A quality education should not depend on students’ zip codes, family income, or ethnicity. Parents, students, education professionals, and policy makers participating in The Atlantic’s Education Summit at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, recently focused on a common thread of increasing equity and access for all students.

Here are four takeaways from students regarding what they need:

1. To Be Heard

One cause of the unrest on college campuses is a lack of significant improvement in how students from varying cultural, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds are supported.

So they are speaking up. “I spent the past four years in an environment that not only condones the Confederacy and its flag, but also praises it as a symbol of Southern heritage,” said Amanda Bennett, a recent graduate of the University of Alabama. “It is not my heritage.” This is an excerpt from her video project, How Does it Feel to be a Problem? in which black students at her school candidly explain their experiences. Bennett believes when students raise their voice it will generate new ideas that move us all forward.

2. To Learn in a Motivating Environment

A negative school climate can contribute to low academic performance. Demetrius Lester, a recent student body president at Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School in Washington, DC said, “Being in that building is just an environment you don’t want to learn in.” The building was described as having roaches and students even jokingly named the rats. They will get a new building but its clear that the physical school environment sends a message to students about how much – or how little – adults care about their wellbeing.

3. To Have Access to Safe Spaces Encouraging Interaction Across Racial and Economic Lines

Amara Evering, a Woodrow Wilson High School student, said students tend to hang out in groups according to their cultural backgrounds, and there are socio-economic divides as well. Alex Wagner, senior editor of The Atlantic, agreed and observed these same issues decades ago.

Tavaris Sanders shared a photo essay of his journey from the South Side of Chicago to Connecticut College depicting his inward battle to “fit in.” His high school didn’t prepare him for the academic rigor of college. He also felt a cultural separation but was determined to not give up. His involvement with the Afro-Caribbean dance class and club basketball team help him organically interact with others and make friends through activities he loves to do.

4. To Be Supported

Cecily Salvador, a black Hispanic student whose second language is English, recently completed her education at NOVA Community College and will begin studying at George Mason University this fall. She initially dropped out but went back. NOVA counselors helped her every step of the way, ensuring that all her academic credits transferred to her new school.

When students voices are acknowledged it will continue to make a difference. Marthaa Torress, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in California, gave her students the opportunity to redesign their grey and boring cafeteria. “What we need is not a monetary thing,” she said. “It’s more of these opportunities for students to use their voice and to see physical and other tangible transformation based on their sense of efficacy.”

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