Emma Reese
School Without Walls High School
Washington, DC
9th Grade
Third Place Winner, District of Columbia

I am a descendant of slaves and immigrants. My family history is filled with stories of success where individuals worked to obtain greater levels of financial security, educational opportunities, and the fulfillment of their dreams for themselves and family members in the face of social and financial obstacles. My grandmother’s life is one such story. As an eighteen-year-old African-American, she graduated from high school in the segregated South, got married, became pregnant, and then moved to California. Her husband was the sole source of income during this time. Shortly after the move she got divorced; and with no other means of support she sought welfare and ended up living in a one-room garage apartment with no kitchen. She had no college education and therefore found herself qualified only for low paying jobs. Determined to care for her infant child, my grandmother obtained a job in a typing circle at Pacific Bell (known as Verizon today). Not satisfied that she had met her full potential, my grandmother seized an opportunity to attend college through a program offered by Pacific Bell. She worked full-time while attending college and caring for her young child. With hard work, my grandmother graduated college in less than four years, earning a degree which led to multiple promotions in her company. Several years and children later she obtained her Masters in Business—helping her earn a position in senior management and secure a slot in middle-class America. When I asked my grandmother, who is now retired, whether she has achieved the American Dream, she explained that although she has gained much success thus far, she continues to seek avenues to meet her full potential. She also explained that she could not have achieved any level of success without a good education. Over time I have learned from my grandmother’s story, and the stories of others in my family, that none of them would have come close to meeting their full potential without access to a college education. I believe the same will be true for me.

To me, the American Dream is the ability of every person to achieve their full potential regardless of their family lineage or economic status.1 It includes becoming the best version of oneself (e.g., the best teacher, architect, parent, biologist, etc.) and obtaining recognition of it.2 The American Dream is not thriving in the greater Washington D.C. area, specifically in the District of Columbia, because there are many economic and educational obstacles limiting individuals’ full potential.

For the vast majority of Americans not born into wealthy families, education is the first building block toward making the American Dream come true. A quality education exposes students to ideas they may not otherwise be familiar with, and without such exposure students may acquire a narrow perspective on their capabilities for the future. (For instance, had I never taken advanced classes like physics and chemistry, I may not have learned that I have an affinity for the sciences.) Foremost to bettering oneself is attaining an education at the highest levels possible. For many this means obtaining a college degree. However, in D.C. there is inadequate access to quality education; as such, many District residents will not likely achieve the American Dream. For the American Dream to thrive in the greater Washington area, it is crucial that those who reside in D.C. are afforded the same educational opportunities as those living in Maryland or Virginia. This is important because D.C. makes up a major portion of the metropolitan area and without access to quality education in D.C., then the entire area will fall short of meeting the American Dream.

For the purposes of measuring adequate access to quality college education I assessed the number of advance placement (AP) courses offered at D.C. schools, and reviewed how well D.C. students scored on those tests. I also reviewed the graduation rate in the greater Washington D.C. area and compared it to the nationwide average.

The most important classes a high school student can take are AP courses. These courses are important because they are one measure of how well students are prepared for college. While all D.C. public high schools are required to offer six AP classes, the majority of District students are failing those exams as compared to the rest of the country.3 Nationwide, sixty percent of the students taking at least one AP exam received a passing grade, a score of three out of five; while only thirty-three percent of D.C. students received a passing grade.4 Further, in high poverty schools like Ballou, Dunbar, and Cardozo high schools, forty-six percent of D.C. students earned a score of one, and only four percent passed.5 These numbers reveal that many D.C. students are not prepared to succeed in AP classes, which means they are not receiving a quality education, which could result in a failure to fulfill their innate capabilities. Moreover, taking an AP class or exam when a student is not prepared to do so has negative lasting ramifications, in that failing an AP exam will drastically lower a student’s class grade, possibly impacting a student’s ability to graduate.

Nationwide the graduation rate from high school is eighty-one percent, but in D.C., as of 2014, it is sixty-one percent6—twenty percent lower than the rest of the country.7 There are numerous reasons why D.C. graduation rates are lower than the rest of the country (e.g., difficulties at home, failing Math or English prior to high school, or poor scores on standardized tests ).8 Regardless of the reason, it is clear that many students in D.C. are not receiving a quality education and the result of this inevitably leads to an inability to achieve one’s full potential. Further, without a quality education D.C. youths are less likely to attend college.9

If a D.C. student graduates from high school with ambitions to go to college, they will encounter steep costs for that education. Nationwide, the average annual public in-state tuition is $8,957; public out-of-state tuition is more than double that at $20,729; and private colleges average $32,599.10 Low-income students earning the opportunity to attend college will likely be unable to afford it without significant grants or student loans and as such the cost of college likely acts as a deterrent to either applying, or if accepted, attending college. However, as stated earlier, if a student fails to obtain an advanced education, it is not likely that he or she will gain the exposure to various concepts or ideas that will lead them to achieve their full potential.

In addition to the lackluster education gained by students in the D.C. area, the poverty rate in this city impacts one’s ability to achieve the American Dream. Nationwide the poverty rate is fifteen percent.11 By contrast, within the District the poverty rate is eighteen percent.12 The article notes that the graduation rate in Maryland is 86.4 percent and 85.3 percent in Virginia. Interestingly, according to these statistics simply moving a few miles across the District line into Maryland or Virginia increases a D.C. student’s probability of graduating high school by more than twenty percent. Living in poverty has lasting effects on children. Specifically, growing up in a high poverty neighborhood lowers economic mobility.13 Further, those living in poverty as adults are generally unable to save money thereby losing opportunities for economic security.14 For children, poverty leads to a greater risk for physical and mental health problems like reduced access to medical care, decreased cognitive skills, and decreased social emotional skills.15 A child’s inability to combat the effects of poverty will likely negatively impact their ability to perform well in school thereby limiting their ability to focus on their academic interests and innate capabilities.

The American Dream is not thriving in D.C. because its students are faced with difficulties accessing an education geared toward exposing them to ideas and concepts that may broaden their perspective about their innate capabilities. The inability to achieve the American Dream is made worse by the impact of poverty in this city because those living in poverty must often focus on financial hardships, mental health problems, or other areas unrelated to academic achievement—which means they will not likely fulfill their potential.


1 Truslow Adams, James. Epic of America. Boston:1931. Print. James Truslow said the American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
2 Ibid.
3 “At DCPS, more students take—and fail—AP exams.” Editorial. Washington Post. 30 Sept. 2015. Washingtonpost.com. Web. 4 Dec 2015. Noting that as of the 2015-2016 school year, the District required not less than six AP courses, as opposed to 2014-2015 only being required to provide four.
4 “At DCPS, more students take—and fail—AP exams.” Editorial. Washington Post. 30 Sept. 2015. Washingtonpost.com. Web. 4 Dec 2015.
5 Wexler, Natalie. “DCPS is expanding AP classes, but at some schools everyone is failing the test.” DC Eduphile. DC Eduphile, 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
6 Chandler, Michael Alison. “Graduation rates up in DC public schools, down for charter schools.” Washingtonpost.com. The Washington Post, 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 4 Dec 2015.
7 Brown, Emma “High School graduation rates are on the rise in most states.” Washingtonpost.com. Web. 6 Dec. 2015. 
8 Wexler, Natalie. “We have good data on D.C.’s low graduation rate, but little idea how to increase it.” Greater Greater Washington. Greater Greater Washington, 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.
9 “Why D.C. Kids are now college bound.” Bisnow.com. Bisnow. 27 May 2014. Web. 6 Dec 2015.
“Chapter three: Post-Secondary Education.” Nces.ed.gov.org. Institute of Education sciences. 2013. Web. 6 Dec. 2015. Of the 61% of D.C. high school graduates, 45% of those students graduate college as compared to the nation’s 41 percent average of college graduation.
10 Snider, Susannah. “Infographic: Paying for college.” Usnews.com. U.S. News and World Report, 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
11 “Poverty in the United States: A snapshot.” National Center for Law and Economic Justice. National Center for Law and Economic Justice, 2013. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
12 “D.C. Poverty Demographics.” Editorial. D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute[D.C.] 9 Apr. 2014:1-2. Web. Note 25.7 percent of black people, 22.1 percent of Hispanic people, and 7.4 percent of white people are below the poverty line in D.C.
13 Durvasula, Ramani. “What Can Behavioral Economics Tell Us About Depletion and Decision Making?” Poverty and Inequality Special Blog Series: The War on Poverty, 50 Years Later. American Psychological Association, 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
14 Currier, Erin, and Sarah Sattlemeyer. “It Takes a Village to Support the American Dream.” Poverty and Inequality Special Blog Series: The War on Poverty, 50 Years Later. American Psychological Association, 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
15 Flores, Roseanne. “A War on Children: The Consequences of Poverty on Child Development.” Poverty and Inequality Special Blog Series: The War on Poverty, 50 Years Later. American Psychological Association, 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.