My Education Matters

By Charles Kuo, DC Elementary School Program Coordinator
Photos Courtesy of AALEAD Staff

Transitions are difficult at any age. During transitional periods, we are faced with making decisions that most definitely affect our futures. The process of changing from one state to another can produce stress and anxiety. One of the biggest transitions a youth faces is the transition from elementary to middle school.

Ms. S., a guidance counselor at Thomson Elementary School, expresses that in her experiences with youth in this age group, the transition from elementary to middle school can be difficult. The ending of 5th grade can be a nervous time for students, and parents.  It is a major transition moving into middle school from elementary school. There are many curiosities and questions about academic rigor, managing a social life and coursework, and worries about using a combination lock! Fear of the unknown—or fear based on a false belief—is one barrier fifth graders and their parents face as they make the transition to middle school.”  Rahel T. (a 5th grader in our DC Elementary School Program), during the start of this year, shared that she felt “kind of scared going to middle school” because she didn’t know “what it was going to be like or who the people are there.” With this looming challenge, AALEAD works to fill in the gaps by providing our youth with support and tools they need to define their own futures.

At AALEAD, one of our outcome areas is educational empowerment. As an organization, we define educational empowerment as connecting youth with all available resources to succeed academically and advocate for their own educational development. AALEAD Program Director, Mylynh Nguyen,  explains that through providing workshops and activities focused on Educational Empowerment, “AALEAD hopes that all of our youth will have the knowledge, tools, and confidence to define themselves and their own futures.  Our youth learn valuable skills to help them grow personally and academically, to navigate the education system, and also to advocate for their own education and opportunities.“  Educational empowerment workshops and activities look different in each of our programs but one common activity that is very important is providing support for our youth who will experience transitions (elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, high school to college, and now, community college to career).

In DC, the transition from elementary school to middle school is supported through the My School DC Common Lottery process. My School DC (visit for more information)  “gives families a single application and a single lottery that matches all students and all participating schools. The My School DC application and common lottery are designed to accomplish the following goals:

  • Simplify the process for families
  • Maximize the number of students who are matched with a school they choose
  • Match students with the schools they want most.

AALEAD Staff Support Youth with the DC LotteryThe process of applying for lottery can be challenging, especially for first generation immigrant parents. Ms. T (whose children have been a part of AALEAD for the past 8 years) shares that she “didn’t know anything about the lottery beforehand”. It can also be challenging for families who are new to the area. Selena J. , her parents, and two siblings moved to DC in July from New York City and admitted she “knew nothing about the lottery ” and was “still getting used to” her school when the lottery process started. As an organization, we do our best to support our youth and families through this process. AALEAD hopes that this support helps youth realize that their education is important. Mylynh shared that she is personally connected with this outcome area: “When I was a child, I watched my mom and dad struggle with working long hours at low paying jobs in order to support our family of six.  Their hope was that my future would hold more options for a personally fulfilling and and comfortable life, and they understood the important role that education would play in creating those opportunities for me.  I have carried this value for education with me throughout my life, and it has motivated me to look at challenges as opportunities and to continue working toward my goals.“  

Our approach is focused on empowering our youth to be a part of decisions regarding their education.  Ms. S, agrees that there are many benefits with this approach: “When students are actively involved in the decision making of which middle school to attend, it allows parents and students to have conversations about the adventure ahead!  When kids enter a new environment with a sense of ownership there can be a sense of confidence on expectations! They are more likely to be successful and less likely to be overwhelmed.”

AALEAD staff takes the time to explain the lottery process to youth and families and recommend what schools are best for them through assessing youth’s needs such as academic interests, extracurricular activities (sports, arts, clubs), commute, etc. Staff meet with families several times and submit their applications once both our parents and youth are comfortable with the decision. Ms T. shares that “through AALEAD, finding out information about the program really helped us. AALEAD was able to give us options about what schools to apply to. I didn’t know some of these schools existed.”

AALEAD DC Elementary School Program

This experience has also left an impact on our youth. Rahel T. admits that she feels “less anxious” and is excited about her next steps. More importantly, it has also helped youth in realizing that their education is important to them.  Kevin R. (a 5th grader) shares that “It’s important that I’m a  part of choosing my middle school because some schools have higher requirements than other schools. Even though I enjoy challenges, rest is important to me. I want to find the right school for me.  My mom and I  (during the decision making process) made sure to discuss and decide what school was good together.”  Rahel T. agrees, “I think it’s important to be involved in the middle school selection process because I can know what school I’m going to, what options are available to me, and what I’m going to learn.“  Feeling less nervous and fearful, our youth are looking to finish off their last year in AALEAD’s DC Elementary School Program enjoying field trips, projects, and spending time with their friends. 

Lastly, AALEAD youth were also able to share their reflections about their experience in AALEAD during elementary school and how it has shaped their education. Read a few of their reflections below:


“I have been in AALEAD for four years. AALEAD has helped my education because our teachers don’t always make decisions for us. Our opinions matter and our teachers make lessons that are fun and interesting to us. It’s taught me that I can be involved in my learning and can share my thoughts. For example, our class is having a  Service Day soon.   Me and my classmates want to learn about UN and how to discuss international issues.”


“My education matters because a lot of schools require you to study. I want to focus on my education because the more subjects I know and  understand the more knowledge I will have. “


“My education matters because I need to find the right school for me. Some schools give A LOT work, some give less work, and others are boring. I want a school that isn’t just about academics but focuses on other subjects too. “

Kevin, AALEAD Youth

Special thanks to Kevin R., Rahel T., Selena J., Mr. J, Ms. S, Ms. T, and Mylynh for your time and stories!

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