Where the Rubber Meets the Road

It’s college essay season. My seniors recently submitted theirs and I am giving them guidance before they go “live” with them, applying for entrance to schools near and far. The essays I like the best are the ones that explain why a student’s transcript is not a fair or accurate reflection of who they are as a learner.

It’s not uncommon for a student to struggle during his/her transition into high school. Many students wise up at some point during sophomore year and begin to take their grades seriously. For many of them, college entrance can remain within reach as long as they get on track and stay there. And most colleges will give kids a chance to explain the disconnect between their GPA and their desire to continue their education.

One of my students, Trissta, submitted this sort of essay. Trissta’s transcript is not an accurate reflection of who she is as a learner, nor is it a fair one. She explained in her college essay that when she was in 9th grade, all of her teachers found out that they were going to be fired. She wrote “my school was a turnaround school, whatever that means, and it seemed like they [the teachers] all gave up that year.”

Trissta had no idea that her ninth grade year had been dominated by the Office of School Turnaround, a federal program designed to offer assistance to the lowest performing schools in the country. It all sounds good on paper. Schools that struggle the most get extra support, right? Not exactly. In order for a school to receive turnaround funding, it must fire the majority of its teachers.

Now let’s just say for a minute that persistently low achieving schools are persistently low achieving because of the teachers that work in them. Even if that were the case, a mass firing of the majority of human beings that work in a school can only wreak havoc on a school community. It makes adults and kids feel unsafe and demoralized. And that is not good for the learning process. So again, even if the low achievement is the fault of the teaching staff, there has to be a more humane way of helping a school turn things around. More effective professional development might be a good starting point.

Indeed, Trissta’s transcript is not a fair reflection of who she is as a learner. It’s not fair that Trissta’s important transitional year into a large high school from a small middle school was so disruptive because of a drastic response to an extremely narrow set of performance data. It’s not fair that she had to spend her ninth grade year seeing teachers receive pink slips instead of more help. And it’s not fair that she slipped through the cracks with Ds and Fs when she should have been watched and cared for.

Trissta will go to college despite all of this, but it’s also not fair that she has to put all of her energy defending herself against a transcript that is much more a picture of a rotten federal policy than it is a picture of her capabilities, skills, interests, or passions. Trissta would have been hard pressed to have any of her qualities as a unique and creative learner show up on her AIMS score to begin with, but without the steady guiding hand of a supported teacher, she didn’t stand a chance.


Eve Rifkin

Eve Rifkin

Tucson, Arizona

I have been an educator for over 20 years. As a founding co-director of City High School, I have held a variety of leadership and teaching roles, including academic director, humanities teacher, and principal. I am currently the Director of College Access and support students as they envision their lives after high school.

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