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Our quest for equity can’t overlook our nation’s youngest learners

  • Keun-woo LEE

Sometimes we encounter realities that instantly open our eyes to the staggering inequity that still exists in our nation.

For Keun-woo Lee, that moment came when she learned of the “30 million-word gap” study during a child psychology course. The study shows that by the age of three, children from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds are already exposed to 30 million more words than their peers.

“Though the study has its flaws, it opened my perspective on opportunity gaps, forcing me to reflect on what role I could play in mediating the matter,” she says.

Though growing up she had more academic access than many, “my privilege does not deny the reality that capable students are unable to reach their potential solely due to the inequity of our education system,” she explains.

In college, Keun-woo married her love of neuroscience with her love of children, focusing on child development in her studies. Today, she continues to support the growth and education of children as a teacher in an integrated co-teaching pre-K classroom of 20 students between the ages three and five in the Bronx.

“Reforming systems of inequity in education should start with our littlest learners,” Keun-woo believes.

In her classroom, she implements a non-traditional program that offers more individualized instruction on math and reading and fosters social and motor skills via intentional creative play and story time, as well as family-style meals.

Participating in various LEE programs after her TFA experience helped Keun-woo become a more vocal, confident, and strategic advocate for students.

She says, “LEE has helped me develop as a leader, process what role I want to have in enacting change, and reflect on how my identity intersects with my work as a teacher and advocate. Attending the Diversity in Public Leadership Summit also allowed me to explore my identity not only as a POC, but as an Asian-American woman.”

The Houston Diversity in Public Leadership Summit is a three-day workshop for people of color designed to equip members with the tools and knowledge needed to create more equitable systems and policies for students and communities. It allows participants to explore civic and career pathways that maximize their previous experience in the classroom to create sustainable change.

Keun-woo says that her facilitators and peers at the summit pushed her to challenge norms of power. She learned to value how her unique identity is an asset to her quest for equity and how it positions her to be an authentic and relatable advocate.

They also helped her to map out ways in which her desire to support equity could evolve with her career and to adapt as her focus shifts through the years, for example, working toward ending the pay disparity between staff at community-based organizations and public school pre-K educators, which is a new interest she wants to explore.

“My overarching motivation is to continue championing high-quality preschool education for all students. In the next few years, I see myself best serving the needs of the community in a pre-K or kindergarten classroom. Of course, I will continue to build my knowledge, my work as an educator, and the relationships I’ve built in with TFA and LEE staff. In the long-run, I plan to build my research and policy analysis skills to enact change on an even larger scale.”