Featured Use Your Life Award
Sponsored by: Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com
For More Information, please contact:
Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School
for Public Policy
1346 Florida Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20009
How it Began — A Dream to Succeed
Irasema grew up in Mexico, the daughter of migrant farm workers. When she was 14 years old, she came to the United States and didn't speak a word of English. Work in the fields on weekends to help her family survive, Irasema knew what she wanted for her life. "I had a dream — I wanted to be someone." Determined to succeed, Irasema obtained a Masters degree in Education from Harvard University.
Irasema then became a high school administrator in Washington DC. She was frustrated that many students were graduating without knowing how to read, write or multiply. In 1997, pregnant with her fifth child, Irasema decided to take a huge risk — she opened her own school. She named it after Cesar Chavez because she wanted to send the message to the students that even if they came from humble beginnings, they could do great things and make a difference in people's lives.
The first year was difficult on both the students and teachers. Although there were only 60 students enrolled, most of the students didn't know the basics and Irasema had to recruit 60 personal tutors. Even so, at the end of the first year, Irasema made the difficult decision to hold back 75 per cent of the freshman class. "They came back the next year... different, understanding the value of education," says Irasema. "Those are the students that are right now my best students. They are the ones getting A's and B's."
The Solution — Empower the Students
Many of the students at the Chavez Charter School come from situations where their home lives seem out of control; they have lost hope. Their neighborhoods are filled with poverty, drugs and violence. Through courses that teach her students about public policy and require them to take action on issues they care about, Irasema shows these students that they have the power to take control and make an impact on their community.
Students have testified in front of the city council asking for more money to provide services for homeless in the city. Another group went to Congress to testify on violence in schools. Students have gone to the White House to shadow staff — including the President of the United States — for a day. "It is empowering for them. We want students to experience that they can make a change even now."
Irasema demands a lot of her students. They have to go to school six days a week, stay in the evenings for tutoring and attend summer school. "It's important for the schools to offer [students] a place that is safe haven... where [students] can be and develop and try hard and see that they can achieve, that they have potential, that they have skills, that they have people that believe in them," says Irasema.
"I honestly believe when they leave us, they will remember they can change what is going on in their community. The results are priceless because their lives are changed forever."