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Summer 2011

A to B: Why Erica Mosca Cares

Illustration by Daniel Vasconcellos

At 16, the most important event in my life occurred: My family moved out of a lower-income southern California neighborhood to a middle-class community. I went from earning a GPA ranking me sixth out of more than 300 students to earning the first C on a report card in my life. I went from being a straight-A Spanish student to retaking Spanish II. The D on my first AP English paper, covered in my new teacher’s red ink, showcased my lack of formal grammar instruction. At 16, I did not have the knowledge to attribute my new problems to the achievement gap — that I was behind because my family moved. My new high school was my seventh school in all, and even though I had done everything right at each of them, I was still behind.

Yet I was lucky. My parents continued to remind me that hard work and a college education would change everything. And it did. As the first person in my family to graduate from college, I have had opportunities and experiences I could never dream of as a child. Not all young people are as lucky. Today only one in 10 low-income students will reach the American dream through an excellent education.

This excruciating fact is what brought me to the Ed School to study education policy and management.

But it’s not just the statistics that brought me here; it’s the faces of my former fifth-graders. After graduating summa cum laude from Boston University in 2008, I joined Teach For America in Nevada’s Las Vegas Valley with the goal of inspiring students with similar backgrounds to mine to use education as the way out of the circumstances they had been born into. Faced with the highest high school dropout, foreclosure, and unemployment rates in this country, only one out of 10 students in the state of Nevada will earn bachelor’s degrees.

But as hard as I taught, and as focused and hardworking as my students were, the fact remains: The state they live in ensures less than half of them will even graduate from high school. Those fifth-graders are now seventh-graders, and none of them are enrolled in prealgebra, which means none of them will take calculus in high school. Their feeder high school has failed to make adequate yearly progress in the last five years. As their teacher, I had no power to remove these barriers for my students. Today I feel like a criminal: I told a class of 10-year-olds for a whole year that hard work would lead to success and that college would transform their lives and the lives of their families. But I never told them what to do if teachers held low expectations for them or what to do when stuck in a failing school.

During this past winter break, my parents and I took a dozen of my former students ice skating, the first time skating for many of these children. When asking them their hopes and dreams, they all shared that they want to go to college and be successful. And though these are the same hopes and dreams as their higher-income peers — the same dreams I once had — the simple fact they live in their part of Las Vegas slowly closes opportunities day by day.

I used to wonder what would have happened to me if I had been doomed to stay in my failing high school. Now the question that gets me up in the morning goes beyond me: What will happen to my 56 former students who face such daunting odds? I will return to Nevada for the same reason I came to Harvard: to ensure that obtaining an excellent education does not rest on luck.

— Erica Mosca, Ed.M.’11, will graduate from the Education Policy and Management Program in May.