of our jobs is to tear it down. Unfortunately, the rising costs of our universities and lack of help from policy-makers is only reinforcing this wall, casting an ominous shadow on our most vulnerable students. It has become harder and harder to watch this happen. It’s time we take some action for our young people. We are paying taxes that help fund these state universities, voting you into our representative offices, but only granting access to a student population that is wealthy and, well, white.

I tell my students each year that I have been fortunate enough to get one of the best jobs in the world. I get to wake up each morning, lace up my scuffed wingtips, and walk to my neighborhood high school. While the adults in this business can be tough to manage, I have never had a problem with the students in my classroom. My job is so great because each day I get to teach some of the most amazing people I have ever met. Each day, I get to learn from them and, if I succeed, they learn something from me. I’ve always told them that their work will pay off in the form of college and a career. I teach 11th graders, so students are already well-aware that our state has failed so many of them in the K-12 system. But, I often say, it is not too late. They can still make it through. I’m not naive enough to sell some version of a Horatio Alger bootstrap story, but I’ve always believed that there is hope in a college education and a dream.

I thought that was all there for them.

Now, I’m beginning to fear that I have been lying. The college door might only be open to rich kids. I’m afraid I have to start to push another narrative. I’m feeling an increasing guilt for encouraging a path that may not be passable at all for poor kids.  

Pennsylvania has some remarkable young people and I have the distinct privilege of meeting about 100 of those young people each year. You should be excited. If the students that I have met over the years are any indication of the entire state, there are much better voting constituents on the way.

It is one of those young people that I think each of you should meet. I’m going to share a segment of a GoFundMe that I helped her organize last year. Sorry- It’s a little long. But what are corny English teachers good for if it isn’t heartstring anecdotes and wordiness?

“Hey Friends. As many of you know, I am a teacher at Pittsburgh Perry High School. Each day, I am fortunate enough to hang out with some of Pittsburgh’s most amazing young people. If these young folks are the future of Pittsburgh, we are a very lucky city. Seriously, they are great. Every teacher knows that there are some students who stand out along the way and over the years.

Kevonna is one of those students.

I met Kevonna two years ago when she was in an AP Language class I was teaching. It didn't take me long to realize that Kevonna was the kind of person who pushed through anything to make the most of her opportunities. And unfortunately, as life goes, she had to push through more than some others. Half way through that year, her house burned to the ground. Her family lost everything and was forced to move across the city. She barely blinked. She would get on a bus for an hour each day, traverse the city in time to arrive at Perry by 7:11 for first period. She kept smiling, kept being a good friend to her classmates, and kept getting good grades. In fact, her grades were good enough to win her the honor of Valedictorian of her class last June and an acceptance to Temple University.

For her, the hard work was paying off.

Somewhere in the midst of that 11th grade year, I started telling Kevonna that she floats. She asked what I meant, and I told her that she always seems to rise to the top. There has been plenty of reasons for her to give in to the weight and sink, but she continues to rise up. In fact, on our school talent night, Kevonna sang "Rise Up" by Andra Day and it almost made me tear up. She really will keep rising, and she'll do it "1000 times again" as the song says.  

Two weeks ago, I got the kind of news that makes me want to scream. Kevonna's financial aid at Temple covers all but $3500 of her semester's tuition ($7000 per year). Temple will not let her sign up for her Spring classes until she can pay $3500 dollars. In fact, they will not even release her first semester's transcripts without that money.  She has lived at the financial aid office over the last month trying to exhaust every option, and it seems that there are none. We called everyone we knew who might be able to help, but we are learning that it is late to get that kind of money. She needs to get a private loan to cover the rest of her tuition. Unfortunately, no one in her amazing family has the positive credit to cosign for a loan. She has all "A's" and "B's," which is pretty remarkable for a first generation college student in a new city. She is succeeding in every way that she can. I am too much of an optimist to allow Kevonna to come home midway through her freshman year over $3500.

I asked Kevonna how personal she wanted me to be in this appeal. She said this: "You can be personal, but not too personal :-) Talk about how I've basically struggled financially my whole life. The fire, and the fact that I didn't let it hurt my grades. Tell them that I'm pushing harder. I really want to pursue college so I can do something better for myself in life. "

I wish I could cut a check for $7000 and help Kevonna figure out her scholarships for next year. She is that kind of person. She will not fail. I'm confident of that. In fact, she has overcome harder things than tuition bills. She will find a way to overcome this.

But I don't want her to have to do this one on her own. She'll float, but this time I would like for all of us to show Kevonna that we can throw her a life jacket. We have the chance to help her ease the load a little.

Temple is fortunate to have such an amazing young person on their campus. Pittsburgh should be proud of Kevonna. Her Perry family certainly is.”

To my embarrassment, this story got all kinds of news coverage. A news channel did this story. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called and wrote this story. I guess teachers don’t photograph as well as politicians. More stories followed. You can google it. I guess people love stories like this because we had the money we needed in just a few days. Kevonna paid her bill, tried to apply for scholarships, and kept working her job at a North Philly Burger King. She did exactly what she has always done. She finished her full course load and her freshman year with a 3.14.

For a moment, we all beamed with pride. This is the kind of student who should be receiving a standing ovation from our city and our state. We should be doing anything we can to push her along the way and provide support where we can.

But our pride quickly faded to the same outrage that we felt last year. Kevonna got her financial aid award letter for her second year and it said that she would owe over $10,000. She had done everything right, she is a PELL Grant recipient, she is working hard, but it seemed that Temple University was telling her that it wasn’t going to work out unless she could magically come up with a lot of money. One lady in the financial aid office even told her that she should consider going to her church and asking them to pass the offering plate. I’m too much of an idealist to believe this kind of thing.

So I asked around. Over and over again, I explained her situation and I was told that maybe she should consider transferring to slightly less expensive schools. It’s not like she was at Harvard (where ironically, she would be receiving a full financial award to pay for school because of their commitment to students of promise who come from poverty). She is at a partially-funded state school, but the best answer we have is to pass an offering plate.

This is where we need your help. Today, Kevonna is going to go to the local community college after she gets off work to try to register for classes in the fall. She wants to make sure that if she can’t afford going back to Temple that she is still taking classes and working toward her degree. When I talked to her yesterday, she told me that maybe college just isn’t really meant for people like her.

Again, I wanted to cry. I live in a state that is allowing colleges to tell people like Kevonna that college is really only meant for rich people. She had naive English teachers like me tell her to chase her dreams because there is nothing holding her back. I tell all my students that, and I am beginning to fear that it is all a lie if you teach at a school that is poor and black. I’m wondering if I have to change my message to “dream big and shoot for community college.”

 Of course, I want to help take care of Kevonna’s debt. But I think this conversation is bigger than that. I want your help in crafting  legislation that will make college free for any PELL Grant recipient in this state at any of the partially or fully funded state institutions. I believe making this the standard, will push many of  our private institutions to do the same.

 We have already allowed for so many of our students to sit in K-12 institutions that are not doing their job. I know this more intimately than most. We have allowed so many walls to exist for our state’s most vulnerable residents.

Is there any way we can take this one down? Kevonna and I are ready to meet with any of you who want to help. Let me know. Kevonna, and many of her peers, are waiting for your answer.