By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
2019 marks a big year for Washington’s charter schools, as it is the first year since the charter school initiative was passed in 2012 that graduates are claiming their diplomas. Seniors from Summit Sierra charter school in the International District were the first to do so this June. Most graduates had been founding freshmen at Summit Sierra as well, and had many reasons to celebrate.
Summit Sierra is part of a public school network that operates out of California and Washington. In Washington, there are two other Summit locations in Tacoma and West Seattle. The Summit system of schools prides itself on making students college-ready and in the personalized attention that is given to each student. This year, 98 percent of Summit’s graduating seniors in Washington state have been accepted to a four-year college or university.
Summit Sierra regional director of schools, Alex Horowitz, explained that the school provides “self-directed learning” and that they strive to “meet each child where they are and for who they are.” It’s a well-rounded approach geared towards “developing the whole child.” Summit Sierra, which is tuition-free, and has no entrance requirements—everyone is welcome—advocates strongly for their kids. Each student is put into a mentoring group with an adult mentor. This is someone, in addition to their teachers and other staff members, who can help them get ready for college, and life.
Dustin Dacuan, the school’s director of college programming, is a founding teacher and mentor. He talked about the importance of building relationships at Summit Sierra. Mentors meet with their students on a daily basis, and also accompany them on outings. Mentoring groups are given fun names, and participate in healthy competition for achievements like best attendance.
Dacuan, whose father is from the Philippines, confirmed that diversity is important at the school, where events such as the Black Excellence Gala are held. The school also recognizes Asian Pacific American or Hispanic Heritage months. The percentage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at Summit Sierra is 12.3 and for seniors it is 17.5 percent.
Standing in the hallways of the school, the diversity of the student population is apparent. Horowitz admits, though, that the diversity of the staff has yet to catch up. However, he stressed that it is part of the mission of Summit Sierra to ensure that students and staff will ultimately and “accurately reflect the community.”
Students that spoke to the Northwest Asian Weekly are satisfied with their experiences as a whole.
Edgiemeh Dela Cruz, who comes from the Philippines and will be the only child in her family going to college, had only good things to say.
“My experience was more than just happy. I have loved every single part of my experience, through its ups and downs. Not a single day at Summit was a day to not come to school. The diversity in the community and personalities livened up the atmosphere.”
Dela Cruz also appreciated the mentorship experience. “The support system at Summit Sierra is more than you could ever expect. Mentors are with you from the day you walk into their rooms to the day you graduate. There is a special bond between mentors and mentees that make us all feel like extended family, like sisters and brothers.” Dela Cruz, a founding freshman of Summit Sierra, will be going to Pacific Lutheran University in the fall.
Christian Ranche, also a founding freshman, feels similarly about the connections created in the mentoring group.
“Having an adult to talk to was definitely one of the best things about the mentor program,” he said.
“I also liked being able to create a sort of family bond with my mentees, or other people in my mentor group.” Ranche, like Dela Cruz, chose the school for himself, knowing that it was a college preparatory school and how helpful that would be. Ranche describes his family as lower middle class. His mother, who is from the Philippines, raised him by herself after his father passed away.
Ranche believes that the student population at Summit Sierra represents diversity, not only of color but also of income. He stressed how good it felt to “grow up together” with his classmates, from ninth through 12th grade. Ranche will be going to the University of Washington in the fall. His major is as of yet undeclared.
An Vu, whose family came from Vietnam nine years ago, will also be the first in his family to attend a four-year university. Another founding freshman at Summit Sierra, Vu stood by the school in 2015 when charter schools were under attack as being unconstitutional.
“My family and I chose Summit Sierra because of its bold statement of the high percentage of students that get into 4-year universities and also because of its promise to provide the extra support to succeed in high school and in life.” Vu continued, “Sierra shows great potential and its diverse student body allows me to feel like I’m fitting in and have a safe space where there are others like me that have the same goals of graduating and going to top colleges and universities.”
Vu echoed the comments from Dela Cruz and Ranche about diversity at the school.
“Because of Summit’s clubs like the APIA club, I feel much better about being Asian, that my culture and background is understood by not only the people in my club, but the people throughout the school.” His student government class, in which they completed a project called “racial biography,” was especially impactful. “I heard many great stories from my peers of their interactions with race and learned many great things from them…multiple times I was shocked at some of the things my friends went through growing up and how those experiences make them stronger.” Vu will be seeking a degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington.
The pride in the students’ faces as they participate in their graduation ceremony is moving for everyone who knows that graduation day is a culmination of hard work, hopes, and dreams—and a gateway to the future.
“It’s a big deal because I am exploring a new section in my family’s life that they have never experienced,” said Dela Cruz. “They have done so much for me, especially my brother, who was always expressing to work hard for not only my family but for myself.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.