Photo courtesy of Jessica Bailin.


Column: Inequality in public schools

The gap between the rich and poor is growing in schools, but there is a very simple solution to the problem.
<a href="" target="_self">Jessica Bailin</a>

Jessica Bailin

July 17, 2022
There is a problem that is often overlooked within public high schools: socio-economic inequality.

Imagine you are a high school student who cannot afford to wear name-brand clothes. Your parents cannot afford to buy you a car, so you ride the bus to school every day. When you walk past the school parking lot, you see a classmate rolling in with their new Mercedes Benz — a birthday gift given by their parents.

Then, you see a girl walk down the school hallways with a new Chanel bag. And everyone around you is talking about the latest party where they met Drake’s latest girlfriend.

If you didn’t own expensive things, or know any celebrities, how ostracized would you feel? How could you make friends or talk to anyone if you weren’t rich and privileged like everyone else in your environment?

This is the darker side of being a low-income student who attends a wealthy public high school like Calabasas High School. At first glance, this generously funded high school has a lot to offer its lucky students, including a new fifteen million dollar performing arts education center and a wide variety of advanced classes.

Besides the many impressive opportunities provided for its students on campus, there are also many other benefits. The school is located in the heart of Calabasas, which is just a short drive away from the Calabasas Commons and the El Camino shopping center. Given all these benefits, it is clear that Calabasas High School is one of the best public schools in the area.

How do lower-income students attend such wealthy public schools?

One way Calabasas High School tries to improve its diversity and inclusivity is by allowing students to obtain permits to enroll in their school, even if they live outside of the wealthier Calabasas area code. Usually, students are given a permit because one of their parents has a job at Calabasas High School.

However, every year, these permits become harder and harder to obtain for many parents who are fighting to give their children a spot at Calabasas High School — a place that offers great, free public-school education.

With fewer and fewer permits being offered, the permit students who are currently enrolled at Calabasas High School are feeling more and more ostracized. Undeniably, many of the permit students are not as wealthy as the other students who are Calabasas residents. This makes the permit students feel like they do not belong. Although they are technically allowed to attend the school, in their hearts, they know they are different.

In the Big Issue, a UK magazine, one impoverished teen who attended a wealthy high school said: “It’s a free education, but it’s not really free.” In other words, low-income students can have free education at a wealthy public high school, but it comes at a cost.

For example, it can feel agonizing to invite your friends over to your home if you do not live in a lavish house. When your friends want to go out for dinner, but you cannot afford to join them, you feel like you are not good enough. While public school education is free, attending these wealthy public high schools as a teen who is not wealthy can have lasting impacts on their mental health.

According to Roman Pabayo, an epidemiologist at the University of Alberta, a large gap between the rich and poor can “have an adverse effect on teenage mental health.” Pabayo adds that while the mixture of incomes within a school setting is healthy, more mental health support and resources are needed to help students who are negatively impacted by income inequality.

I am able to empathize with the struggles of permit students because I myself am a permit student. I received a permit to transfer to the Las Virgenes Unified School District, which allowed me to attend Calabasas High School. As a former student of the Los Angeles Unified School District, I immediately noticed a vast difference at Calabasas High School.

At Calabasas High School, I did not feel like I fit in. I could not relate to my wealthier classmates, and this made me feel inadequate about myself at times. It’s similar to what many permit students feel — the struggle to connect with their peers at wealthy high schools.

It is clear that students on permits face a great deal of adversity on a daily basis. Over the years, I have witnessed and experienced this sad reality firsthand, and devastatingly, the problem is just getting worse. Every time the district makes it harder for parents to obtain permits for their students to get a better education, Calabasas High School’s diversity declines and current permit students’ mental health worsens.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. Simply, make it easier for students outside of Calabasas to get permits. If more students can get into Calabasas High School, it will become a more diverse, well-rounded and healthier campus.

This solution works for public schools all over America. Plenty of schools face similar obstacles as Calabasas High School does, and it is up to everyone to fix this inequality problem that makes students feel lesser than others.