This piece was originally posted on the Maryland Hillel Alternative Break blog.
Las Vegas: glitz, glamour, gambling, lights, sex, money, drugs. Those are the typical ideas when someone thinks of Las Vegas, Nevada and the Strip. What if I added these words to the mix: poverty, dropouts, failing, education, family? You would probably think I was talking about Downtown Baltimore or Detroit, but in reality, most of the world is ignorant to the fact that Las Vegas is just another city with struggling families and failing students who don’t believe they are capable of much more than working as maintenance people in fabulously expensive hotels, where they can only dream of staying.
Before participating in Hillel’s Alternative Break Trip to Las Vegas to explore the achievement gap, I would have had those typical thoughts about the city in the valley. But now, having volunteered at a charter school for a week, helping to make 3,000 meals in one day for after-school programs, speaking to teachers and the superintendent, and working with high school students for a night, I can assure you that my thoughts sway to the second set of adjectives.
We volunteered at a school where some of the fourth grade students still don’t have their times table memorized and kindergarteners struggle with sight-reading. We volunteered at a food bank that sends out 3,000 meals per day for students to be able to eat after-school. We spoke with Teach for America teachers who have devoted more than their fair share of time to help their students achieve and who still don’t know where to begin to change the education system in Las Vegas. We spoke with the superintendent who has high goals for Clark County and is starting to see an increase in graduation rates. We got to spend a few hours with high school juniors and seniors who participate in a program to prepare them for college and to give back to their communities. But we also got to see Red Rock Canyon, a beauteous wonder surrounding the city. And we got treated to a night at the Strip, where we watched acrobats in Cirque du Soleil fly over the stage and enchant the audience, after which we headed to the LINQ, an enormous Ferris wheel in which you can see Las Vegas for miles. Did we feel a little spoiled? Sure, but you can’t have heavy activities all week. I think it was important to see the opposite ends of Las Vegas: the rich and the poor. That way, we could compare and contrast the situations and spark conversations to discuss different ways to make change in Las Vegas and our own communities.
If you asked me what my overall takeaway is, I wouldn’t be able to give you a proper answer. There are so many different pieces that make up the puzzle that is the achievement gap. If families are poor, it’s hard to buy food. If kids are hungry, they will have trouble focusing in school. If kids aren’t focused in school, they are more likely to drop out or fail. If they don’t have a high school diploma, they probably won’t go to college. If they don’t go to college, they won’t get a high-paying job. If they don’t have a lot of money, it’s hard to support a family… and the cycle continues. The challenge is not how to fix the entire system because at this point, that’s impossible. So, what part of the cycle do you separate and focus on?
“They say it takes a village to raise a child.” And whoever “they” are, they’re right. But you can’t expect that village to raise that child at once. Each person has their own job, and with each person successfully completing their task, the village becomes a well-oiled machine that can raise child after child, as the circle of life continues.
Big change doesn’t just happen. It takes a village. Where do YOU fit in?
Rebecca Hefter is a sophomore at the University of Maryland studying Early Childhood Education and Sustainability. She hails from the lovely city of Baltimore, MD and is a graduate of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. She wishes to incorporate her love of art, nature, and Judaism into her future classroom, while staying connected to her Jewish identity and whichever Jewish community in which she ends up. Rebecca hopes to use her experiences from Poland and Las Vegas, and soon Israel (on Taglit-Birthright Israel), to support the Jewish community at large, as well as giving her time to social justice and tikkun olam and teaching her students about acceptance and diversity.