Making Our Humanity Visible and Our Voices Heard: Why Education Disparities may be the Half-Court Shot That Leaves Too Many Behind

Jul 1, 2020

In this three-part blog series, Natalye Paquin, Points of Light’s president & CEO, explores how the impacts of a global pandemic and social unrest bring to light the vulnerabilities in our society, and how we can take action to make change. This is the second blog in the series; you can read the first blog here.

In basketball, the half-court shot is remarkable precisely because it’s so hard to make. We’ve all seen the contests at games– for car giveaways or life changing cash prizes – where one lucky person has won just the chance to try a half-court shot, with the odds of making it slim-to-none. That’s why we watch so intently, and it’s why the crowd goes wild with stadium music blaring when it happens.

So how does it happen?

Imagine two fans, both proudly wearing their team’s colors walking into a stadium at the same time. One has dreams of being a basketball star and has practiced the half-court shot nearly every day for years. The other, had a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast. Which fan do you think has a better chance of making the shot?

Recently, I thought about being prepared to make a half-court shot and how it could be analogous to gaining access to higher education in this country. Admission to the best universities is largely dependent on a student’s performance on college entrance exams. Success often yields more scholarship money. Performance in this high-stakes moment is the difference between attending a top college, with mountains of debt, or not. And so, the trajectory of success begins.

From years of working in education, I know that some children prepare for these testing moments for years. They have test prep courses, private tutors, role models, and a range of other experiences. Other students, meanwhile, are advised to get a good night’s rest and be sure to eat breakfast in the morning.

Using the half-court shot analogy, how do we get more young people prepared to make their shot?

How do we invest in schools that lack art, music, technology, and world language options as a standard part of the curriculum? What about the communities where ACT and SAT prep isn’t even on the table? How do we support first-generation college students who don’t have role models or mentors to prepare or guide them?

This kind of divide exists up and down the education system in this country.

One of our recent Daily Point of Light honorees, Brandon Griggs knows that divide very well. And this high schooler decided to do something about it.

For Brandon, the moment came when he was assigned a PowerPoint project in school. His family didn’t have a computer – they didn’t even have electricity at the time. So, Brandon went to the library, but it was closed. He went to a community center, where he was turned away. He went to neighbors, who didn’t have computers either. Running, in the rain, he made it to a BestBuy and completed his project on a display computer.

He got an A.

Today, Brandon is the leader of a group called “Hear the Youth,” which advocates for students. The group hosts roundtable meetings with school district officials to talk about the challenges facing kids like Brandon. And they’re making a real difference. They recently worked with the school district to create a program to lend mobile hot spots to students without internet access at home. Students can check them out of the library as easily as they check out books.

Brandon is exceptional. But should his achievements be the exception, positioned like that half-court shot?

Today, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students have been out of school for months. For some, that means no computers, no internet access, no camps, or enrichment. The achievement gap is widening and it’s happening worldwide.

There’s a lot of talk about a “new normal” and the adjustments we’re all making. That the old normal wasn’t working – not for everyone. There’s so much to do in the social justice space. Improving systems and making change can begin anywhere. When we think of the compounding effect of education and educational experiences, it’s a solid place to start.

Taking our inspiration from Brandon, we have this moment to hold a mirror up to our society and change what we see. We have been given an opportunity to reimagine all sorts of things and it’s up to us to make those visions real.

There is power in people working together. So, let’s make something great happen. Educational success shouldn’t depend on a single half-court shot – because change, like basketball, is a team sport.

If you want to get involved, click here for opportunities to volunteer virtually or in person, or find your local Points of Light Global Network affiliate and learn how to get involved.

Natalye Paquin, President & CEO, Points of Light

Natalye Paquin was the president and chief executive officer of Points of Light from 2017–2022. She is a visionary and results-oriented leader, with more than 20 years of experience providing strategic, operations and fiscal leadership in the nonprofit and public sectors.

Natalye Paquin