Natalie Pargas
BASIS DC Public Charter School
Washington, DC
9th Grade
First Place Winner, District of Columbia 

To address the idea of the "American Dream," specifically my concept of it and whether or not the concept is alive and thriving in Greater DC, I must define what the American Dream is to me. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the American dream as " an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also : the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal". I agree with the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of the American Dream and imagine it as being a kind of pay for performance agreement. If I perform well I can expect to be rewarded.

My expectation as an American is that I will get an excellent education which will enable me to gain a job in which I can make a lot of money. Considering this expectation and looking at the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) 2014-15 School Year Test Results published by Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) for DC public schools, I realized that the first part of this expectation, that an excellent education is a reality and not a dream for those living in this area, might be largely dependent on factors, such as race, which are wholly outside of an individual students control. For the English II portion of the 2014-2015 school year PARCC test for DC high school student, 82% of the white students tested , 25% of the Hispanic students tested and 20% of the black students tested were considered college and career ready. The results of the math portion of that test indicate that 52% of the white students tested, 8% of the Hispanic students tested and 4% of the black students tested were considered college and career ready. The disparity in the results suggests an excellent education is not something every student in DC can expect. Perchance the essential prerequisites for learning are not as readily available to the non-white students in DC public schools? In her book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain, author Dana Suskind discusses two cochlear implant patients who had gained the ability to hear as toddlers and who by third grade, a grade she describes as an age at which ones reading level is indicative of their "ultimate learning trajectory", were very dissimilar in their school performance. One was reading at a third grade level while the other was barely reading at a kindergarten level. The author notes the main difference between these children was the families wealth, or lack thereof. The higher performing student had a more affluent family. Dana Suskind is certainly not the only one to note negative impacts of poverty on cognitive functions. In August of 2013 the journal Science published a research article entitled Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao which suggested that when one is poor much of your mental resources are burdened with money worries, leaving less capacity for making thoughtful choices in daily life, let alone learning challenging material. The greater Washington area happens to generally be an area of affluence. According to the US census bureau 2013 American Community Survey (ACS) the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metro Area ($90,149), the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA Metro Area ($79,624) and the Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH Metro Area ($72,907) were among metropolitan areas with the highest median household income. While the Greater Washington area has affluence there is also income inequality. The GINI index is a measure of inequality with a coefficient which varies between 0 (complete equality) and 1 (complete inequality, with only 1 having all the wealth and the remainder having zilch). The 2013 ACS gave DC a GINI index of .532 which suggests there is real income inequality in our region. A group of computer scientists, mathematicians, artists, designers, and educators as part of a social computing group working in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research lab led by Sep Kamvar have published a map of the Washington DC metro system which reveals median income by metro stop. Following their map along the orange line I can see that at the Vienna Metro station stop on one end of the orange line the median household income is $137,302. At the other end of the orange line at the New Carrolton Metro station the median household income is $59,533. At the Minnesota Ave Metro station stop, which is close to my home, the median household income is $33,947. Seeing the vast difference between median incomes around the Minnesota Ave Metro station stop and the Vienna Metro station makes me wonder about what differences may exist for the residents of those communities. If my American Dream is a pay for performance agreement and top performers tend to be those who don't show up to the race already exhausted what does that mean for me?

Perhaps my idea of the American Dream is too narrow, focused solely on the U.S. dollar and my command of it, and not really on the full promise best expressed in the Declaration of Independence, " We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..." That broader dream offers to embrace us all. However, as a resident of Washington, D.C., this version of the American dream also does not apply to me, my family or any other DC resident. Because D.C. is not a state, we have no say in the laws passed by Congress to govern us, thus we do not consent to them in any meaningful way. Further, Congress does govern us in minute ways that it cannot apply to any state, including rejecting laws approved by DC citizens or the DC Council.

But how about the rest of that line from the Declaration, that men are created equal with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I commented in the beginning that my American Dream was the expectation that good performance will be rewarded. Yet, it seems good performance is contingent on much more than any one individuals willingness to apply effort. The Declaration of Independence offers that the American Dream is inherent in our government structure, that we each have a voice in the form of a vote. But DC residents have experienced congress vetoing what DC residents have affirmed they want for themselves, from gun control to abortion.

The American Dream seems to be more nuanced than my deceptively simplistic pay for performance or even the loftier unalienable Rights suggested. There are factors at work in the Greater Washington area that diminish an individuals ability to perform at their personal best and that deny DC residents the ideals aspired to in the Declaration of Independence.