To Know the Black Community Is to Know How Thirsty We Are for Better Schools

Dec 6, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Sharif El-Mekki

I often wonder what it will take for Black children in our communities to attend high-performing schools. According to many anti-school choice opponents, the only choices that Black, Brown, and poor families should have a right to are schools which are criteria-based or perpetually failing schools. The “opt out of testing” and anti-choice crowd believes that Black families should only exercise school choice and opt in to testing when it applies to selective magnet schools. No other school choice option is democratic or public, according to them. They contend that families should only have the power to exercise choice to “escape” their neighborhoods. These “activists” believe that Black families should only pursue schools where Black children are usually the minority. In a delectable taste of hypocrisy, several of these same quasi-activists even try to lure Black families away from holding schools accountable for students’ performance. They essentially try to persuade families to opt out of yearly state testing but opt in to testing to get into our city’s “private-public schools.”  Some of these schools are more private than actual tuition-based private schools. And, lest you think I am anti-magnet, [pullquote]let me be clear: I am for magnets as much as I am for charters.[/pullquote] From my upbringing, professional and personal experiences, school choice and high-quality options serve the best interests of Black families.

A Child Attending a Failing Elementary School Has Little Chance of Getting Into a Top High School

A parent who has a child trapped in a failing elementary school—in a redlined neighborhood devoid of quality options—may not be eligible to apply to a magnet school that has criteria for selection. Criteria that our elementary students face include being in the 80th percentile on test scores, interviews, writing samples, as well as strong attendance and behavior records. If the student attended a failing elementary school, the odds of them getting the education necessary to compete are unlikely. As quiet as it is kept, the magnet schools in many cities tend to have far more White students in them than the typical failing neighborhood school. You are far less likely to find affluent students in failing schools—yet, quite often, anti-choice clamor is coming from privileged and affluent groups. One must ask, why is that? The number of anti-choice folks, who are fully exercising the choices available to them is stunning. I cannot count the times that someone who was anti-school choice told me out of the other side of their mouth that they unabashedly chose better options for their biological kids. It appears, in many instances, [pullquote]the main group of people who stand in the way of expanding the middle class is the middle class.[/pullquote] We know that a quality education is the key to liberation for any people. To tell people to wait from a lofty and secure foothold is oppressive and callous. It indicates unabashed privilege and hypocrisy. It shows that, despite rhetoric claiming you are with the people, you are only for yourself and your ilk.

Less Than 30 Percent of the Children in Some Communities Attend Their Neighborhood Schools

There are some communities that have more than half of the neighborhood children opting out of a school, this should tell us something. And even more, White and affluent families who audaciously criticize families for choosing to look for better school options, haven’t opted in to those same schools. Families trying to claw their way into good situations don’t need soft lullabies promoting patience. The urgency of now cannot be so one-sided. To know our Black community is to know that the vast majority of us will do almost anything to ensure a strong academic base for our children: use our friends’ addresses, scrape every dime we have for tuition-based schools, sign up for every single scholarship, etc. It is a part of our legacy. We know that our children will “have to work twice as hard, to get half as far,” and this must begin with a strong academic background. To know the Black community is to know how thirsty we are for quality education. To be aligned with us is to fight for our right to choose, to make choices for safety, quality academic programming, and opportunities—the very same thing you declare and demonstrate as a right of the privileged.
An original version of this post appeared on Philly's 7th Ward.
Photo courtesy of The Englewood Montessori.

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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