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How do you remember your high school years? Some of us, myself included, would not go back even if our lives depended on it. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a group of current high school students. I walked away feeling a mixture of exhilaration and inspiration. Despite the gloomy headlines, I felt a glimmer of hope for our nation’s future.
The impetus for this little sit-down was a conversation I recently had with my seventeen year-old son and his girlfriend Ebony. I had been fishing for good ideas for an article. In response to my question they both immediately replied, “You need to come to Sac High.” When I asked why, Ebony responded “Because they’re always writing articles about our school, but no one comes and talks to us, the students, to see what we think and feel.” Since my son is a man of few words, Ebony continued to elaborate why she felt so strongly about this issue. By the end of this conversation they had me convinced, this was a great idea.
So after a few confused attempts on my part, I sat down with Ebony and a few of her classmates on an overcast Friday afternoon.
All of them seniors, each came to attend Sac High for a number of different reasons. Chris, 18, chose Sac High, after he moved here from Oakland, because he wanted to attend a school that was strong in academics and had a competitive basketball team. Jaylyn, 18, attends Sac High because it’s her home school and her family has always attended. Canoe, 18, who moved here from Wisconsin after her sophomore year, liked the idea that Sac High was identified as a College Prep High School. Janelle, 17, chose Sac High on her own because she wasn’t convinced that her home high school would give her a great education. Her mother had reservations over concerns for Janelle’s safety, but was convinced after attending an Open House at Sac High. Ebony, 18, came to attend Sac High because her older brother, who graduated two years ahead of her, earned a 0.5 GPA his freshman year at their home school. Their father, who graduated from Sac High in 1982, decided to transfer his son to his alma mater where he was able to maintain a GPA of 3.0. After that Ebony’s dad decided that Ebony and her younger brother would attend Sac High as well.
Before I had even asked a question Jaylyn, Janelle and Ebony were sharing vivid memories of attending Sacramento Unified School Board Meetings their freshman year in support of Sac High. They are still struck by comments made by some of the opponents of Sac High becoming a Charter School.
“Going to the board meetings were really emotional because people were saying things like, ‘All the kids that go to Sac High are bad kids and they’re never going to be anything,’” Janelle recalled.
Ebony jumped in to share, “Some of the people were blatantly racist, they called us niggers and spics,” she went on, “but what made us look good is we didn’t get outraged, we didn’t scream, we just sat there and listened professionally.”
“We came in charter buses filled with students dressed in purple,” Jaylyn shared, “…and we had former students that were successful come to share…there was nothing they [opponents] could object to.”
When I ask how much they understand about the controversy surrounding Sacramento Charter High School Jaylyn, begins “They feel that we pick only the highest students…but it’s not really like that, the application is to get you ready for what you’re going to be doing later on during college…they don’t say ‘You’re denied.’ they accept everyone.”
“To add on to that,” Janelle chimes in, “They felt that our campus was too large for so few students, they felt we didn’t deserve all of this land to ourselves…they wanted to trade our campus with West Campus.” Ebony piped in, “They have even less students than we do.”
Chris shared, “At one point they wanted to split our campus with another high school.” Currently Sac High shares the campus with a middle school and an adult school.
An issue that came up repeatedly is the stereotypes that Sac High is up against.
“They say it’s ghetto, it’s in Oak Park, but I thought that too until I went here,” says Ebony.
Jaylyn went on, “I grew up in Oak Park schools (practically) my whole life…They think it’s as bad as Compton back in the day. To be honest I feel safe…everybody knows each other here…they’re like ‘Oh you go to Sac High? Do you know my little cousin or my daughter?’” she wrapped up with, “You don’t know until you come here.”
Janelle summarized it this way, “The students who come to Sac High, want to come to Sac High, and they want to become something, and the teachers who come to Sac High, want to come to Sac High and they want us to become somebody, and they help us become somebody.” She elaborated, “When I came here I was a decent student. Since coming to Sac High I’ve applied to Harvard and Stanford…I found out I got a full-ride today. I ran around the whole school to the teachers, because they share the joy with you. If I was in other schools I wouldn’t have ran around to teachers and even students (yelling the news).”
“When I came here I wasn’t a superb student,” Jaylyn intoned, “unlike her, I was average. So when I received my first scholarship to Menlo University, I told Ms. Stark and she screamed for joy and grabbed me by my wrist and dragged me around the school. Because when I came here I was a bad student or a delinquent… So basically she saw a creation that she made.”
Chris shares, “At other schools I hear them say how they have to do it all by themselves. At Sac High it’s mandatory to get help. A lot of people say how stressful it is to apply for college…Lot’s of times me and my friends sat down and looked through the papers together and we just work through it together.”
Both Jaylyn and Janelle participate in the Link Crew, an organization that many campuses have adopted. The Link Crew connects successful upper classmen with incoming freshmen to be mentored.
“We help them understand that Sac High is going to push you, and we’re going to push you even further,” Janelle says.”
Jaylyn shares “Two upper classmen are assigned eleven freshmen…When they come with the excuses we can say, ‘I already know, I’ve been there, done that. I just said that three years ago.’”
“We went to a convention and we got to talk with Link Crews from other campuses, and I realized how much our Link Crew does. We go to their advisory class every Tuesday, we check their grades, we give them advice,” Janelle continues, “Sometimes I feel like I’m being mean, but I know it’s not me being mean, it’s me caring.”
“Other schools shared that they only see their freshmen passing in the halls or at random,” offers Jaylyn, “Even though, they have an entire class period devoted to Link Crew. I had a freshman that was ready to give up, so we developed a system where if her GPA drops below 3.0 she owes me candy, if it’s above I owe her. We’re able to develop those personal relationships.”
“One thing that I noticed is that Link Crew gets it in their heads that freshman year does count,” Ebony goes on, “When you’re doing that cumulative GPA your senior year you’re not saying, ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t have messed up freshman year.’”
Canoe was not as forthcoming as the other students and had to be encouraged to speak up. When I asked how she would describe her relationship with her teachers she said, “Oh they’re very helpful. For example, when I went to Mr. Slakey for help on an essay even though he had a stack of essays in front of him, he stopped and helped me with my essay.”
One refrain I heard repeated is that everyone at Sac High is a family. Even if you’ve never had a teacher’s class you can still approach them and ask for help.
Janelle volunteers, “It’s not just the faculty, it’s the St. Hope staff. They’re always on campus, they know us by name, they ask about our grades.”
One of the Sac High experiences that had a huge impact on Janelle is a Back to School Night she attended with her mother. Her teacher, Mr. Ross, said ‘Janelle’s a great student, but she doesn’t try.’ She went on, “I thought, ‘How can I have an A if I don’t try?’ I didn’t understand what he meant until this year. I was failing Calculus, so I had to try. The teachers here, I don’t want to say they’re tough on you but they’re honest. That will always stay in my head. Mr. Ross has personally touched my life by saying that.”
“A lot of people talk about the long hours at Sac High,” Chris says, “It passes quickly though, everyone that’s gone on to college says the long classes prepared them…some of their lectures are shorter than our classes. We take so many notes at Sac High, AP class or not…they’re going to base the test off of those notes, so if you don’t study it’s going to make you study.”
Jaylyn and Chris shared that as students, they’ve learned to hold each other accountable, “We literally have all of our classes together, so we’ll text each other to remind us to complete all of our homework.” Jaylyn goes on, “Ebony taught me to start out strong to give myself a good foundation.”
“Sac High definitely emphasizes accountability,” Janelle says. She begins to say “Own it, Fix it, Learn from it,” and the others enthusiastically join in. “They definitely make you accountable for your stuff, but they will help you.”
Chris shared that he found himself using one of the study skills he’d learned in school on his SAT and ACT. “I knew I didn’t have to do it but I found myself trying to justify my answers. I was surprised at my scores, that actually worked.”
A lesson that stands out for some of them is that Mr. Ross, a chemistry teacher, has the periodic table taped to his floor. He had them stand on the table as elements, when they became a different element they had to explain why. They shared, “The teachers here mix things up [teaching styles] so everyone has the opportunity to learn differently.”
Chris remembers, “I told my chemistry teacher that all sciences are not my thing, and that when I go home I play basketball to relieve stress. She told me to leave my flashcards on the baseline and every time I shot a basket run to the baseline and read a flashcard… surprisingly it worked. I passed honors Chemistry.”
These young people had shared so enthusiastically throughout this interview that by the time I asked “What do you wish people knew about Sac High?” I knew I would get an earful.
Right away Janelle says, “I wish people would come to Sac high for a week and experience it with an open mind.” They go on to address the school uniform issue. All of them came to like wearing uniforms for the convenience. “A month into your freshman year you realize the only thing you have to worry about is, ‘Did I wash on the weekend?’”
“I wish that people knew that people here not only want to better themselves,” Janelle enthuses, “they want to better those around them. We go to do our community service hours and our teachers show up to do it with us.”
Once prompted, Canoe shares, “I noticed that when students leave, they end up coming back,” she laughs.
“I probably would have been successful at other schools, but Sac High pushed me beyond my limits,” concludes Janelle.
Jaylyn pipes in, “My advisor Mr. Sullivan knows I want to be a lawyer, so when I have an opinion he debates me to make me justify my opinion. He says I need to start preparing now.”
My final question was what they would change about Sac High. Jaylyn acknowledges that the only thing that she would change would probably be that students be allowed to accessorize their uniforms more. The others agree that Sac High has been so responsive to students needs over the years that they can’t think of anything major that needs to be changed. “They don’t hold our hands but they definitely guide us. They make sure we’re doing it for ourselves.”
When I direct the question toward Canoe she opens up that, “To be honest when I first came here I wished that there was more diversity here,” she goes on, “Now, I blend in. I realize I have at least one thing in common with every other person.”
That prompts a discussion of how accepting the Sac High community is of all types of people. So I bring up the topic of bullying. What follows is one of the most touching parts of the interview for me. Janelle volunteers, “I’ll just bring it up. I like girls. In the news there’s been stories about people committing suicide when they go off to college, because they’re bullied because they’re gay…at Sac High you don’t get bullied, you don’t lose friends over it, it’s like, it is what it is, it’s okay, that’s who you are…Freshman year I was scared to be who I was …because I still had a young mind, I thought there was something wrong with me…[here] they definitely teach you to embrace yourself and embrace others.”
On the topic of bullying as a whole they agree that there’s very little, because the students tend to address it themselves, putting pressure on the bully to knock it off. “Students have character here to stick up for people.” When I asked how they felt about how the staff responded to bullying Jaylyn replied, “Because we handle it, it doesn’t [usually] even get to them. When we can’t handle it they [the staff] will set a[those involved] down and address it.”
As I concluded the interview my younger son, who will be an entering freshman this fall at Sac High spoke up to ask, “How do you guys think the Quick Look-up every week helps you?” He was referring to the weekly grade report that students have to have signed every Tuesday. Everyone agreed that the accountability this brought helped them stay focused. But more than that they shared how the Quick Look-up has inspired friendly competitions within the school that have made learning fun. “They add a little friendly competition to it,” Chris says, “So whichever class has the best grades or haven’t been sent to the office for the previous month, the next month, every Friday they get to wear jeans.”
Ebony laughs, “The Seniors win a lot.”
Janelle adds seriously, “They definitely teach us that in order to be successful you have to enjoy what you’re doing.”
“I get excited for Tuesdays,” Jaylyn enthuses, “not only do I get to see if I made progress, but afterward I get to meet with my freshmen to see how they’re doing.”
As we’re concluding the interview, their conversations turn to the after school activities they might have missed or need to get to. I left feeling as if I didn’t have the time to thank them properly for stopping for a moment to open their hearts to me in this way. Walking away, my head is reeling and I’m feeling just the tiniest bit overwhelmed. I feel the burden to make sure their voices are heard.
As adults we each have our own positions for our own reasons. That’s fine, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that a teen has a finite amount of time to experience high school. It’s easy to feel like we have years or generations to fix our societal issues. The reality is for our children, their foundations are being built right now, they won’t get a do-over. I can’t tell you what to take away from this article, I just ask that you sincerely hear their voices, and you respond with the respect and actions that they deserve.