THE ADVOCATE ASKS: An interview with a college-bound student who left Saugus High for “a better education” at a local charter school
Editor’s Note: For this week, we sat down with Victoria Chiek, this year’s valedictorian at Kipp Academy, a charter school in Lynn. Chiek, 18, will be attending Stanford University this fall on a four-year scholarship. She looks back fondly on her early years at the Veterans Memorial Elementary School. But the daughter of immigrant parents who came to the United States after surviving the Cambodian genocide said she was disappointed with the education received in the Belmonte Middle School and her one year at Saugus High School. She credited her mother, Van Son, with molding her passion for education at an early age. Son enrolled her daughter in a Lynn preschool at age two years and nine months. Son also read to her daughter regularly to cultivate a love of learning. Chiek said hearing of the horrible experiences that her mother and her father, Dyson Chiek, survived during the Cambodian genocide fueled her passion to get the best education she could. Being a straight-A student wasn’t good enough, she said. Chiek was also busy in extracurricular activities at Kipp, as a peer mentor, a math tutor and a member of the school debate and poetry clubs. She’s also a competitive figure skater who skates about five days a week and has excelled in that sport, winning first place in her division in the International Skating Institute (ISI) World Championship. Chiek is also active in her church and is a lead singer of the Worship Band of the East Gate Christian Fellowship in Salem, Mass. She has a younger sister, Angelina Chim, who is in the Kindergarten at Veterans Memorial Elementary School. Her brother, Peter Chim, is a seventh-grader at Belmonte Middle School. Highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: Victoria, you have been to a lot of schools: a couple of charter schools and Saugus Public Schools and schools in Lynn. Tell me a little bit about the different schools you have been to, both public and private.
A: Up until the seventh grade, I went to all public schools. I started off in the Lynn Public Schools until I moved here to Saugus. From first grade to seventh grade, I stayed in Public Schools: Veterans Memorial and then Belmonte [Middle School]. And then after the seventh grade, I headed on – because I put my name in the lottery – for a new charter school that was opening up in Saugus: Pioneer Charter School Science II. I stayed there for eighth and ninth grades. I went back to Saugus High for 10th grade, and I finished off my high school career (11th and 12th grade) at Kipp Academy in Lynn.
Q: So, that’s a lot of schools. What would you say the highlight of your education was?
A: I would say the highlight of my education, through it all, was definitely my last two years at Kipp. Definitely.
Q: That’s the charter school, so what makes that school so special?
A: Kipp is a school that is just unparalleled. It’s so unique in so many ways. It’s extremely positive. It’s extremely effective. It changes people’s lives, in all honesty. Like you see, I have been to a lot of schools. I’ve seen a lot of schools; I have checked them out. Kipp is extremely different. Kipp has a national network. It has many high schools throughout the country, hundreds of schools – middle and high schools and elementary schools. And they are all bound together by a certain philosophy and a policy, because education has policy. Kipp has a certain ideology that helps kids succeed. And that has to do with their discipline habits or emotional health and mental health. There’s a rigorous education while also supporting kids. I’d say the thing that makes Kipp different in the educational sense is that you just don’t ride through and Kipp gives you the marks. Instead, Kipp takes you through and makes sure you have support systems and they are always tracking growth. The teachers are excellent. Charter schools generally have younger teachers, straight out of their colleges. A lot of my teachers were relatively young, but they were well-versed. A lot of them had master’s in education before they taught me. They had a fresh vision for education.
Instead of sending a kid through high school and hoping they can muscle their way out of their challenges and eventually graduate, Kipp is saying that “We understand that it’s not your job as a high school student to make it to the top on your own. And we understand the challenges that you have. We understand the things that you lived through that make it hard for you to advance and become your best, but that’s what we are here for.”
Q: Let’s go back to your sophomore year at Saugus High School. And you were disappointed with your education there. What disappointed you the most? What, in particular, was missing from that education?
A: It was just not rigorous academically – besides one teacher … one teacher had a rigorous classroom and that was Mr. Fontinella … Kevin Fontinella. Other than that, I wouldn’t say that I had a robust or fair education in any of my other classes.
Q: How did you do when you were at Saugus High School?
A: I got straight A’s without even trying.
Q: Tell me a little more, prior to Kipp, things that you thought were missing from your education.
A: I’d say that the school culture at Saugus High was wrong. I felt that people didn’t try as much as they should. If you go to Saugus High for a while, you can hear from teachers and students “Oh yeah, Saugus High sucks.” They all say that, and it’s damaging. In an academic sense, Saugus High is a lowly performing high school compared to the rest of the state. That’s damaging to the school culture, and it’s sort of hopeless. I sought guidance from the guidance office, because I needed it at some points, and that was good. I believe Ms. Larsen, she was there for me, but with respect to the rest of the student body, if you don’t explicitly reach out, I’m not sure they’ll get the help they need.
Q: It sounds like you were pretty serious about getting a good education. High marks weren’t enough for you. You wanted more.
A: Oh, I was extremely serious, because my parents didn’t get an education. My parents, in Cambodia … the Cambodian genocide Communist regime, they aimed at picking out anyone who was a threat to their communist experiment. And that meant wiping out everyone who was educated. Anyone who wore glasses, you would be killed immediately, because that showed you were educated. I take my education extremely seriously. I wanted to be in a place where if I graduated, I knew that I was going to be at a college where I deserved to be. At local public high schools, unless you are valedictorian, you’re probably not going to end up at the college you deserve. I’m extremely serious about my future; I’m extremely serious about my education and I want nothing but the best. I want to know that if I try my hardest at this high school, I will go to the college that I deserve.
Q: Did you notice a difference in your classmates at Kipp as opposed to Saugus? What were the biggest differences in your classmates?
A: My classmates at Kipp vs. my classmates at Saugus? I felt a hundred times more included at Kipp. My classmates at Kipp, they have this drive about them; they have this passion and this drive. And most of us, if not all of us, come from low-income, disadvantaged backgrounds. We are all people of color. And we have these experiences and backgrounds that bind us and make us see the world differently. My classmates are excellent. My friends – one of them is going to Williams College, one of them is going to Georgetown, one of them is going to Emory [University] – they have passion and they see more for themselves because to them, in the Lynn community at Kipp, they see themselves as a hope for Lynn and the hope for their families and the hope for our generation, their race, their people. That makes so much of a difference, because they just leap into the future.
Q: I guess a passion for education can be contagious.
A: It is contagious. But the thing is that you can have that passion, but it won’t produce anything unless you have the hope – unless you know that if you put yourself to work, it will happen. Because if you look at Kipp and you look at the rest of the public schools in Lynn – and there’s a drastic difference. And it’s not like Kipp kids are born extremely special. That’s not it. Kipp kids are just like any other kids, but when you put them in a school that lets them continually know that if they work hard, they’ll go somewhere, then you have that hope and then they will be able to work their hardest. Those kids in public schools in Lynn that are underperforming, they know even if they try hard, they’re probably not going to have the future that they want.
Q: So you think the kids you chummed around with at Saugus High School – if you put them in a Kipp-like environment or a similar school environment, they would thrive?
A: I’d say that they would do better; yeah, I’d say that they would do better. Especially the diversity at Kipp, where there’s black and brown people constantly sharing in their forward thinking – that makes a huge difference in my education.
Q: If you were to do something to make Saugus Public Schools, specifically the high school, better – what would that be?
A: Number One, revolutionize the discipline and student life habits, like a procedure. At Kipp what we do – we understand that you can’t just punish kids. It doesn’t do anything. And for people who say it’s the right thing to do, you need to revolutionize your thinking. It needs to be changed. They’re high school students, first and foremost. They are not prisoners. They are not adults. For example, at Kipp, if there’s a mis-happening in the classroom and the student gets sent out of class, the student can either choose to have one hour of detention or a 10-minute restorative circle. That 10-minute restorative circle has the student, the teacher, a dean and the principal, and they talk it through. Don’t get me wrong, Kipp is strict on certain things, but they’re the right thing. If I am 10 minutes late for school, I get detention. It’s strict in some sense, but understanding in the places that matter and the places that count. And I feel like Saugus High, not only because they deal with a lot of students, but relatively their classes are small, so they have the ability to do better. They have the ability to make the student life discipline in the school more tight and more understanding. The Saugus Public School administration certainly has the opportunity to make things better if they took the right approach.
Q: They’re going to be opening up a new school in a couple of years. What are the ingredients that are missing and need to go with that new school building?
A: First of all, the new school is extremely important. They need a new school with updated facilities and a budget, and you need new teachers. The thing about the charter school model that is so crazy and is so awesome – but then again has its disadvantages because teachers are at a disadvantage in a sense compared to the public schools teachers. The Kipp teachers are constantly recycled. They come straight out of undergraduate or a grad school. They teach for a few years, and then most of them leave. It’s that you are constantly getting the most passionate individuals who know the best ways to teach and who are hungry. They just learned it, and it’s effective for the students, but also at Kipp we had teachers who had been there for the entire duration. That’s important, too, but I prefer young teachers, in all honesty, because they have a fresh perspective. For example, with a lot of the issues that are happening in today’s society, those teachers can relate with us. They talk with us about social issues in our country. That’s important, and I feel like I never really got that from teachers at other schools.
Q: Did you have an exit interview from Saugus High School when you decided that you wanted to leave to go to the charter school? Did anybody ever approach you and ask you, “Why did you leave us?”
A: I think I left sort of silently; yeah, I left silently.
Q: Any reflections on the other schools you attended in Saugus – the elementary and middle schools?
A: The Elementary School was excellent! When I went to the Veterans Memorial Elementary School, I don’t think that anyone could get a better elementary school education; I don’t think so. I think it’s just a very high point of Saugus Public Schools. But Belmonte [Middle School] though … man, that was so much of a dip. Coming from such a colorful and amazing place like the Vets and then going to Belmonte, that was just very depressing; like, extremely depressing. Belmonte had a lot of problems when I was there. I don’t know if it’s different now.
Q: Were there problems with the building, or was it just the culture of the school?
A: Oh, everything; everything. It was just not an effective learning environment. I didn’t learn much, besides Mrs. Tenaglia, a math teacher. She’s the only class that I learned in. I just think it’s insane how I could go through two years of middle school and not learn anything! Not learn anything!
Q: Did you get good grades there?
A: I got great grades – easily – and I didn’t bring any homework home, and that’s a problem. That was a problem with Belmonte and a lot of the public schools that are failing. You need to give kids things to do in order for them to stay out of trouble and better their lives. Kipp understands that; Kipp understands that most of us come from low-income backgrounds, and that when we go home, we probably don’t have an amazing home environment, so they set up things for the kids to improve their education. You can be at Kipp till 10 o’clock at night if you wanted to, because there’s things there for you to do. And when I was in middle school, I could have afterschool hours activities for school or maybe a sport, but that’s only for a short time after school, and then I go home, and then I have nothing else to do. And that’s a problem. Education needs to be school and life after. Belmonte was just all wrong. I was finding that I struggled a lot in a student body that was a majority white and not a lot of people of color. I just didn’t have any understanding in that sense, and I faced a lot of bullying. You know, that’s hurtful. I also suffered bullying in the elementary school. Even though I had a great education, I faced a lot of bullying.
Q: What kind of bullying? Cyberbullying or bad notes?
A: It was in-my-face bullying; it was implicit bullying. It was sort of like …
A: Yeah, prejudice. I understand that with race, when there’s somebody who doesn’t look like you, that’s where problems happen. I do blame my classmates in middle school and high school for bullying, but it’s just inevitable when you are growing up in an all-white town, or majority-white town, that people like me are going to feel out of place and very hurt. I had a lot of classmates during my time here tell me that I looked ugly or that I looked different or that I’m only smart because I’m Asian and that there’s nothing else of value about me.
Q: That’s terrible.
A: Yeah. And they questioned why I had brown skin when I was Asian. They said that my facial features were wrong. I just constantly felt wrong. I constantly felt ugly. And I constantly felt like my confidence was diminished. That’s something that non-diverse communities face. That’s a challenge that’s hard to fix, but that’s why diverse school environments are so important, especially to me, because I didn’t realize why I had self-hate. Until you become part of a community that embraces you, and tells you and lets you know that you are special and you’re not wrong, it’s difficult. And I faced a lot of self-hate.
Q: Was that the same thing during the one year at Saugus High School?
A: I’d say it was a little less there, because I didn’t really interact with the student body at all at the high school. I just stayed to myself. I was really depressed and I didn’t really talk to anybody. I sort of stayed away.
Q: Do you think there’s hope for the Saugus Public Schools?
A: Of course. There’s hope for any school; there’s hope. Because you know what, at Saugus High there are several individuals that I know in my class back then and teachers and staff that I know – that’s where the hope is; that’s where the hope is. I had a few classmates who were extremely driven and extremely impassioned to make their school environment better, for their futures. They were extremely caring. I had Mr. Fontanella – the most excellent history teacher that I’ve ever had, who’s not in a bubble. In Saugus, in general, because it’s a town, it’s in a bubble. For individuals who live their life with a perspective outside that bubble, that’s where the hope is. Mr. Fontanella lives outside of that bubble. Certain classmates that I had met lived outside of that bubble. And it’s important, and that’s where the hope is, definitely.
Q: If you had the chance to sit down with the school administration and say, “These are some simple things you could do to enhance the culture and the quality of education in Saugus High School, what would that be?
A: I would say that it’s a lot harder than a few steps.
Q: What about for a starting point?
A: I’d say, “Go back to school.” If they don’t have a master’s in education, they should probably get one. If the leaders of the school don’t have a master’s, they need to go get one in Education. Other than that, I’d say they should definitely look at school models that work and try to implement those. For example, the ones that I talked about. It’s hard, because we’re talking about an entire culture, but I’d say raise the bar of excellence. There should not be any classes in any school that you can breeze through without trying – none. You’ve got to raise that bar. If kids fail the first couple of years, so be it, but you have got to do what’s best for the school’s future.
Q: So, they have an opportunity here in a couple of years with a combination middle school-high school opening – brand-new.
A: Yes. That’s amazing; that’s amazing, and that’s the first step, but the school leaders definitely need to do some different things – change some things. I’d say that they need to go and observe. They need to get out of the bubble here. They need to start admitting that they are wrong. They need to start seeing where they need to improve. They need to observe different schools that work, and they need to start really thinking about it. Education is no joke, and gambling on kids’ futures is no joke. If school officials don’t start thinking about it day and night, then it’s wrong. And they need to bring in somebody new.
This year, in my college applications, I sent in 24 applications and it was extremely difficult. …
Q: Twenty-four. And how many acceptances?
A: I think it was 16 acceptances, five rejections and a few on the waiting list. But all across the country, it became extremely competitive. The acceptance rates dropped like that.
Q: Rattle off the acceptances.
A: Okay. Some of my acceptances were Amherst College, Williams College, Davidson College, Georgetown University, Tufts University, University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, Cornell University, the UMass schools and stuff like that.
Q: That sounds like some great schools.
A: Yeah, but it was extremely hard this year for students like me who should have gotten into these schools. It’s just so competitive.
Q: You got a good scholarship.
A: Oh yeah. All the schools that I named, they are need-based schools. If you get into them, the school promises to use its funds and endowments to make sure that your needs are met.
Q: Is the scholarship for four years?
A: Every year, if I make it to the next year, they promise that they will fund my education. That’s awesome.
Q: Now, what’s your dream job?
A: My dream job would be like a diplomat or secretary of state. Something like that.
Q: You have no major right now?
A: Right. I’m undeclared, but I think I might go into philosophy.
Q: And I guess you’re a lot different than a lot of students that I have talked to over the years. I meant that in a positive sense.
A: Thank you!
Q: You’re unique, because there seems like a work ethic engrained within you because of the trials and tribulations of your parents, being survivors of this terrible Cambodian genocide. Can you share something about that?
A: Sure. I’d say that for me, education has always been a bit about survival. I believe that without education – for some reason it’s extremely terrifying to not have a good education. I don’t know exactly why. It must have to do with my parents.
Q: You’re the first one in your family to get a college education.
A: Yeah. My mom did a semester at Suffolk, but I really don’t count that. Other family members have gone to college within the same generation. And for me, I’m extremely passionate about my education and about my college because I feel like it’s the only way I’m going to redeem myself and help my family. It’s just so extremely important. I just feel if I don’t read, I might die. If I don’t do well in school, I might not be able to eat one day. It’s that matter of importance, it’s that urgency. And nobody can give that to you. Nobody. Nobody can tell you that; nobody can make you that impassioned about education. It has to be something that you just know – that you just have that drive and intuition. But you need hope; you need hope. When I didn’t go to a school that gave me hope, I felt like it’s over. It was very depressing and I was depressed for a long time.
Q: You’re a very discerning student, which is unusual. You express disappointment that you’re getting a crap education in one school. You’re making good grades, but you long to get something better – something more challenging.
A: I’m aware that this generation is extremely competitive, and, for example, if my siblings don’t get a good education and they’re not at the top, I don’t know where they will be.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share? About your hopes for this town’s education system, or improvements that will help make for a better education?
A: I hope that Saugus adopts a world view. I really hope so. I say that for all of the towns, such as Winthrop, too. I hope that Saugus adopts a world view and people start to think of themselves in the context of the entire North Shore, the entire country and the entire world. You know, just escape that bubble; escape that bubble and put in efforts to understand diversity and actively pursue it – actively pursue diversity and understanding. And there is hope. There are so many individuals in this town that I have met and love and I believe are the hope for the future.