Tell Me, When Were Schools Ever Great for Black Children?

Jul 7, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Sharif El-Mekki

When I hear people reminisce about and allude to a time when schools and systems worked for our communities, I try to follow their logic—but their recollections escape me. Quite often, amongst the often entitled (and overwhelmingly White) anti-charter, anti-high standards and anti-progress groups, education reform is assailed as one of the problems with the American education system. According to these folks, many of whom I count as friends, everything was fine in our school system for Black, Latino, and poor kids in the days before higher standards were common, data was disaggregated, school choice was provided, and the number of dropout factories decreased. This disillusioned nostalgia for yesteryear’s “educational heyday” ignores the actual school experiences of our youths. Their misguided and amnestic arguments about what American schools were is akin to Trump’s lemmings being seduced by the call for "making America great again." I ask you, great again for whom?


  • When a Black grandparent can point to a school and system that failed them, their children, and, now, their grandkids, yet middle class (mostly White) folks tell them not to opt out of that school/system, something sinister is askew.
  • When in far too many places only half of Black boys graduate high school in four years (sadly, that represents progress in a lot of cities), we are lying to ourselves.

    Some would say that we are lying to our youth, but they actually know better.

  • When in far too many neighborhoods school choice options are failing, crumbling, almost impossible to staff buildings, it is oppressive.
  • When Pennsylvania has the most inequitable school funding in the country and knowingly violates its own constitution, we know that things are not just. When a suit is filed to address the massive underfunding of our educational system and the state Supreme Court dismisses it, we know that help (at least from that corner) is not on the way.
  • When systems, politicians, and sadly, some educators, put the wishes of the adults, who volunteered to serve, over those supposedly being served, it is oppressive and champions the inequitable components of the status quo—the very status quo that helped usher in the massive inequities present today.
So, I have to ask again, great again for whom?
An original version of this post appeared on Philly's 7th Ward as Anti-Education Reformers: Make America Great Again.

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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