More than just a letter grade
Zacheriah Gray adjusts his black tie and smooths out the corners of his vest before picking up a microphone on the table to the side of his chair.
Gray looks straight out into bright, stage lights at a crowd of more than 100 in the audience of Impact Church in Atlanta, South Fulton County, on Nov. 13. That crowd consists of mostly adults — educators, counselors, elected officials, parents, pastors and nonprofit practitioners. They sit up in their seats and fix their eyes on the Westlake High School senior.
Gray is one of four students sitting on a youth-led panel at United Way of Greater Atlanta and South Fulton County Chamber of Commerce’s State of the Children Summit. The other students along with Gray — Jaire Richardson, also a Westlake student, and Osiris Zelaya and Mariana Garduno, each of Banneker High School — have just been asked what schools and the other people in this room could do to make a student’s life easier.
Gray looks down at a small notepad resting on his left knee and answers the question.
“Kids aren’t numbers,” Gray says. “The statistical data is organized and correct, but I would like to not just be treated like a grade. I’m [at school] competing with a bunch of people who are just competing to get out. That puts a lot of pressure on people who are just looking to get a letter.”
Zelaya agrees. She says she faces a lot of pressure from her parents who simply want more for their child. They want to give her opportunities they didn’t have.
“We have to go to college and be better than our parents,” Zelaya says. “They want me to be successful, but there just isn’t any money. They need me to have a scholarship.”
Zelaya talks about her hardships growing up in a family with two parents who learned English as a second language. She says she’s been mostly responsible for her own education since she was 5. She takes advanced placement, college-prep courses, and when faced with any hardships, she has mostly had to fend for herself.
And that pressure — even well-intentioned — put on to these students by parents, teachers and peers is a lot for these students — students who have very different lives beyond those classroom doors. Richardson adds this mental pressure can add to mental illness.
More than just a statistic, surely.
But those statistics help paint a picture. A picture of a community in need.
On Nov. 13, United Way of Greater Atlanta announced a change in the overall Child Well-Being score for South Fulton County had improved from 38.9 to 42.1. United Way launched its Child Well-Being Movement in 2017 to address children in communities across Greater Atlanta’s 13 counties living in areas of low or very-low Child Well-Being. Through a set of 14 family, community and child measures, United Way calculated an overall score of 58.9. On May 9, United Way announced that overall score had improved in two years to 61.8. That equates to a change in the lives of more than 82,000 children.
That means more kids are graduating high school and are college and career ready. More young children are reading proficiently after third grade, more families have jobs and more families have access to health care.
Richardson says he wants to be a lawyer and a politician. The young man commands the respect of the room, he speaks clearly and directly to the crowd in the room. He knows he has an audience who wants his opinion and he doesn’t want to miss this chance to call out his leadership.
He wants support from those people in the room to help him achieve his dream.
“We want you to be the backbone that our students need,” Richardson says. “We need to implement initiatives that motivate our students, but also our educators. We want you to hear our opinions and actually act on them. Actions without visions is merely a dream.”
The South Fulton community where Zelaya and Garduno live and go to school are predominantly low-income, and Garduno says she needs more access to technology and materials that will prepare her for college and life after college.
She added that she needed more after-school activities for herself and other Spanish-speaking students.
“I am part of the Spanish Club, but the other programs, there’s not enough for everyone,” Garduno says. “We want an opportunity to be a part of every single one of them, but they don’t have enough space for it.”
In addition to not having enough opportunities at school, Zelaya says she doesn’t have resources for her parents who speak Spanish.
“What I really want is — our parents don’t know anything about our school,” Zelaya says. “I want for them to know what I’m going through. I want them to have communication with the school. They have never been to a parent-teacher meeting, they have never talked to my teachers about what I’ve been through and what I’m doing. I’m thankful that I have my teachers there and the staff to know what I’m going through.”
Gray reiterated this in his final point. He says it was because of teachers and staff — some of which were in the room — that he was even able to be on this stage in the first place.
“I would like to say as a child we do appreciate you guys,” Gray says. “We do appreciate the work that you are putting into us. I wouldn’t have been at this panel if an adult hadn’t been here. The acceptance that comes when an adult comes and tells you that they are proud of who you are is what we need.”
To learn more about the Child Well-Being Movement, click here.
Bradley Roberts is a Content Manager at United Way of Greater Atlanta.