Op-Ed: If You Ignite a Kid’s Passion, a Zip Code Is No Longer Destiny


I met Sandra as a first-year tenth-grade teacher to 165 students at Locke High School in South Central, Los Angeles. Sandra grew up in a home plagued by domestic violence; she witnessed her alcoholic father nearly kill her mother. Sandra regularly showed up to my English class with just a few hours of sleep. At lunch time, she would go to the main office and sleep until the bell rang to go to her next class.

Watts, the community where Sandra lived, was infested with gang members, drug addicts, and prostitution. She witnessed policemen raid her home several times. She watched most of her male friends who were not a part of gangs lose their lives. Gun violence and drugs were daily activities in her community, which affected Sandra’s high school experience and her learning.

There were plenty of reasons for Sandra to lose focus in my English class. The relevance of her daily struggles often clashed with my whole-hearted efforts to inject passion into topics like comma splices and essay structure.

After one particular research paper assignment, an abysmal five percent of students turned the paper in—and not even on time. I took a step back to re-evaluate my efforts and my purpose in these kids’ lives. What was the point of teaching the California State Standards if kids couldn’t connect to the greater picture of why this mattered for them?

I changed the research paper assignment: “Tell me about your passion, find a program outside of school that supports your passion, and present a position about why you should attend that program.” Over 80 percent of students turned the paper in—and on time. Eleven papers began with the sentence “No one has ever asked me what my passion is.”

Sandra’s paper was especially poignant. She researched UCLA’s Mock Trial Institute and wanted to explore law in the hopes of one day supporting women against domestic violence. I was so encouraged by my students’ passions that I ran a marathon to raise $12,000 to send seven students on their experiences. Sandra attended UCLA’s Mock Trial Institute. She became the lead defense attorney in the trial—and won!

Sandra returned to Locke in her junior year, brought her grades up, graduated and was accepted to Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. As a current junior at Bennett College, Sandra is an honors student, a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and a Ronald E. McNair Scholar. She will be applying to law school next year and hopes to attend Columbia University.

The most powerful message of Sandra’s story is the sheer force of passion—what happens to students when they become a part of something greater than themselves and how this passion affects the way they see themselves in the world.

As a result of students like Sandra, I started Wishbone.org, a foundation that ignites passions by sending low-income high school students on path-changing after school and summer programs. Wishbone’s core service is delivered through our online platform, connecting students to a database of qualified out-of-school program opportunities. We guide students through a digestible application process, ensuring affordability through crowd-sourced funding and aggregated scholarships from program providers and foundations.

When students come alive and truly find their spark, curiosity follows.

I have found in my work with Wishbone that when students come alive and truly find their spark, curiosity follows. This curiosity for both learning and life leads to long-term success. Students redefine who they are and who they could become on the field, on the court, in the mock trial, in the classroom, but most importantly, in life.

Educators and parents alike are starting to turn the conversation to character, and we are learning that the true agents of life-long success—persistence, self-confidence, and grit—are best learned through out-of-school, real-life experiences. While Sandra exemplifies the power of such an experience, the real question will be how we as a nation begin to level the playing field, providing these types of important game-changing opportunities to students who cannot afford them.

Research by Greg J. Duncan at the University of California, Irvine, and Richard J. Murnane of Harvard shows that affluent families spend seven times as much as low-income families on path-changing opportunities like music schools and sports activities for their kids. The achievement gap has grown in parallel to a true opportunity gap, and it will keep growing unless we prioritize access to real-life experiences for low-income students.

Sandra’s story is a universal story, relevant to anyone who has ever had a dream. The opportunity to become something greater—something bigger than oneself—is powerful enough for any kid to overcome great circumstances and find true success, no matter where he or she is from.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

Beth Schmidt is the founder and executive director of Wishbone.org, an organization that sends low-income high school students to after-school and summer programs. She is a former Teach for America corps member, who taught tenth-grade English at Locke High School in South Central, Los Angeles. Beth is a Kauffman Labs Education Ventures Fellow and was recently celebrated on Forbes' 2013 '30 Under 30 list' for her work in education. TakePart.com