Q&A with “The Opportunity Gap” host, Julian Saavedra
Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. But there’s a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities.
Understood.org’s The Opportunity Gap podcast, now in its second season, shines a light on this topic and the double stigma that neurodivergent kids of color face. Host Julian Saavedra explores these issues with parents and experts — and provides families with ideas for taking action. Saavedra, a father of two, is an assistant principal and has worked in public schools for nearly 20 years.
Read on to learn about Saavedra’s perspective on the opportunity gap, how he thinks we can all inspire change, and what he’s most hopeful about for the future of Black and brown neurodivergent children. And for actionable tips on how to advocate for your child, listen to new episodes of The Opportunity Gap wherever you get your podcasts.
The name of the show is “The Opportunity Gap.” What does that phrase mean, and why does that gap exist?
Saavedra: The “opportunity gap” refers to the disparities that exist between students of color — specifically Black and brown students — and white students in terms of the opportunities they have to be successful at school. Black and brown students not being able to achieve at the same level as white students is the result of these students not having the opportunity to be successful in the first place.
This gap exists for a variety of reasons, as our national and public institutions — like schools — were founded on a bedrock of inequality. Because of this, economic disparities can drastically impact students’ opportunities. Traditionally, schools that have a majority of Black and brown students do not have the same amount of funding that schools with a large amount of white students have. This can impact the amount or types of experiences that teachers can provide, which can impact the quantity and quality of educational opportunities students have to learn and thrive.
Additionally, biases toward and stigmas around Black and brown students can impact their access to learning. This is particularly critical to understand as it relates to neurodivergent Black and brown students, who are often facing stigmas around their race, ethnicity, and way of thinking. If students are constantly treated as “less than,” their opportunities will be “less than,” too.
While parents shouldn’t be held responsible for fixing the opportunity gap, what do you think they need to know to best advocate for their children with learning and thinking differences?
Saavedra: Besides being their child’s strongest advocate, the number one thing parents can do is teach their children how to advocate for themselves.
To do this, parents must understand how the public school system currently works, and also how it could better support their child’s needs. Parents must become as knowledgeable as possible about their rights and about what their child needs to thrive. Once parents know their and their child’s rights, they should speak up on behalf of their child and make sure that they are also being clear about what the school must provide for their child. Obviously, children, especially younger children, should not be involved in every conversation. But empowering them to speak up when they need help or when something feels off can help instill the skill of self-advocacy, which will only benefit them as they navigate school, work, and other life situations down the road.
All of this said, each of us can be an advocate for marginalized neurodivergent students. We can each use our voice, power, and privilege to speak up and ensure the system is not just working for our own kids, but for all kids.
What do you hope listeners take away from the podcast?
Saavedra: Most importantly, I hope that listeners feel like they learned something, and then they use those learnings to spark a conversation outside of the podcast.
I also hope that they learn to understand that we’re all just people who care about our kids, and no matter what walk of life someone comes from, no matter what role they are playing in a child’s life, this is something worth talking about and working together on.
On the show, I try to uplift people who are doing the work, and people who are open to talking about what they know — but who are also game to talk about what they don’t know, and how they’re trying to figure out those answers. I’m always interested to hear about people’s stories and learning about how people are trying to do what’s best for their children, and a lot of times we talk about things that aren’t being talked about in other places. And so lastly, I hope that anybody listening feels like this can be a safe space to talk about uncomfortable topics, all in the spirit of helping kids thrive.
This season’s first episode was on myths about special education. What were some of the biggest myths you uncovered? Why do you think confronting stigmas and myths like this is important for parents of kids with learning and thinking differences?
Saavedra: There are a lot of myths that people have as outsiders looking in. But I think what’s equally concerning is addressing the misconceptions that parents of neurodivergent kids have themselves.
Some of the most common ones I hear include, “my child is going to be treated differently,” “my child’s really smart, so they don’t need special education services,” or “my parenting caused my child to require special education services.” There is also the misconception that “my child doesn’t need special education because they’re actively choosing to misbehave.” While many of these thoughts come from a place of care and concern, they can also prevent parents from getting their children the support they need.
I also hear a lot of parents say, “I don’t know how to best support my child. I don’t know what I’m doing.” And that’s where I think Understood.org and this podcast can help. We break down these issues and try to combat the stigmas around them, so people feel like they’re not alone and they have tools and resources to help.
In your 20 years of experience in the public school system, what are you most concerned about as it relates to Black and brown kids who learn and think differently?
Saavedra: As I discuss in our latest podcast episode, my first concern is that students of color are more likely to be the recipients of harsh consequences, like suspensions and expulsions, and the long-term effects this can have. Black and brown students receive unequal treatment in the classroom and are deemed to have behavior problems and, whether warranted are not, require special education services. But when the services they get are not up to par, the student becomes disengaged and doesn’t see the value of school.
So, the cycle then repeats itself, and unfortunately, the student begins to actively fulfill a prophecy that was set for them. We know that when students don’t finish school or don’t do well in school, they often wind up in adverse conditions. In many cases, we see the “school-to-prison pipeline” come true, pushing Black men in particular into prison.
My second concern is the consequences of misdiagnosis or a lack of diagnosis.
Black and brown students are also disproportionately misdiagnosed — either identified as requiring special education services, even though they may not need them, or, for many young Black girls, not diagnosed at all, with their symptoms characterized as something else.
Both of these unfortunate realities could have been avoided or even prevented if early on in school they would have either received equal treatment or gotten the services that they deserved.
What frustrates me is that we know the numbers and research and have seen how this adversity impacts our Black and brown students. It is a crisis across the country, but we’re not changing or adapting quickly enough. We’re not making sure that we’re elevating the conversation about how important appropriate and high-quality special education services are, especially for high-risk populations. My concern is that as things return to this “new normal,” the students who need the most support are the ones we’re ignoring the most. I’m hoping that our society, and especially our school systems, find a way to do better. Because if we don’t, then our children are not going to thrive.
What are you most hopeful about?
Saavedra: That we’re at least now having these conversations. We’re talking about things that five or six years ago weren’t happening.
I’m proud and excited to be one of the people doing this type of work and elevating this conversation. I hope that the more that we hear about the opportunity gap, the more that we can get tools and information into the hands of families who need them, and that we can start to address this giant problem. I also remain hopeful when I remember that in the 20 years I’ve been in education, special education has transformed. It is so much better than it was early on in my career. There has been a huge improvement in the services, the knowledge, the vocabulary, the advocacy, and the laws. Public schools have gotten so much better at supporting kids. I remain optimistic that it’s only going to continue to get better.
For more information, visit https://www.understood.org/podcasts/the-opportunity-gap. If you or someone you know wants to be a guest, please email [email protected]. If you have comments, email us at [email protected].