When Janeen Bryant '04 was in high school in rural Piedmont, South Carolina, she was baffled how students in the accelerated programs-under the same roof as peers on a traditional path-were having vastly different educational experiences. This fueled her interest in educational equity, a cause she remains passionate about today.
Equity, she explained, is about ensuring that all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
"We often try blanket measures that provide access to the same resources to students, but forget that those same students may not be equipped to gain the most from those resources," said Bryant. "Online applications are a great example of everyone having equal access to a resource, unless you think about the differences of students who have high speed internet at home versus those who use the internet solely through their smart phone or not at all. Equal, not equitable."
By the time Bryant attended Davidson, she understood that these disparities in the K-12 educational experience could likely predict outcomes for a person's life, so she became involved on a local level. She tutored students at the Ada Jenkins Center, a local agency offering youth education, healthcare and human services to individuals in crisis. There, she gained experience working with elementary and middle school students as they developed literacy skills.
Bryant went on to teach in India through Davidson's Semester-in-India program, as well as at a local village school in Cape Coast, Ghana, through the college's summer study abroad program. There, she led 40 young students in an open air classroom with only one slate and an inch of chalk that was shared among them. The children communicated with her in four languages, testing out French, Fanti, Ashanti and finally English.
Also, as part of a student-led Davidson service experience, Bryant worked in Bolivia to build and rebuild parts of an orphanage.
"By the time I left Davidson, I had traveled to four other continents and served children on three," said Bryant. "These experiences, although each challenging in different ways, shaped my understanding of the value of education."
Through her Davidson experiences, Bryant began to see the possibilities of creating a classroom culture that embraced differences, celebrated multiple perspectives and promoted self-pacing. She put that philosophy to work while participating in Teach for America.
Through the program, she taught kindergarten in a Charlotte, North Carolina, classroom comprised of students whose families experienced poverty, displacement, low likelihood of graduation and high incarceration rates. She realized that each interaction with the children and their families was creating a new and untested narrative.
"I was honored to teach kindergarten and work with families as they learned to navigate school for the first time," she said. "I understood that it was a privilege to be a teacher when you consider how much power they hold to shape the trajectory of young people."
Bryant's years in the classroom formed her belief that the public education experience can be one which nurtures the potential in every student. The problem, she explained, is that that doesn't always happen.
Some children are celebrated and "tracked" as high performers, and are then linked to additional resources, including rigorous academic curriculum, extracurricular development and eventually access to college readiness programming. For other students, tracking will direct them to special education experiences, limited development opportunities and reduced exposure to high-level content.
"Educational research acknowledges that disproportionate numbers of young men, particularly young men of color, are harmfully impacted, ultimately leading to lower graduation rates and higher incarceration rates," said Bryant. "It is actually a much more complicated issue, but often plays out with the public school experience, starting even as young as first grade, supplying bodies and brains into the school-to-prison pipeline."
Today, Bryant serves on the board of a local non-profit called Leadership for Educational Equity. The organization encourages Teach for America corps members and alumni to grow as leaders in their communities and help build the broader movement for educational equity. She also continues to teach students in classrooms, museums, and according to Bryant, wherever she can act as a mechanism for change.
"We are literally shaping the future. It is our decision to ignore and repress potential or uplift and empower each student," said Bryant. "Education is a privilege and we should all be working to build a bridge of access from classrooms into communities."