Education policy debates are often driven by statistics. And without question, numbers are a critical part of any education discussion. Yet the best and most important stories are the ones in which a protagonist defies the odds, choosing instead to build his or her own story through hard work, dedication, and perseverance. The best stories are the ones in which statistics lose.
I was reminded of this fact recently while working on a profile of Arrupe Jesuit High School, a private Catholic high school in northwestern Denver that very deliberately serves only low-income students. The overwhelming majority of Arrupe Jesuit’s 370 students are Hispanic, and most enter the school several grade levels behind their peers. By nearly any standard, these kids are the least likely to succeed. Statistics and probability have all but consigned them to failure.
Arrupe Jesuit offers hope to these children. Their families would not be able to afford private school tuition on their own, and the school charges only a fraction of what it costs to educate a student. Even then, most pay only a portion of the lower amount.
To help cover costs, Arrupe Jesuit students work five full days a month in organizations of their choosing through the school’s signature Corporate Work Study Program. Roughly 65 percent of each student’s tuition costs are covered by the wages earned while building up a resume.
The opportunity provided by Arrupe Jesuit pays off in a big way for its students. Every one of the school’s 2015 graduates was accepted to a college or university of his or her choice. Combined, the graduating class has earned more than $6.2 million (and counting) in postsecondary scholarships. Ninety-two percent of these students will be the first in their families to attend college, and nearly half are the first in their families to graduate high school.
To me, these numbers are a reminder that Arrupe Jesuit’s inspiring teachers and leaders wake up each morning and commit wholeheartedly to helping tough populations of kids succeed, despite the fact that the odds are stacked against them. They are a testament to the steadfast belief that every child can succeed if given the opportunity, and to the school’s deeply rooted foundation in a 500-year-old Jesuit tradition that values justice, giving, and compassion above all else.
These numbers reflect an inversion of traditional education statistics. Armed with four years of entry-level work experience, a rigorous academic background, and firsthand knowledge of the power of commitment and persistence, Arrupe Jesuit students leave the school with a very real opportunity to break the cycle of poverty for themselves and their future families. And thanks to the school’s focus on producing men and women of character, they all will enter the next phase of their lives knowing the importance of respecting and showing compassion to others.
We too often hear that the only way to “fix” education is to eradicate poverty, the subtle implication being that there is little schools can do with challenging populations of kids. We are told that because we cannot equalize opportunity, we must equalize outcomes. Arrupe Jesuit is a monument to the inaccuracy of such claims. It is proof that drive, commitment, and hard work matter far more than a person’s background or demography—proof that statistics stand no chance in the face of human determination.
But while Arrupe Jesuit’s success represents hope and opportunity in defiance of statistics, it also reminds of a darker reality. For each of Arrupe Jesuit’s handful of students, many thousands of low-income children find themselves unable to access the quality educational options they need. These children are trapped by numbers, with long waitlists and random lotteries for admission to the best public schools conspiring to leave them stranded in schools that are not meeting their needs.
Deprived of opportunity, many of these children face uncertain futures. Rather than being empowered to overcome the odds and become the architects of their own stories, they find themselves in real danger of succumbing to statistics, of becoming just another tick mark on a spreadsheet bandied about in the endless education debate. In these children’s worlds, the numbers do not convey a message of hope and success. They convey something far more frightening.
It need not be so. By adopting educational choice legislation, state after state is embracing the notion that doing right by students is more important than politics or entrenched power structures.
Colorado has been slower to adopt full-spectrum educational choice. Just last week, an overly broad Colorado Supreme Court ruling defied legal logic and precedent by striking down Douglas County’s first-of-its-kind local voucher program under the Colorado Constitution’s discriminatory Blaine Amendment. Yet this setback has only emboldened supporters of student and parent freedom who know that with each educational choice program successfully created, thousands more children are given the opportunity they need to beat the odds.
Arrupe Jesuit High School daily proves that every child has the ability to succeed, statistics be damned. All we have to do is open the door.
Ross Izard is an education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. He is the author of “Building Hope: A Profile of Arrupe Jesuit High School.”