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High School Research Student Joy Makes Policy Proposals to Houston Mayor About Labeling of Students With Learning Disabilities

SpotlightHoward Hsu

Joy is a senior from Houston who studied the disproportionate labeling of students of color as having learning disabilities in the Houston Independent School District. Through the course of her project, Joy was able to take her initial findings and translate them into a concrete set of actions the school district could take to address this issue.

Encouraged by her mentor, Joy sent her final work to the Mayor of Houston, who read her presentation and invited her to meet with other leaders working to address the issue. Read more about Joy’s dreams and her inspiring story in the interview below.

Please introduce yourself and tell us about your dream.

My name is Joy Ndamukunda, and I am a senior in high school. I was born in Houston, Texas, and I currently attend school online at a program called the Texas Virtual Academy. 

My dream is to become President of the United States. I know it's a big dream, but it's my dream.

Wow! We can’t wait to dig in more to understand how Polygence fits into the big picture. I’m curious - how did you learn about Polygence’s research program?

I learned about Polygence through a Google search about extra curricular programs online that would stand out on college applications. When I learned about the program, I was immediately interested!

What stood out to you about Polygence’s research program?

Well, first was the possibility of getting a full ride scholarship to Polygence, and then also the ability to have a mentor from some of the colleges that I want to go to. I thought it would be an amazing opportunity.

 I thought there might be helpful resources that my mentor could provide to me about college applications - which she did! She was great about providing college application help in addition to supporting me on my project.

How did you pick your topic? Did you know going into this experience exactly what you wanted to work on? 

I was between two topics: one about climate change, and then a project about learning disabilities and labeling in the Houston Independent School District. 

But when I thought about it, climate change is such a popular topic. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something very specific, that also pertains to something close to me, because I live in Houston and I used to go to those schools. 

That is when I decided to focus on doing research on the topic of disproportionate labeling of minority students as having learning disabilities.

It’s great that you were able to dig into something close to home. What was your specific research question and what did you find?

My project is about how, in the Houston Independent School District, minority students are disproportionately labeled as having learning disabilities. 

I first got this idea from my mother, who said that she believes that HISD doesn't adequately support minority students, and then a family friend who was at HISD mentioned that she believed HISD falsely labels minority students as having learning disabilities when they do not. 

How did you figure out where to dig in to prove or disprove this point? 

I decided that I wanted to dive more deeply into this, and so I found an article by the Texas Education Association, that said specifically that the HISD has systematically failed its special education program students—specifically, its minority students. 

Then, I found research by Thomas and Hehir & Associates with a full investigation on HISD’s learning disability program. They found that in schools where African Americans are the minority, they are more likely to be labeled as having a learning disability than in schools where African American students are the majority.

They also found that Hispanic students are also disproportionately labeled as having learning abilities, and that it is linked to whether or not they can speak English. And then, both African American and Hispanic students that have learning abilities are much more likely to take modified or reduced exams than other students in the HISD. 

Your findings sound really compelling. What did you do with your conclusions?

After learning about these problems, I said that I wanted to come up with solutions, so I proposed four main solutions:

  • Recruit teachers who have worked with students of color and students with disabilities in the past and come from a variety of backgrounds.

  • Develop a new system of labeling students as being in special education that reduces prejudice.

    • This approach should take into account the language, culture, living situation, and background of the student.

  • Provide accommodation to Students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP)

  • Ensure personnel administering tests have received training in conducting these evaluations and interpreting the results in an adequate way

Those are very clear steps. How did you decide to share your findings and suggestions?

After I completed my project, I wanted to share my findings widely. So, I decided to email my presentation to my mayor.

I sent the mayor’s office a letter where I explained my background, that I'm a Houston resident, and then I explained how I had witnessed some of these issues and I had decided that I actually wanted to dive deep into the data and see if it’s true.

The mayor actually read my work! They connected me with two women who wanted to meet with me, and those two women said that they were also investigating the issue of labeling. They were so happy that a Houston student had decided to bring this up, so I really felt validated. 

It confirmed my opinions and findings: that this is a real issue that is happening in the Houston Independent School District. These women had also known about the issue, and I gave them a student perspective that would be able to help them and back up their claims. 

So, in a way, we helped each other: they helped me by giving me the confidence and the security of knowing that the issue I had brought up was correct, and saying that they are also doing their best to fight against it. I helped them by providing them with a student who would advocate for their ideas and their beliefs.

That’s so inspiring that you were able to be heard by important decision makers! What came of these meetings? 

These women connected me with another student, who was also doing a project about education inequality.

Together we decided to start our own blog called the Student Initiative where we could raise awareness of achievement gaps and disparities education. Once we’re done with the busy college application season, we’d love to go even further and create a nonprofit that can actually help students and the education system.

What advice would you give students who are on the fence about whether to investigate these types of questions? 

My advice would be that you should not be embarrassed to put yourself out there!

When I was emailing my work to the mayor, I thought he wouldn't review it. I truly thought that because it's the mayor, he would be too busy to see it. 

But then I thought…so what if he doesn't review it? At least I was able to have the courage to send my work. What's the harm of being able to share my work with the mayor? Of promoting it to students at my school? Of talking about these issues with my teachers? 

There's no harm in promoting your work. You shouldn't feel embarrassed to want to go above and beyond with your project. 

Tell us more about your mentor and your relationship.

My mentor was named Rina, and she really helped me in the sense that she challenged me, in a good way. 

When I first pitched my idea for my project about education inequality, she said: “You're coming from the perspective that your idea is correct. What if it's not not?” 

She was challenging and adamant that I need to find data to be able to support my argument. 

Wow, it sounds like she was really invested in helping you to refine your project. What did this look like? 

She would come up with arguments against me, not in a negative way, but in a way to challenge me to go in-depth, to truly go deep into the topic, not just remain on a basic level. 

She also encouraged me to create policy solutions. Originally, my plan was just to pull research together about the problems within the school district. She suggested that I propose concrete policy solutions to show that I was interested in truly fighting this issue.

She was very supportive of me. She showed me videos of how people were able to enact change around education inequality, and she was able to challenge my ideas and encouraged me to go above and beyond. 

In fact, she was the one that gave me the idea to email my mayor. She said: if you truly want to enact change, like you’re trying to say, you should share this and not just keep this to yourself or submit it to Polygence at the end of the project. That really helped me think about where I could take it.

 What was the most memorable part of your project?

The most memorable part of this project was finding the investigation from Thomas Hehir & Associates. I felt like I hit the jackpot. That paper… it was just perfection. It truly gave a deep, deep investigation to Houston Independent School District’s special education program, and it helped me so much. 

When you have a mentor, you want to show up for them. I wanted to make her proud of me. So when I was able to find that paper and then show her what I found in the data that I gathered, she was so happy. 

I remember her saying, “This is perfect. This will help the project so much.” 

What was the highlight of your project? 

My favorite part was after I completed my presentation. During our final meeting, we created the letter that I was going to send to the Mayor. We did a lot of polishing.

I remember seeing how proud my mentor was of me. She kept on saying, “I think it's going to be really amazing.”

Then after I sent my project to the Mayor…that feeling of satisfaction, seeing how far I had gone with it. Realizing all that I had done: the research, the presentation, the letter, and sending it out to the mayor. I felt so much pride being able to do it all.

In what areas do you feel like you grew the most? 

I grew the most in the way that I gather and think about data. My mentor consistently challenged me to not go into my research with the assumption that my argument is correct. 

Previously in school, I might go into a project with an assumption of what is right, and that I just need to find data to show that. 

But during the course of this project, I had a feeling of, “What if I cannot find data to prove my argument? What if my argument is not correct?” 

Now, I can feel myself going into projects with the attitude of; “This is just my hypothesis. I don't know whether or not it is correct, and my job is to figure that out.”

So I know the big, big end-goal is the presidency. How do you feel like your Polygence project has shaped what you might study in college, or even the kind of career you might pursue on your track to the White House?

I wrote about this on my college applications. Because of Polygence, I want to pursue a degree in economics. I feel like with Economics, I can can go into a variety of fields: politics, journalism, consulting, or entrepreneurship

To be President, there are certain steps that I want to take.

First, I want to be a consultant. Then, I want to be an entrepreneur, and then I want to go into the political field when I'm in my 40s or 50s. Economics will be able to support all of that. With an economics degree, I would have the ability to dig into issues like Education inequality. I can investigate issues I care about more, and I would be very well informed. 

We are super excited to see what Joy does in the future (she is also in the process of working on an entirely new Polygence project). 

Joy would like to give special thanks to

  • the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner

  • Jo-Anne Reed and Laura Cuellar, the folks at the Houston mayor’s office with whom she worked. 

  • Honorine Perera, her partner on the Student Initiative blog

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