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Pittsburgh Student Becomes Inspiration for Others

  • By his own account, Sean Russell Jr. set his sights on going to college at an early age, spurred by the urgings of his family.

    As an elementary student, Russell received two versions of public education: half the time in a middle-class suburban district southwest of Pittsburgh where his mother lived, and half the time in a high-poverty neighborhood in Pittsburgh where his father lived. In the suburban school, less than 4 percent of students were Black; in the city schools, more than 90 percent were Black.

    By 8th grade, Russell lived full time at his father’s house in the city. His grandmother, Tina Gardner, worried: “Going to a city school from a little country town,” as she described it to PublicSource.

    But the youth was undeterred.

    Russell had excelled in the suburban school, impressing his math teacher. In 9th grade, at Westinghouse Academy, a neighborhood high school, he participated in the district’s African American History Challenge Bowl. In 10th grade, he led his team to the city championship.

    And in 11th grade, Russell joined a rigorous college-prep program at Westinghouse called the Justice Scholars, a program created by University of Pittsburgh education professor Esohe Osai to boost Black students’ prospects in college.

    The program offers courses for college credit, college readiness opportunities, campus visits, and research and service-learning projects focused on social problems.

    Russell embraced every opportunity, on and off campus. He scored higher than 1400 on the SATs, spurring Sean Means, a history and social justice teacher at Westinghouse, to urge him to aim high, in terms of college prospects.  Means’ support meant a lot, Russell told the Pittsburgh Gazette, saying he “felt the belief [Means] had in me” and so got “fully locked into the college process.”

    According to news accounts, Russell’s friends, family, and teachers describe him as ambitious--even driven--to excel and unafraid of a challenge. Means’ view is that Russell sets a high bar that pushes other students to higher academic achievement.

    “For us to have him here has been game-changing,” Means told PublicSource. More typically, stronger students leave Westinghouse to attend one of the city’s magnet schools. “They take those students, and it hurts the neighborhood schools,” Means said.

    The Justice Scholars program is viewed as an effort to upgrade academics and achievement at Westinghouse and other local high schools. And the culture at Westinghouse has improved, according to teachers. “It’s pushing an academic focus that we didn’t have before,” statistics teacher Vince Werling told PublicSource. “It’s the beginning of something.” (Means himself was one of 10 Black men recruited to Westinghouse about a decade ago to become mentors and earn certificates to teach.)

    By spring 2022, Russell had been accepted to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and a half-dozen other universities, all offering scholarships. Meantime, he was among 300 students across the country to win a Gates Scholarship, which, for Russell, will fund the full cost of college attendance not already covered by other financial aid.

    Sean’s fellow Bulldogs cheered his success. “We don’t get this very often,” Means told the Gazette.

    Local media heralded his achievements. The PublicSource headline conveyed admiration, with this question: “How did Sean Russell become one of the great hopes of Pittsburgh Public Schools?”

    Interviewed in the spring, Russell said his intention was to “stay locked in and finish strong” at Westinghouse by maintaining 4.0 grade-point average. He ran track, attended two proms, and aimed to inspire fellow graduates as valedictorian and graduation speaker.

    From his options, Sean has elected to attend Stanford University in California and major in bioengineering while on a pre-med track.

    “I have a passion for giving back to the world and feel this major will lead to fulfilling this desire,” Sean wrote on his GoFundMe page.