Sean Russell lined up for the 200-meter dash in the outside lane.
That meant that Sean, a senior at Westinghouse Academy, stood a few meters in front of the next runner to account for the track’s curve.
His position in the April 7 race is an apt metaphor for the position in life Sean finds himself in. At a school known for its low rate of alumni going on to graduate from college, Sean has been accepted to Yale, Harvard and Stanford. He’s one of only 300 students across the country to win a full-tuition Gates Scholarship to a school of his choosing.
News of Sean’s college acceptances was shared on Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Facebook page 1,500 times, more than any other post this year. He didn’t celebrate right away because of his track meet. But after posting some good times on the track, his coach bought him pizza — the kind of indulgence Sean might not have allowed himself if that week hadn’t turned into such a victory lap.
Antawn James, Sean’s best friend at Westinghouse, said Sean will ask for extra credit work in classes where he’s already earning 100%. In track practices, Antawn and Sean often run at a pace much faster than their coach would like because they get so competitive. Sean pushed Antawn in the offseason to run workouts up a steep hill in Frick Park, even on days Antawn felt lazy.
Sean’s effort has had a similar impact at school, according to social studies teacher Sean Means, pushing teachers to work even harder to find new challenges. Sean’s hard work, Means said, pushes other students to think more deeply and stay focused.
In Means’ class the day of the track meet, discussion turned toward civil rights history. “Malcolm X thought war was the right way, and Martin Luther King thought peace was the right way,” one student offered.
Sean responded: “Malcolm was more about separation and Martin more about unity and working with both sides.“
Sean Russell ran the 800 meters, earning second place, and then set up to to run the 200 meters, which he won. Antawn James and Sean (bottom right) are in advanced classes and run track and cross country together. (Photos by Oliver Morrison / PublicSource)
Sean’s contributions in and outside of class are a frustrating reminder for Means of what Westinghouse could be like. Students like Sean often transfer out of neighborhood schools — like Westinghouse in Homewood, where most students are Black from low-income families — to attend more prestigious magnet schools in other neighborhoods.
“For us to have him here has been game-changing,” Means said. “They take those students, and it hurts the neighborhood schools.”
In fact, Sean had applied to get into Obama Academy, where he would’ve been able to take advanced international baccalaureate classes. Sean thinks he made a mistake on the application and was told he was ineligible. His sister, who is 11 months older and in the same grade, was accepted.
Sean’s life began to diverge from his sister’s. And yet he believes now that staying at Westinghouse was the best thing that could’ve happened to him.
At 6:30 a.m. the morning of the meet, Sean had snuck out the back door of his house in Homewood to avoid waking up the dogs, four siblings, his dad and stepmom.
He started listening to an audiobook about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. His teacher Angela Flango had recommended it to him.
Flango tells her students that, as hard as she is asking them to work, she will be working just as hard. But she said this is a challenge with Sean. She can’t outwork him.
“Within the classroom, he is laser focused,” Flango said. “You can see it in his posture. He doesn’t lean back against his chair. He sits up ramrod straight.”
Earlier in the year, Sean had enjoyed reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and he asked Flango for recommendations of other memoirs he could read. He responded to her email of recommendations with a detailed analysis of one — “Between the World and Me,” written as a letter between a Black father to his son. It was, she said, one of the most eloquent emails she’d ever received from any person let alone a student. He had signed off with a pithy summary.
“Awakening. Awareness. The truth.”
“Within the classroom, he is laser focused. You can see it in his posture.” (Photos by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)
Sean’s dad, Sean Russell Sr., was making $8.50 an hour when he bought their house in Homewood for $10,000 in 2014.
He couldn’t get a loan, so he came up with a $1,000 down payment and created a contract to pay the rest. It took months to install new plumbing and electricity, drywall, paint and put in ceiling fans. Neither of Sean’s parents graduated from high school, but his dad believed in hard work.
Sean’s early years were split between the small rural community of Muse, where his mom lived, and his dad’s home in the city. Half the time, he attended school in the largely middle-class Canon-McMillan School District, which currently serves fewer than 4% Black students. In Pittsburgh, his schools were more than 90% Black and most of the kids were from low-income homes.
Sean preferred attending schools outside of the city, even amid setbacks. For example, he was assigned to the regular math class in 7th grade at Canonsburg Middle School, even though he thought he should have been placed in the honors class. Sean used the snub to motivate himself. By the end of the year, he said, his teachers had begun assigning him work from the advanced class anyway.
Sean loved his mom and all he knew about her was that she loved him and looked after him. But around that time, her use of opioids had become more regular and then someone she gave drugs to overdosed. Before his 8th-grade year, he and his siblings were removed from their mom’s home.
Sean didn’t want to leave.
“He was crying,” said Tina Gardner, his maternal grandmother. “It was terrible.”
Sean remembers the neighbors down the street all came outside to stare at the commotion. He had to quickly pack up his things but he left his favorite chair for video games because he thought he would be back.
“It was just so quick,” he said. “It was like one minute you’re like this and one minute your whole life is changed.”
Sean and his two sisters moved in with his dad, and Gardner adopted his mom’s three other children.
Gardner was worried for Sean and his siblings. “Going to a city school from a little country town,” she said.
But Sean thrived. In 10th grade, he led Westinghouse in the district’s African American History Challenge Bowl. He learned from his mistakes the previous year, he said, and studied for months in advance. In the championship round, he beat the students from Obama.
In 11th grade, he joined a new, advanced program at the school called the Justice Scholars.
Identification and concentric privilege
During lunch, Sean’s teacher, Sean Means, drove Sean to the DMV to pick up his first official photo identification. Sean needed an ID to board a plane the next day, his first flight: he was flying to California during spring break to visit Harvey Mudd and Stanford and then flying to Boston to visit Harvard.
Back in September, Means had encouraged Sean to think bigger. Sean’s dream school was the University of Pittsburgh. But then he scored higher than a 1400 on his SATs. “If Mr. Means sees this in me, maybe it’s there,” Sean thought. He began his application to Harvard that very night.
Means was one of 10 Black men recruited into Westinghouse about 10 years ago to become mentors and earn their teacher certifications. The school was struggling with a radical effort to transform itself at the time, back in 2011-2012. Means stayed at Westinghouse at the end of the two-year program, although six of the others are involved in education elsewhere.
A professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Esohe Osai, showed up in 2016 trying to address one of the city’s biggest educational challenges: Black students in Pittsburgh are not graduating college at the same rates as white students. When Osai went to the school to find out why, she was told that part of the reason was that the students didn’t have access to a challenging curriculum.
She started the Justice Scholars Institute with just a single advanced class. Westinghouse students weren’t passing their AP tests but by bringing in a “College in High School” class, the students could earn college credit. The program also provided after-school enrichment, college application help and campus visits.
Sean’s teachers guided him through his college application process.
And he wasn’t alone. His teachers say that about 16 seniors this year are unique in their academic prowess and drive to succeed.
Vince Werling teaches statistics, a fourth class that was added to the Justice Scholars program this year. He said he’s seen the culture at the school start to shift over the last four years.
“It’s pushing an academic focus that we didn’t have before,” he said. “It’s the beginning of something.”
What happens when you remove the Sean Russells from class?
Pittsburgh schools with high concentrations of low-income students seem to be struggling with just getting kids to school, according to last year’s report by A+ Schools. Once the percentage of low-income students exceeds 80%, chronic absenteeism appears to skyrocket.
So, are Westinghouse students hurt by losing more privileged students to magnet schools?
The data isn’t clear, according to Roslyn Mickelson, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Mickelson has reviewed studies that tried to isolate the impact of having more or fewer low-income students in a school. While the studies clearly show low-income schools struggle, they don’t make clear at what point the proportion of low-income students makes the challenges for students in poverty even more severe.
According to some recent high-profile studies, the magnet system in Pittsburgh could actually be contributing to Sean’s success.
Brian Gill, a senior researcher at Mathematica who studies education policy including in Pittsburgh, said there is a growing body of evidence that students choosing to go to charter schools actually improves the outcomes of the students left behind.
Schools in Washington, D.C., for example, improved across the board with the addition of charter schools. Although magnet schools and charter schools are not exactly the same thing, he said they both separate out students who chose an alternative to their local school.
“The results aren’t totally definitive but I would characterize them as encouraging,” he said.
Sean Russell’s bedroom walls are filled with inspirational quotes, accolades and goals that he sees before he walks to school every day. (Photos by Oliver Morrison / PublicSource)
What the research is suggesting is that the magnet system in Pittsburgh could be creating competition among educators and students that helps bring about programs like the Justice Scholars.
The success of students like Sean in the Justice Scholars program could help pave the way for more students to sign up and show teachers what is possible for their students with the right supports, Osai said.
“Eventually it begins to impact the school as a whole as teachers begin to acknowledge their potential academically,” she said.
After the track meet, Sean met with a mentor who he is working with to raise awareness about water quality issues in Pittsburgh. And then he walked home to prepare for a scholarship interview with Harvey Mudd. Late that night, he packed a duffel bag for his trip to California the next day, paid for largely by the Justice Scholars program.
Sean Russell visited Harvey Mudd, Stanford and Harvard over spring break and took his first plane ride. (Photos courtesy of Sean Means)
Sean also learned about the opioid crisis in his social justice class and on some level, he said, it helped him understand that the loving mom he remembered from his childhood was suffering from a disease.
When she called him just after she got out of prison in February, he picked up the phone for the first time in four years. His voice had changed. “He was a grown man and he was talking so intelligent,” she thought.
Sean thinks they are making progress. “Relationships that go down such a dark turn need time to get back to where they were,” he said. “We’re working at it.”
For now, he said, he’s trying to show her that he’s proud of the progress she’s making. He sends her inspirational quotes that the other women she’s in recovery with are amazed by. “He’s really inspiring, he inspires me every day,” she said. “That’s why I’m trying so hard.”
After spending the day at Stanford the next week, Means took Sean to an overlook where he could see the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. The wind was gusting as the sun set.
Sean was video chatting with his two sisters, one a 10th grader at Westinghouse, the other a senior at Obama.
He held his phone’s camera up to the horizon for them to see.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
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