Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, Harold Ekeh, Micheal Brown, Elmont Memorial High School, and Mirabeau B. Lamar High School must be very proud of themselves these days. And they all should be. After all, Ms. Uwamanzu-Nna joined Mr. Ekeh as being the only two students in the history of this high school to gain acceptance to all eight Ivy League universities — in back-to-back years, in 2015 and 2016. Mr. Brown was four-for-four in his quest for Ivy League admissions at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania in 2017-18, and went 20-for-20 in college admissions overall. Uwamanza-Nna and Ekeh each went 13 for 13 in their applications to colleges ranging from Johns Hopkins and New York University to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
They are among a very short list of above-the-rim, high-achieving high school students who have the distinction of winning the college entrance lottery. They have credentials (and with full rides, the means) to attend any and every elite institution in the US. That’s just it, though. In so many ways, this narrative of American education as one of “winners and losers” merely reinforces a society of haves and have-nots narcissistically competing for limited and segregated resources.
With a closer look at Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s backgrounds, it becomes obvious that despite their amazing achievements, their success was predestined. Both Uwamanzu-Nna and Ekeh’s families are from Nigeria, and both moved to the US when they were of elementary school age. Uwamanzu-Nna’s father remained a physical therapist after moving to the US, while Ekeh’s parents “left comfortable lives in Nigeria” to take jobs at a Target store in Queens to provide opportunities for their five children. Both families picked places within the Sewanhaka Central High School District to live. The district is made up of a group of Long Island bedroom suburban towns within Nassau County, including Elmont.
Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna standing next to a picture of 2015 graduate, Harold Ekeh (cropped), Elmont Memorial High School, Elmont, NY, April 5, 2016. (CBS2).
This decision for the two Nigerian families could not have occurred by accident. The Sewanhaka Central High School District and especially Elmont Memorial High School has long had a reputation of providing an atmosphere of academic excellence and being a welcoming environment to students from immigrant families. Uwamanzu-Nna and Ekeh both benefited from such an environment and from families willing to sacrifice in order to push their children to win the academic lottery. In the US, getting into any Ivy League institution — much less all eight — is the pinnacle of being #1.
Brown’s case is a little less obvious in terms of advantages. But clearly Brown’s mother’s continuous efforts to enrich her life and her son’s life academically and socially were critical to his high-flying success. “When I was in elementary school, I saw my mom graduate from community college and that just meant a lot to me,” Brown said to USA Today last month. Involvement in extracurricular activities in school and year-round after school programs like “QuestBridge, Emerge Fellowship and Breakthrough Collaborative,” where Brown got to mingle with students of color with college aspirations, must’ve helped with both his academic motivations and preparations. This more than made up for whatever deficiencies Brown faced in his education because of growing up in the Third Ward in Houston (where several of my uncles and cousins on my mother’s side lived between the mid-1970s and the early ’00s).
There are a couple of ways to look at Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s success. One is to take the route of racist jealousy. “It’s a little obnoxious because you can only go to one, you can only take one full ride, and you are taking a spot from someone else who worked really hard,” co-anchor Holly Morris said on her FOX5 DC morning show. There was a huge backlash in response. The response implied that Brown’s achievement was a sign of showboating, that Brown was merely an attention-seeker. Keep in mind, the media sought Brown out, not the other way around. Keep in mind, Americans obsess over obvious measures of success. But somehow, if you’re Black, you can’t be joyful and in the moment over such success, even when the press is shining a floodlight on you.
Micheal Brown and his mother Berthinia Rutledge-Brown sharing the news of him getting into all 20 schools to which he applied, Houston, TX, March 31, 2018. (https://www.rawstory.com/).
Another way to look at Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s achievements, though, would be to see their stories as a positive for them as individuals, but a negative for our society as a whole. With the increased emphasis on standardized curricula, standardized testing, and standardized individual teacher evaluations based on this testing has come an obsessive focus on the individual in education. The savior teacher as superhuman, somehow able to make every student into a proficient test-taker. The grinding student, ready to score a proficient or higher score on every school district, state-level, and national standardized test. The tiger mom-esque parent, willing at a moment’s notice to spend money that most Americans do not have to tutor and drill their child into excellent test scores. All involved in education for the greater good, but more and more, for their greater good. All without knowing about what their children have really learned, whether their students can really work in unison on a common goal, or if their kids can create, innovate, or think independently of a test-taking script.
I’m sure that Uwamanzu-Nna, Ekeh, and Brown’s have learned a lot in their respective journeys to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. But what does this measure of achievement mean for them down the line? Is it merely their ability to meet the right people and find job opportunities looking for them around every corner as a result of their academic achievements? Or do their achievements mean anything beyond the material, for them and for the rest of us?
The “winners and losers” narrative also plays itself out in insidious ways for parents at the have-nots end of the scale. Because America’s educational resources are unevenly segregated by race and social class across its 14,000 school districts, the opportunities for winning this competition are also segregated. School district boundary hopping has become more prevalent in recent years. This as the competition for better-resourced schools has become more intense, all in the wake of the Great Recession and the resulting reduction in education budgets.
One famous case of boundary hopping occurred in 2011. Kelley Williams-Bolar, an African American, Akron, Ohio-area mother, was arrested for and convicted of falsifying records to enable her two daughters to attend a more affluent school district in the area for two years. (Williams-Bolar’s now deceased father Edward L. Williams was a legal resident of the Copley Township district at the time.) The real crime here is that a patchwork public education system based on income and place of residence exists at all. That it also promotes an obsession with competition and mostly pre-selects students to be #1 in the line for the elite university is worse still. That is why Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s achievements look so remarkable. They won an educational game that in so many ways our society had rigged for them to lose.
Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, Harold Ekeh, and Micheal Brown are among a truly lucky handful. Their parents found a welcoming home in a diverse suburban community with well-resourced (if somewhat segregated) schools, or enriched their child with resources not available to most kids in poorer and segregated urban school districts. They won the competition for #1. For most Americans, though, the education game is rigged, as the system reproduces and reinforces residential, racial, income, and academic inequality. Not to mention, the American idea that there should be winners, losers, and a grinding competition to show who won and lost.