Access Matters: Opening and Closing Doors to Opportunity

Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley on 7/11/2023 3:00:00 PM

2023 PER Camp U

Sharonica Hardin-BartleyHello University City families and community. Summer is in full swing. I hope you are enjoying time with family and friends and doing whatever brings you joy. I  know the past week was very trying for those of you dealing with extended power outages, and it is my hope that things are getting back to normal. 

In the District, we recently concluded Camp U, a rich representation of the creative spirit of our scholars, teachers and school leaders. Student experiences included exploration of our solar system, understanding the importance of healthy lifestyles, entrepreneurship, artistic expression and much more. Our incoming ninth grade scholars engaged in transition activities to help prepare them for the high school experience. High school students at various grade levels participated in a rich internship with Fresh Harvest 365, an innovative urban agriculture partnership based in Cool Valley. These types of experiences make our school district so unique. We understand and embrace equity and diversity in all that we do. Kudos to our summer school leaders, staff, students and our amazing partners.

As we ended Camp U, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action and removed racial reference from the college admission process. Since the ruling, I have closely watched universities swiftly alter policies related to the ruling. In Missouri, response by universities to comply has been very rapid, and not surprising. In my opinion, it is a moral imperative for higher education institutions, and all institutions, to explicitly work to create equitable opportunities. Access, opportunity and exposure to educational, service and professional communities serve as a way for children from all walks of life and backgrounds to realize the American Dream. 

I am a first generation college graduate. I have lived the importance of equity in the educational setting. My success as an educator and an individual would not have been possible without teachers who helped me realize my dreams. I grew up in St. Louis in an impoverished community without even realizing it. My mother gave me everything I needed – from the clothes on my back to a strong work ethic and a passion to succeed. And she took the time to find what she believed were the best schools for me. 

In doing so, she sent me on an educational journey that in many ways was challenging and traumatizing, but, in hindsight, turned out to be great preparation to lead a school district. I attended both a public and parochial school, and later rode an hour on the bus each way to schools in the Rockwood School District under the voluntary desegregation program. 

I encountered all kinds of instructors on that journey. Some were ineffective. Some were racist. But others inspired me beyond all measure. They saw me not just as a shy, diminutive African-American with a hard-to-pronounce, hard-to-spell name, but a bundle of human potential. Were it not for them, I would never have gone to college, earned a doctorate and gone on to serve as the leader of this amazing school district. Access, opportunity and exposure (and yes, my hard work) opened opportunities for me I would not have known were possible had I not received access to strong educators, mentors and higher education. Historically, and even today, Black people and people in marginalized communities are hindered from accessing tools, resources and school systems that are equipped for meeting their needs. 

My dear friend and UCHS alum, Amy Hunter, calls it “lucky zip codes.” In St. Louis, where a child happens to be born and raised significantly impacts his/her/their trajectory. Amy says that the “intersectionality between our zip codes and our humanity are connected. We are always connected.” 

I argue that race is a social construct used to sort, divide and, in many instances, conquer. This unfair system is dismantled by intentional actions to foster equitable opportunities, growth and continuing progress regarding race and social justice. Access to higher education, and the American Dream, is critical for dismantling unfair systems and elevating children born in unlucky zip codes. Educational institutions must create opportunity and help communities overcome divisions that are dangerously harming our nation and our children. 

I applaud University of North Carolina Chancellor Kevin Guskiewiz for his statement, “Carolina remains firmly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and continues to make an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond….While not the outcome we hoped for, we will carefully review the Supreme Court’s decision and take any steps necessary to comply with the law.” 

Let us, as a school district community, reflect on this court action and, more importantly, how it harms ALL of us. I hope other higher education institutions, including those in Missouri, will glean wisdom from Dr. Guskiewiz. 

Let us remember what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his letter from the Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”