National Charter Schools Week: California Student Spotlight

May 5, 2011

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Sirrele Steinfeld, Sacramento Charter High School

Recently, at a Stand Up event in Sacramento, where Mayor Kevin Johnson and former DC Schools Chief Michelle Rhee spoke about education reform, it was Sirrele Steinfeld that stole the show. The seventeen-year-old Sacramento Charter High senior opened the program by talking to hundreds of attendees about his experience attending a charter school, his sometimes difficult past, and his path to the future.

He respectfully asked the audience to close their eyes so that they could get the full emotion of the words he was about to read: the essay he submitted to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), along with his application for admission.

First, he recounted painful experiences at his past school, where the color of his skin was ridiculed, and his needs overlooked.

"I was called the 'n' word, and the student that did it only got suspended for three days, and that was it," said Sirrele.

When he entered Sac High during his sophomore year, at the insistence of his foster father Charles Kidd, Sirrele saw something different.

"I had gotten into some trouble at school, but instead of being admonished, the (staff) showed me that they cared, and that they weren't about to give up on me," he said.

"That was the turning point for me."

To Sirrele, Sac High has been more than a school, it has become an extension of his family, and a source of inspiration for his future. He will be graduating in a few weeks, and attending UCLA in the fall, not just with a scholarship, but with a good foundation on education, and the goal of one day going to law school.

Being an African-American student, Sirrele's path could've been very different. Dropout rates for African-Americans are near 40% in California, and proficiency rates in both English and Math are dismal. But at Sac High, the focus has always been to instill a culture of higher education and college-preparedness.

"When you come in the door, the teachers believe in you, and work with you, but you have high expectations to meet and exceed, so it's a two-way street. And that has made a world of difference to me, because being in this charter has made me confident in my abilities," said Sirrele.

We have students travel to universities to see and experience that environment, and to meet with former students, so that they can relate to them, and aim higher. It's what we call 'sense of possiblity' and we do have high expectation, but we every student the tools and resources to meet those expectations. That's what public education should be about," says Dr. Ed Manansala, Superintendent of St. HOPE's schools, and one of Sirrele's advisors at Sac High.

Dr. Manansala has been with the school since its inception back in 2003. He still keeps in touch with many of his former students, like Cierra Townsend, a sophomore at George Washington University in D.C.

"I can truly say that I would not be here (at George Washington U.) if I had gone to a traditional public school. At Sac High, I had the opportunity to travel, for free, to visit colleges and universities that I didn't even know existed, which also taught me to aim higher. Those lessons are invaluable to a young person," said Cierra, a first generation college-student in her family, but certainly not the last.

That's because her younger brother, James, also a Sac High student, will be graduating in Sirrele's class, and attending UC Santa Cruz in the fall.

"Charter schools grant us the latitude, autonomy, and flexibility to create systems that best serve students, and we strive to develop meaningful relationships with students, because it's an important component of also holding them accountable," added Dr. Manansala.

As Sirrele prepares for graduation, he also takes the time to tutor younger students, and talk about charter schools.

"I'm having some of the same conversations that the teachers here had with me, and I want everyone to know that at a charter, you're getting that private school education for free," said Sirrele. "There are expectations, and they have the resources, and there's no reason why you shouldn't succeed."

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