Promise of charter schools is coming true in California

Sophia Serdi, 10, attends a Slavic-based charter school in Sacramento County.
Sophia Serdi, 10, attends a Slavic-based charter school in Sacramento County.

Last week, for the first time in my life, I met a true saint.

Her name is Maria. She is 44 years old, was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and is only semi-literate, even in her native Spanish. What convinced me of her sainthood was her profound love for her six children and the extraordinary devotion she showered on them.

I am a physician, and about once a month I make the trek to the Central Valley to work in a low-income clinic. Maria is a field worker who had cut her hand with a harvesting knife.

As I approached her at the Los Banos clinic, she was surrounded by four of her six children, and hugging them in the very picture of motherly love.

Field work is tough, exhausting labor that drags down people’s spirits. But Maria, surrounded by her adoring kids, was nothing less than radiant, even with her bloody accident. Her kids jumped up and down and shouted, “Our mom is the best!” And they excitedly told her story.

In the high season, she works 100-hour weeks to allow her kids to stay in school and avoid the curse of child labor and school truancy. She arrives home in the evenings somehow with the energy to hug and love her children.

Maria, for her part, once we got on the subject of her children, pulled out cellphone photos of the two absent kids that included seemingly about 2,000 views of each. And when we got on the subject of Sunday mornings, she showed off many more snapshots of the six kids with Mom and Dad in their Sunday best for La Iglesia Católica.

All of her kids, at her insistence, went to charter schools. She is sure that as a result of that education, her oldest son Juan had just snagged a scholarship to study science at Stanford University, filling the whole family with joy. In his previous traditional public school, Juan had floundered and had run into trouble with the police.

Maria told me that all of her kids loved their charter schools, and that she especially liked the emphasis on ethical and moral values.

That detail touched my heart, because I’m one of the people who helped get charter schools established in California, back in 1992. When I told Maria that, she came back at me with a Spanish-language version of “Yeah, sure, I don’t believe you!” but with a loving smile and a laugh.

I often tell my Republican friends that they totally missed the boat when they failed to embrace Mexican American immigrants, who have the strongest work ethic of anybody and the most deeply held family values.

The woman I saw before me was someone who had sacrificed all for her kids, to give them what she’d never had – an education, a good job and a voice in our society. And she’d never complained, never felt sorry for herself.

And so, I’d met a true saint. And this Christmas, my greatest satisfaction will be that a few of us school reformers have helped along Maria and her family.

Alan Bonsteel is president of California Parents for Educational Choice.