All kids deserve to compete

Taking my students to competitions — like the Junior Achievement Student Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. this week — is rewarding because they work hard and perform well, and sometimes they win.

It’s also humbling because I get to see how much energy teenagers will devote to an activity they love. In class, kids might be minimalists, but the students in my two JA companies spent hundreds of hours outside the classroom this year producing apps, doing market research, building business contacts, forging team bonds and practicing pitches.

There’s something else about competitions that I love just as much as watching my own students thrive. It’s the opportunity to see kids from all kinds of schools and all kinds of family and financial backgrounds achieve and earn the recognition they deserve.

We read so much in the news and hear so much from politicians about “dropout factories” and kids who can’t overcome the barriers against them. It seems hopeless.

And so often, we see kids from schools like mine (where most students are from stable families) racking up awards and accomplishments, and we applaud them without pausing to think of the advantages they possess — and the opportunities denied to others.

But every competition reminds me that high school students everywhere can overcome the odds if we give them access.

Here are a few examples:

  • The two boys from San Diego who competed in the finals of the international JA Titan competition a few years ago, who would be first in their families to attend college and were so eager to connect with students and teachers who could tell them about SAT prep and AP classes.
  • The team of all girls from the poorest school district in Florida, whose teacher and principal brought them to the Harvard Pre-Collegiate Economics Challenge, so they could compete with schools like Phillips Exeter and test their econ knowledge.
  • The team of South Central L.A. students who made it to the top 15 nationally in this year’s JA Company competition, designing and selling motivational T-shirts to inspire their peers and community. You can follow them on Twitter here.

A few years ago, before my school was involved in so many competitions, my student newspaper editors wrote an editorial titled “We can’t win if we don’t try.” In it, they pleaded with teachers to give them more opportunities to participate in the high-level competitions they had hear about.

The teachers listened, and opportunities have expanded dramatically. So have the students’ accomplishments and goals.

High-level competitions like Biology Olympiad, JA Company, FIRST Robotics, Discover Design, and MIT Inventeams (and many more, too many to name here) integrate solid academic content with teamwork, communication, passion and the opportunity to win prizes and open doors. They motivate our students, and they open doors.

If we are serious about educating all kids, we need to find the resources — financial and human — to make these opportunities available to all of them. They can do it; can we?