By Ron Rice, Senior Director, Government Relations at the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools
I have been a Black student, education policymaker, and now an advocate for providing the best educational opportunities for all our children. One reality that I’ve had to face and embrace through each of these stages in my life and career is that the prevalence of leaders of color like me is a major contributor to educational success and whose lack thereof stifles that potential. As a student of color, those examples helped me thrive; and today they inform my advocacy.
This month, my organization, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools released its highly-anticipated report, “Identity and Charter School Leadership: Profiles of Leaders of Color Building an Effective Staff” which examined the ways that school leaders of color’s experiences and perspectives influence how they build school culture, parent and community relationships, and effective staff. This needed report affirmed what I and many fellow school leaders of color have witnessed first-hand in schools from New Jersey (where I advised the state Department of Education) to Massachusetts, California, Louisiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, where school leaders of color were studied. The report’s finding is clear: our children of color thrive with diverse and experienced teachers who understand their challenges and have a personal, unwavering dedication to their success.
Most importantly, our report is instructive as well because it sheds light — through the profiles of three public charter school leaders of color from Louisiana, North Carolina, and California — on the principles that can help match our best current and future teachers with our nation’s students. Three of those principles that resonated with my two decades in education policy are:
First, fill our school leadership pipeline with talented educators of color who come from nontraditional backgrounds and fields of study. But how do we dispel the myth that there are not enough qualified and passionate people of color who can and want to fill this educational pipeline? One way to do this comes from Eric Sanchez, co-founder of Henderson Collegiate — a network of three schools serving elementary, middle and high school in Henderson, North Carolina. Instead of only recruiting future educators from traditional education programs, Eric also recruits graduates from university programs focusing on social justice and ethnic studies. And this encouragement doesn’t end once the teachers reach the classroom — we must provide clear pathways for these teachers to pursue school leadership.
Second, school leaders and education policymakers of all colors must be committed to seeing and promoting diversity as an asset, not a deficit; an opportunity, not an obstacle. Imagine how better prepared our children will be for the world of tomorrow if they have been taught the history behind their identity, the language behind their culture, and the geography behind their journey. While nearly all schools struggle with activating this principle for the benefit of our students, our report demonstrates that public charter schools are making substantial progress where traditional public schools haven’t.
Third, achievement and demonstrated success — not myths, preconceptions, and inherited political biases — must be the basis upon which we support the best educational opportunities for all our children. For example, by their design, public charter schools have the flexibility to create and finetune curricula, teaching methods, and optimal outcomes that traditional public schools do not. So, why would we ever consider putting obstacles in any educational paths that are showing real achievement?
Race and identity of both our educators and students is only one factor in the holistic successes we are all working towards. However, it’s also true that all schools across our country in every community have historically not valued students’ diversity and identity as assets to enrich the education they receive. Public charter schools are making real progress to expose this blind spot and make the needed course corrections to ensure the success we’ve seen for some students are the norm for all.
Ron Rice Jr. is a former two term Newark, NJ city councilman, chief advisor to the New Jersey Department of Education, and is currently Senior Director, Government Relations at the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.
There has been a lot of talk about whether or not there is a crisis on the border. I will leave that debate to the politicians. However, there is no debate about whether or not America has a crisis hitting all 50 states and over 40 million people. This crisis is impacting millions of students pursuing their dreams of earning a college degree. The crisis is impacting millions of young people coming out of college, wanting to be fiscally responsible and save, and buy their first home. What is the crisis? It is America’s $1.56 trillion student loan debt.
Today, student loan debt is the second greatest source of individual debt, only behind mortgages, according to the Federal Reserve. Something must be done about the ever-rising student debt, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) is taking the issue of financial literacy with HBCU students head-on. Exposing the nearly 300,000 students we represent to the host of scholarship offerings is one of our main strategies for decreasing student loan dependence. TMCF understands that student loans disproportionately impact minority students – with the greatest negative impact on African-American students. We have to put just as much early attention on student loan debt by providing student scholarships, grants and wraparound services, so HBCU students can persist in their studies without dropping out because of finances. The more scholarships we can award, the fewer loans students are forced to take, so they graduate without the strain of insurmountable student loan debt.
As the wealth gap continues to grow we know that by 2053, the Net Worth of African-American families is projected to hit $0, so there is a clear urgency to educate and support organizations that have direct connections to young African American students that will be entering the workforce. TMCF is committed to empowering students attending HBCUs on how to secure and keep a good paying job and build a career into the C-Suite, or become entrepreneurs, save money and build wealth for the future in the hopes of being great global leaders that give back to future generations.
Additionally, we are teaching HBCU students to be better college consumers, moving career-focused programming to Freshmen and Sophomores, so they can choose college course strategically, in order to graduate in four years, while entering the talent pipeline earlier.
More than 80% of all HBCU students attend TMCF member-schools and 97% of those students rely on financial aid in their pursuit of a degree. Through our partnerships with many companies such as Wells Fargo, Boeing, Ally, and Apple we are providing scholarships, internships, corporate immersions, and innovation programs as well as good paying jobs.
For example, over the course of our partnership with Wells Fargo, they have provided more than $7.2 million in support of TMCF student scholarships and financial literacy curriculum development and announced a $1.1 million for the 2019-2020 academic year. In 2018, TMCF provided close to $10 million in direct aid for student scholarships, stipends, awards, wrap-around services, and institutional grants. Those are real dollars and for the majority of the students we serve, the dollars are transformational. This is important because according to aLendEDU study nearly three in 10 college students in America are solely responsible for paying for all of their higher education costs.
Finances should never be a barrier to graduation, nor should the financial impact of earning a college degree be a barrier for buying a home, saving money, starting a family, and having a good credit score. TMCF prides itself on building pipelines into good paying jobs but we also have to work to ensure that those students are able to truly reap the financial benefits of their achievements without having to pay off years of student loan debt.
Yes, the student loan situation is a crisis that must be addressed early and often with students, parents, family members, and guidance counselors. We need to make this an issue on the campaign trail on both sides of the aisle in every election, not just the 2020 presidential one. Roll Call recently reported that there are 66 members of Congress who are currently paying off their own personal student loans or debts for dependents. “Collectively, the 44 Democrats and 24 Republicans have higher education liabilities of $2.5 million, according to recent financial disclosures. The median student loan debt is $15,000, while average debt is $37,000.”
This is not a partisan issue and we will continue advocating for bipartisan solutions and effective student financial aid literacy opportunities especially for the Black College Community because we know they work. The student loan debt crisis can be corrected if we all work together to make sure our future innovators, government and corporate leaders can lead without the crippling burden of student loans. The time is now.
This time last year, Sharif El-Mekki, former principal of Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker campus in West Philadelphia, was welcoming the school’s nearly 900 students and staff back to school and back to “nation building.” It was a charge for students to do more than just get an education, but to lead and serve in their communities. And for teachers and school leaders to make sure students have what they need to do so.
This back to school season, El-Mekki is answering his own “nation building” call. In May, he announced that after 11 years as Shoemaker’s principal and 26 years of being inside schools as a teacher or administrator, he was devoting his full attention and time to launching a new Center for Black Educator Development to help address the urgent need to bring more Black educators into Philadelphia’s classrooms and across the nation. “If I’m going to be serious about trying to change the lives of Black educators and hence the lives of Black children, then it just can’t be my night and weekend job,” he said.
El-Mekki can already count a few successes in this area. In 2014, he founded The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. It started as a small support group of fewer than 20 Black men. They met over dinner to share stories, help each other solve problems, and to build a community. The group has grown exponentially over the years. It now hosts a number of meetings throughout the year for Black educators (and those who supervise or support them) to learn from each other. The hallmark event is the annual convening, which last year drew over 1,000 participants to Philadelphia. The Fellowship’s big goal is to triple the number of Black male educators in Philadelphia by 2025.
But the new Center will have a heightened focus on professional development for Black teachers (providing ongoing and direct mentoring support and coaching), pedagogy curated from the traditions of highly effective Black teachers, pipelines to the classroom, and policies that can support new and aspiring Black teachers.
It will also provide culturally responsive training for educators. Considering that the vast majority of educators are White (e.g., 96% of Pennsylvania’s teachers), making sure all educators are culturally competent and responsive is an essential piece, El-Mekki said. “I’m always thinking that as we recruit/retain more Black teachers, a huge intervention needs to be far more White teachers learning how to be anti-racists. That would impact Black teachers’ retention numbers and likely change the experience of Black children in schools so they would strongly consider becoming teachers. … I believe nothing undermines the number of Black teachers more than the school-based experiences of Black students and teachers.”
El-Mekki is speaking from first-hand experience. Under his team’s leadership, Shoemaker transformed from one of the most violent schools in the Philadelphia school district to a place where Black students say they feel supported, motivated, safe and culturally affirmed. “It’s just like the sense of community I get when I walk in these doors is just amazing. I feel like I won’t ever get that feeling anywhere else,” said one 10th grader. “It’s a safe house,” said another.
Teachers too cite an environment that’s supportive and welcoming. This is contrary to what many Black teachers, in particular, say about their experiences in schools. “When I come into this building, I think it’s my house. I’m home. I’m taking a trip from home to home,” said one teacher. “The reason I’ve been here so long is because of the family here at Shoemaker,” said another.
That family or extended community is better known as the “ShoeCrew.” And the emphasis on the collective is a reminder that there is no one individual to credit. As in all families, each member contributes. But, teachers and students point to El-Mekki’s leadership as essential to nurturing a space where Black students and Black educators feel they belong and have the opportunity to thrive.
Last school year, Ed Trust traveled to Shoemaker to talk with students and teachers about El-Mekki’s leadership and what it takes to create and nurture a school where relationship building, community engagement, and social justice are at the core.
Here’s what we learned:
Bringing Back Freedom School
El-Mekki’s leadership is marked by his own cultural pride, a personal record of activism, and an unapologetic commitment to making sure Black students have the supports and tools to do the nation-building their community requires them to do. As such, he said, “I’m always talking and walking on social justice issues, and I’m going to lead with that. I’m trying to lead with equity and justice in thought and action.”
Equity and justice are popular terms among today’s education advocates, and especially among those fighting to overturn systemic inequities and historical disadvantages. But what does it mean to lead with equity and justice? What does it look like in action?
For El-Mekki, whose parents were Black Panther Party members and activists, it looks a lot like what he remembers from his experience at Nidhamu Sasa, a Pan African school in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. In the 1960s and ’70s, leaders in the Civil Rights, Black Panther, and Pan African movements founded freedom or liberation schools to counter the reality that the curriculum being taught in majority White educational settings often rendered African American history, literature, and culture invisible. Black teachers taught Black students the importance of centering one’s racial identity, knowing one’s history, being a part of a community, and having a purpose — all with the broader goal of achieving social justice.
“Nidhamu Sasa was an option for families who were really looking to ensure their children’s whole self was honored, respected, celebrated, loved deeply by every adult in the building, from the secretary staff to the custodial to the teachers and the principals. I remember the staff and families coining it as an alternative learning experience,” he said.
El-Mekki admits that how he speaks to students today is influenced by his experience as a child. “Almost every day, I have freedom songs playing in my head when I’m engaging with students.” He remembers this one especially about identity, community, and purpose — key tenets of the freedom or liberation school model:
I went to a meeting last night, and my feeling just wasn’t right.
You know I thought that stuff about Blackness just wasn’t for me.
And when I found out it was for me, I joined in the unity.
And now I’m down for the struggle for liberation.
He also remembers songs about historic Black leaders, such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Sojourner Truth. But, as important, students at Nidhamu Sasa learned about and from contemporary activists — those making history at the time. Sonia Sanchez, whose child was one of El-Mekki’s schoolmates, would recite her revolutionary poetry for students. Angela Davis also visited the school and spent time with students. “We were at their feet learning right after math class or right after literature class. … learning from folks who were using activism to try to change society,” El-Mekki said.
At Nidhamu Sasa, the teachers were not just teachers but activists, and they saw themselves as raising activists, said El-Mekki. They looked at the idea of loving Black children as revolutionary — not that they really believed it was revolutionary, he explains, but in contrast to what was happening in the world, it was.
Decades later, Black children still encounter a world where accessing a high-quality education is a revolutionary act, and where the images they see daily and the lessons they are taught about their history and communities are too often more likely to demean than affirm.
But at Shoemaker, the photographs on the walls are primarily those of Black scholars, activists, and influencers. The books on the shelves are those of Black authors. And the inspirational quotes that line the concrete block walls feature those of Black leaders. Students see mirrors, instead of just windows, said El-Mekki, referring to the idea that Black students rarely see people who look like them in positions of leadership or as examples of intellectual excellence. White students, on the other hand, often only see people who look like them in such roles.
And instead of the message Black students hear so often growing up in impoverished neighborhoods, i.e., to get a degree and get out, at Shoemaker the prevailing message is to “lift as you climb.” It’s another phrase that El-Mekki remembers from his own freedom schooling, and you’ll see it displayed prominently around the halls of Shoemaker — a reminder to students (and staff) of the responsibility to lead and serve their community.
“We’re bringing back freedom school,” El-Mekki said.
Lift as You Climb
Others on Shoemaker’s staff had either attended schools that were built on the freedom or liberation school model or had taught in one. They too know the legacy first-hand and worked with El-Mekki and the entire team to infuse elements of the model into the school’s curriculum, culture, and overall foundation.
“It all starts with identity,” said literature teacher Njemele Tamala Anderson. Before joining the Shoemaker team, she taught writing at an African-centered charter school and a service-learning focused school based on the freedom school model, both in Philadelphia.
Anderson started off last school year having students read sections from noted Black scholar Na’im Akbar’s book, Know Thy Self. Akbar helped pioneer an African-centered approach to psychology. The excerpts provide a foundational framework for her class, linking education to a broader purpose in students’ lives. “You should learn your identity through your education, and your education should also equip you with power to control your resources, so that you can get your basic needs met and then also that you can help meet the needs of the community,” she said.
Seventh-grade writing teacher, Ansharaye Hines, (who is Anderson’s daughter) started the year weaving a lesson of identity, history, purpose, and community. On the first day of school last year, she told Shoemaker’s newest cohort what to expect: “You will read and write each day. You will use your voices to inspire others.” Writing, she explained, is an extension of ourselves: “We live in connection to a lot of other things. And every time we put a pencil to a paper, we are thinking about those things.”
But writing too serves a greater purpose. Authors influence those who come after them, “affect[ing] and echo[ing] throughout history for the rest of eternity, depending on how long their books last, and their words last,” she said. The assignment that day was for them to reflect on what helped them make it to seventh grade and to write a letter to younger classmates, giving them advice on how to do the same, essentially lifting as they climb.
Shoemaker’s students have internalized the “lift as you climb” motto. Juniors and seniors mentioned feeling a sense of responsibility and talked of careers in fields where they can serve. Twelfth grader Armanie, for example, planned to be an early childhood educator focusing on mental health. “If I had the right people at the time being, I would be in a better place — not saying I’m not now, but I think my journey would have been a little smoother,” she said.
Aspiring psychiatrist and 12-grader Jaya shared a similar goal, narrowing her focus on students of color: “I think mental health is really important to serving the youth that need it most, which I think is marginalized youth, especially of color,” she said. “I want to be able to serve youth like I would have liked to be served.”
Tenth grader Kymarr wanted to help eliminate the dearth of Black male educators and become a teacher. He’s following the path of one of his deans, who he said inspired him: “Seeing how much an educator inspired and influenced other kids to do good and be their best selves, I want to do the same thing.”
Social Justice at Its Core
El-Mekki was taught early on that education and racial and social justice cannot be separated. So, it’s natural for him to use that as a guiding principle. But his legacy, as he sees it, is leading a school that does the same, one that focuses on social justice as one of “the main reasons for its existence.” Shoemaker’s staff “tends to it … nurtures it … spends time thinking about it as part of its school improvement plan, not separate from it,” El-Mekki said. “We are always talking about what social justice aspects do students need.”
All students are required to take the Social Justice course in the eighth grade. Gerald Dessus, who joined the staff three years ago, designed the course. It’s one of the reasons he came to Shoemaker. In fact, he had accepted a job at his “dream school,” but, after a conversation with El-Mekki, turned it down.
According to Dessus, El-Mekki came to talk to him and asked him to describe his dream classroom. “I told him what my utopian classroom would look like, would feel like, the autonomy that would be involved, the freedom I would have to use different texts and also still ground the work in literature and in writing. And [El-Mekki] said, ‘Why can’t you do that at Shoemaker?’”
Dessus designed the class to follow Bobbie Harro’s Cycle of Liberation. He described a process that starts with waking up. In class, he said, they call it “cognitive dissonance,” but students know it as “getting woke.” The first unit is about identity, and on the first day he asks students to jot down definitions of identity, as well as factors that might shape it. “In eighth grade, you’re not going to have the strongest sense of identity, but making sure that they’re aware of different social identity groups, where they fit in, what they’re still trying to figure out about themselves, so when we get into the work of history and racial identity, that they’re coming from a more aware place than just jumping straight into the content,” Dessus said.
Students go on to study the history of social movements — Civil Rights, Resistance to South African Apartheid, the Black Panther Party, LGBTQ rights. They discuss the wins, the losses, and challenges and use what they learn to help identify what they are passionate about and how they can get others to join their cause.
The course culminates in a real-life exercise in activism, coalition-building, and making change. Each student identifies a problem they want to address, interviews at least 25 stakeholders and others directly affected by the issue, and teams up with other students with similar interests to design an activity that will involve and influence the community. Recent projects range from teaching younger classmates about the impact of colorism to hosting a school visit and conversation with local officers to improve school, community, and police relations.
Focusing on social justice or just racial identity makes an immediate connection for many students, said Dessus. “It’s not just about learning about the Civil Rights Movement or learning about the Black Panther Party but also like naming the struggles, naming the courage that it took … to defy a social system by yourself, and deal with the backlash, and feel like you lost all of your friends … and still stand firm like ‘I made the right decision.’ To me, that motivates our students … to speak up and do the right thing.”
And it’s not just eighth graders who get the connection between social justice, racial identity, and their daily lives. It’s visible to anyone who walks through Shoemaker’s doors. Just steps away from the main entrance, a collage of recent victims of police brutality and gun violence looms. Some of the names are well known, such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Some of them are not. But all are shrouded in red, black, and green construction paper lined with a kente border, with #SayTheirNames! in bold letters.
Even the youngest students at Shoemaker are encouraged to contemplate their role in the face of racial injustice. After a trip to see The Hate U Give, the film adaptation of the best-selling young adult novel about police brutality, seventh-graders easily connected the movie to real life. “This is actually going on,” said Christopher. “I’ve seen it on the news and stuff. How people are protesting and the cops just abusing their power. This is real. This actually hits you really hard, like wow.”
And they considered their role as young activists, putting themselves in the scene: “The policeman don’t get consequences. They don’t get nothing. But when we stand up for our rights, then we get bombs thrown at us, get shot, get beat. I don’t think it’s right,” said Tyjai.
In all, the movie made them feel sad, and then upset and angry, they said. But they also felt empowered. “I feel like it was to tell us to never give up and stand up for our rights because the girl who really saved everyone was Black. She was the one who stood up. She was the only girl. She was smaller than everybody else, and she was the only one that stands up,” said Oriana.
‘We See This School as a Community’
All of this gives Shoemaker’s students the chance to have hard conversations about race and racism, something many adults even have a hard time doing. But what bolsters students, they say, is the supportive school environment.
“There’s a lot of racial injustice in the world,” said seventh-grader Oriana, but “in this school …. We’re trying to find new ways to … end it. And it’s really cool because like here, we don’t get judged by our race. … We keep all that outside, and we just come here and act like we’re a whole family.”
A dynamic exists at Shoemaker where personal relationships are a source for the teaching and learning. “There’s a lot of love, a lot of relationship building, and you can see that in student interactions, you can see that in student and teacher interactions. There’s like a genuine investment in trying to understand where each person is coming from, their experiences. That’s at the forefront of all of our interactions,” said Dessus.
“If you see that your destinies are linked, then you’re going to do whatever you can to make that child successful, not just to pass a test, but in life,” said Anderson.
As a result, lines between school, family, and community are blurred. “We see this school as a community, not just peers and teachers teaching us what we’re going to need when we grow up,” said seventh-grader Tyjai. “We see this school as a community because whenever we need them, they’re there.”
And the support, students say, is not just limited to coming from one or two individual teachers or just from El-Mekki, for that matter. As 12th-grader Armanie explained: “We all come from different walks of life. We may have the same skin color but we have different paths where we’re going. But when we come here, we have the same goals, to do better and be better,” she said. “The deans, the teachers, and the administrators, they make sure we get to where we’re going. Once you come here, you feel that loving vibe.”
Teaching Across Racial Lines
El-Mekki, Anderson, and Dessus are Black and grew up in Philadelphia. El-Mekki grew up just a few blocks from Shoemaker and, until a few years ago, still lived nearby. Anderson also lives just a few blocks over, citing the location as one of the reasons she chose to teach there. They know the neighborhood and the families within, and are themselves, very much a part of it.
But many of Shoemaker’s educators do not fit this profile. (Last school year, 40% of teachers were Black, and 50% of overall staff members were Black.) And yet, the school is still able to be a place where Black and Brown students say they feel supported, motivated, confident, culturally affirmed and safe. This means that the teachers who don’t share racial or cultural experiences with the students must still be able to be accountable for carrying out the freedom school legacy of building confident Black students who are empowered to influence change. They too must know their racial identity, value the surrounding community, understand how history influences today’s reality, believe in social justice, and champion an alternative narrative to that which Black and Brown students hear so often outside the school.
Teaching across racial lines and building relationships with students across cultural lines requires self-reflection and self-work, said 11th-grade teacher Ellen Speake, who is White. It’s something that she constantly thinks about, and still doesn’t think about enough, she says. In the classroom, for instance, she has to ask herself, “Would I expect the same of these kids if they were White?”
But one of the reasons why Speake has stayed with the school so long is the value put on building cultural competency within the staff. Art teacher Jessica Oxenberg, who is also White, agreed. She had just relocated, and one of the things that brought her to the school was the intentional professional development around building relationships with students across cultural lines. “I’ve been at a lot of schools that talk about it, but don’t have a plan in place,” she said.
Throughout the year, Shoemaker staff hold professional learning communities, or PLCs, where teachers are encouraged to talk openly and candidly about their own biases related to race, class, and privilege. They talk about implicit bias, micro-aggressions, intersectionality, etc. Notably, the sessions are led by teachers and not by an outside facilitator or even by El-Mekki. Although, teachers do credit El-Mekki for empowering them to lead the discussions and for setting an example with his own willingness to talk openly about race.
And just like students, teachers say the supportive environment at Shoemaker creates a safe place for them to have hard conversations. “To be in a space that values [cultural competency professional development], to be among people that also value it, people who can push me, people that I can go to and feel safe going to in moments of vulnerability, knowing that I’ve made a mistake … that was really important to me,” said Speake.
As difficult as such conversations are, prospective teachers must be willing to have them, said Speake. “Their willingness to have those conversations says a lot about how much they value that.” El-Mekki has writtenabout the interview questions that he and his leadership team ask to find the best teachers for Black students – those who (regardless of race) are aligned with Shoemaker’s mission. Questions range from why they want to teach in a Black neighborhood to do they know their own implicit biases to how they feel about being led by a Black principal.
Why Black Teachers Matter
Shoemaker students, however, still crave more Black educators. The Black teachers and administrators at the school have had such an impact, they say, that just having a handful on staff is not enough. They cite a “deep connection,” the ability to relate to them in “deep ways that you don’t even know about.” They discuss the importance of having someone they can go to who they feel will understand them. And students who “might not be on the right path” can see someone like them at the front of the classroom and say, “Oh, I can be like them, and I’m still being myself.”
Students said they appreciate even small gestures of cultural affirmation, such as the way one teacher addresses students in her class: “Oh, the brother in the back has a question,” or “Oh, sister right here in the front has a question.” And how she used shared cultural experiences to create a welcoming classroom: “One time she was playing Lauryn Hill, and another time she was playing Drake. One time she was playing Fela Kuti.” They value her displays of cultural history, wearing African fabrics and other such attire. One student described her as an “inspiration to Black people everywhere.”
It’s easy to underestimate what it means for some Black students to enter an educational setting and be welcomed, accepted, understood, and affirmed, which eliminates their fears and doubts and how all of it influences their ability to learn something new, grasp difficult concepts, think critically, i.e., perform academically.
“The reassurance our teachers gives us means so much to me personally,” said 10th-grader Bryce. “Some days, coming from where I come from … I’m going to school whether I’m in good spirits mentally or not, and the fact that my teachers can so easily sense that without me having to say it. It makes me feel like I’m at my second home. Like I’m at my grandfather or uncle’s house watching the game, just doing assignments.”
Shoemaker’s Black teachers and leaders then are not only educators, but role-models — someone for students to see themselves in, to look up to, and to emulate. And like many Black educators across the country, their ability to connect with Black students through shared cultural experiences helps students feel connected to their school and their education more broadly. Black students who have at least one Black teacher in elementary school are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to enroll in college. And yet, Black teachers make up only 7% of the nation’s teaching workforce.
A New Revolution
El-Mekki’s activist parents and teachers groomed him to be a revolutionary. But he struggled to know what that looked like for him, reaching adulthood years after the Civil Rights and Black Panther Party movements peaked. Yet, after being shot on the football field by a young Black man and more than 12 surgeries to save his leg, he found the answer: “My revolution was to be a Black man by a blackboard in Southwest Philadelphia in that same part of town where that young man had shot me,” he reveals on the Moth Podcast.
And for the past 26 years, he has acted just steps away from blackboards — as a teacher and administrator at Turner and Shaw middle schools in Southwest Philadelphia, and then principal at Shoemaker. His new endeavor as founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development is just a new iteration of that same revolution — one that his personal and professional experiences have more than adequately prepared him to take on.
The Center, for instance, will carry forth the freedom or liberation school legacy. In August it celebrated the completion of its first Freedom School program. Philadelphia already has several sites where college students/servant leaders spend six to eight weeks teaching and mentoring elementary school students/scholars. A priority for the center’s Freedom School is to incorporate research-based curricula. Another priority is to make sure high school students teaching alongside college students are being actively recruited to consider becoming teachers, El-Mekki said. The goal is to expose as many young people as possible to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators.
As El-Mekki starts this school year answering his own call for “nation-building” by bringing Black educators into the profession and providing them with the support they need to thrive, he is also helping to build a movement toward educational justice. Part of that movement is ensuring that the adults who work with students hold themselves accountable for what students are able to do, he said. “If we have that, and if we look at every child in our schools as our own children, and that we bring the love and commitment to outcomes, then we will radically transform educational spaces and schools in our communities.”
Teaching is a multi-faceted calling for many and an occupation for some, but how can teaching and learning effectiveness be measured without testing?
There must be some way—or ways—to measure what and whether students are learning, and teachers are teaching. Rigor, high standards, curriculum design, learning and teaching styles, and external demands all must be considered in any teaching and learning situation, regardless of location and resources.
As the teaching population becomes more monocultural and the school-aged population becomes more multicultural, teaching materials, beliefs, and techniques tend to rely too heavily on standardized tests and testing materials. In order for education to capitalize on the strengths and talents of learners and the skills and professionalism of their teachers, what kinds of additional progress measures might be employed?
Different kinds of professional development programs and materials may be needed to provide more sufficient and culturally responsive information about the teaching and learning process.
One way of assessing whether students are actively engaged in learning on a high level might be using multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary materials such as those in an original textbook of poems, shorts stories, and essays.
The book, Connections: A Collection of Poems, Short Stories, and Essays with Lessons,became part of a study in the Washington, D. C. schools and surrounding Metropolitan areas of Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia, from 1996-2001. (Parks-Lee, 1995)
It addresses some of the challenges Gloria Ladson-Billings pointed out when she quoted Jonathan Kozol, saying that “…Pedagogic problems in our cities are not chiefly matters of injustice, inequality, or segregation, but of insufficient information about teaching strategies.”(Ladson-Billings*, 1994, p. 128)
Both neophyte and experienced teachers participated in a study that provided them with information, materials, and teaching strategies to employ with urban, poor, and predominantly, but not exclusively, African American youth.
The idea for the study originated with a concern that an increasingly middle class or suburban teaching force often seems unable to meet the needs of diverse students who are different from them in class, socioeconomic status, geography, ethnicity, and/or culture.
The Connections materials were intended to help address ways to foster a positive impact upon all children, but particularly upon children of color. In addition, teachers using these materials might also feel more empowered to think creatively and to utilize students’ strengths and talents as they incorporate high and rigorous interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary lessons and higher order thinking skills in order to increase academic achievement.
Effective teachers believe that we must produce and use materials that encourage students to be able to read, to write, to speak, to be creative, to understand, and to interpret what they hear and read. If students can develop these proficiencies, they may experience greater success on standardized tests.
Success breeds success, and if our students are to be involved learners and thinkers, we cannot keep doing the same things the same ways and then blaming students and teachers if standardized test scores are not optimal. There must be more inclusive ways of tapping into and measuring what is taught and what is learned. Standardized tests are but one wayand should not be the onlyway to validate the teaching and learning processes.
There are three domains to teaching, the cognitive, the affective, and the psychomotor. The one that is not easily addressed by standardized testing is the affective domain.
As Sharon M. Draper says, “You must reach a child before you can teach a child.” (Draper, S., November 2002). The challenge comes when trying to measure the affective domain. However, affective success is often reflected in student attendance and behaviors that are involved, on-task, and diligent.
There is often a spirit of collaboration and cooperation between the teacher and the students. Fewer discipline problems are observed when there is a positive classroom community involved.
When diverse students are allowed to utilize their talents and skills, they often become self-motivated, because they feel affirmed, valued, and respected.
*Ladson-Billings, G. (1999). (Notes from speech delivered at Howard University).
The Black Power movement of the late 1960s helped to redefine African American identity and establish a new racial consciousness. As influential as this period was in the study and enhancement of the African Diaspora, this movement spawned the academic discipline known as Black Studies on our college and university campuses.
While there are more than 100 Black Studies degree programs nationwide, it can be confirmed that the beginning of this curriculum evolved from a student strike at San Francisco State University in 1968. Young people there forced the establishment of the Division of Ethnic Studies and departments of Black, Asian, Chicano and Native studies, all accomplished despite the discouragement of then university president and future United States Sen. S.I. Hayakawya.
The Black Student Union
The Black Student Union on campus drafted a political statement, “The Justification for African American Studies,” that would become the main document for the development of the academic departments at more than 60 universities by the early 1970s. Shortly thereafter, Black Studies programs were implemented with inherent reservations from the various campus administrations at UCLA, Cal State Los Angeles, Cal State Long Beach and at Cal State Northridge.
Black students demanded an end to the so-called “liberal-fascist” ideology that was rampant on campus, as well as calling for the immediate preparation of African American youth including secondary school students to have direct participation in the struggles of the Black community and to define themselves as responsible to and for the future successes of that community. Black Studies departments were created in a confrontational environment in a forceful rejection of traditional curricula content.
It was a novel idea that was met with early opposition from the entrenched White faculty and administration already reeling from the Free Speech movement, opposition to the Vietnam War and a general uprising from young adults of all races, religions and creeds. Black students, specifically, wanted to reinforce the position that African Americans must possess the rights to self-determination, liberation and voice opposition to the dominant ideology of “White capitalism” (e.g. world imperialism, White supremacy) that for centuries had excluded persons of color.
The Atlanta University Conferences
Black Studies can be traced back as far back as the Atlanta University Conferences held from 1898 to 1914. This early formulation was under the auspices of W.E.B. DuBois in marking the inauguration of the first scientific study of the conditions of Black people that covered important aspects of life (e.g., health homes, the question of organization, economic development, higher education, voting).
By 1915, Carter G. Woodson had founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in marking a brave new era for Black curriculum. The group was founded to promote historical research, publish books on Black life and history, promote the study of Black history through clubs and schools and, in a noble effort, to foster harmony between the races by interpreting one history to the other. It was during this period that the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs) began to respond to scholarly activities in history and social science.
It had become abundantly clear more than 100 years ago that Black education should conform to the social conditions of Black people. Black colleges began to add courses in Black history to their curricula. This effort corresponded with a call by Black college students for a culturally relevant curriculum, the same theme that occurred some 50 years later when mainstream support for Black Studies grew, particularly when more African American students were admitted into predominantly White institutions.
For the past 50 years, Black Studies has been evolving as a result of the social movement that opposed institutional racism in higher education. As more Black families were moving into the middle class, young people in many sectors either saw education as oppressive or liberating. Many African Americans began to consider Black Studies and Black education as having a “special assignment” to challenge and call out White mainstream knowledge for its deficiencies and racial corruption.
Pan Africa movement
Black Studies in large part grew out of Pan Africanism, which had its origins as a movement of intellectual protest against ill-treatment of Blacks all over the world. This movement was initiated by Black persons in the America and in the West Indies whose ancestors came from Africa. There are similarities between Black Studies and Pan Africanism in that the latter movement was created because Black people all over the world were tired of being mired with the “slave mentality” that had been connected with them from their African ancestors.
The advent of Pan Africanism was the result of Black people deciding that they were better than how they were treated, and if they banded together in a practical standpoint, they could possibly change the world. Far more than an “en vogue” application of the Civil Rights Movement, Pan Africanism and the resulting Black Studies was an emotional, cultural, psychological and ideological movement that would allow African Americans to feel secure while striving for long-sought political, economic and psychological power vis a vis other races or world regions.
At its origin, Black Studies offered a clear and precise application of the African American experience, because many of the traditional history books for decades presented Black people as a hapless, helpless lot always mired in despair. It was only then that African Americans would study in detail persons like Anthony Johnson one of the original 20 Africans who arrived in Jamestown in 1619 and would later become a successful entrepreneur, or Denmark Vessey, who fought to liberate his people from slavery by organizing 9,000 slaves and freemen to revolt in Charleston, S.C. In 1822. there was also Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler who in 1864 became the first Black woman to earn a medical degree. This area of study helped to forge a pathway for each succeeding generation to learn that African Americans have always been innovators, fighters and intelligent persons well capable of succeeding in any endeavor.
Development of Black scholars
Black Studies is not exclusively reserved for Black scholars. There are a number of scholars from a variety of backgrounds who have done important work looking at the Black Diaspora. From the African American point of view, however, a primary reason for the implementation of Black Studies was to develop a critical mass of Black scholars. The significant presence today of African American academicians is due in large part to the existence of a longstanding tradition within Black Studies that offers a route into academia for an untold number of Black scholars.
The subject of Black Studies is interdisciplinary in nature. The subject draws in academics from a range of disciplines, including history, literature, education studies, sociology, theology, health studies, and some subjects as unexpected as sexuality and criminology. A strong tenant within Black Studies is the exposure to a range of ideas and discussions that can forge meaningful connections that can be built on the future. Had it not been for the Black Studies agenda, there are historic figures and contemporary individuals who may have never been encountered and whose work was and is relevant to contemporary dynamics within the Black community.
Women’s studies, as well, are an important aspect of Black Studies. In “Out Of The Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies” (2000), authors Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young attest that while the emergence of Black feminism was an offshoot of White feminism, the two groups are far apart in terms of battling sexism and striving for equality in a White-male-dominated world.
“During American slavery, Africana women were as harshly treated physically and mentally as were their male counterparts, thereby invalidating the alignment of Africana women and White women as equals in the struggle. The endless chores of the Africana woman awaited her both in and outside the home. Africana men and women have been equal partners in the struggle against oppression from early on. Thus, they could not afford division based on sex. In the African American slave experience, Africana men and women were viewed the same by the slave owners, thereby negating traditional (African and European) notions of male or female roles.”
Valuable study for both genders
Such study has proved valuable to African American students of both genders. Aldridge and Young state that Black Studies has empowered the Black student in noting that this academic challenge was a direct response to the mandate for change at all levels that characterized the Civil Rights Movement and the social rebellions of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
At the modern HCBU campuses, most have established courses in Black Studies, but few have departments dedicated to the field. Only Howard and Clark Atlanta universities offer a Master of Arts in Black Studies. Howard is the only HBCU to offer a doctoral program in African Studies; eight traditionally White institutions (including Princeton and Yale) also offer a Ph. D in African Studies.
Why don’t more HBCUs offer a diploma in Black Studies? The problem is money.
“A program in African American Studies is very difficult to sustain in good times, and it’s near impossible in tough times,” said Dr. Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. “However, some of the majority institutions have been able to get someone to underwrite less popular programs.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in Black Studies, much to the disappointment of Dr. Mayibuye Monanabela who is among the founders of the Africana Studies department at Tennessee State University. He said getting students to major in Black Studies is often difficult primarily because, outside of teaching, there are not many well-paying trades that would require such professional acumen.
“We (HBCUs) should be doing better,” Monanabela said. “When students are ready to sign-up for a major, they ask ‘What can I do with a degree in Africana Studies?’“
Dr. David H. Jackson Jr., chair of the department of history and political science (which includes Black Studies) at Florida A&M University, believes the current attitude toward Black Studies among African American students could be an obstacle in the field’s development.
“If I looked at FAMU and the country in general from the 1980s and early ’90s in terms of an aggressive attitude toward embracing Black culture, I don’t see that as much now,” he said. As well, some Black students at predominantly White institutions may have the assumption that students at an HBCU tend to be “Africa-centered” or “radical,” and that belief could contribute to an apathy about the subject, which is in direct contrast with the roots of Black Studies programs.
Looking toward the future
HCBUs faced internal challenges in developing these programs as an older generation of administrators may have been reluctant to establish such a curriculum, because of the association with “militancy” and for fear of losing support from outside communities. Also, some HBCUs felt that because they were Black institutions, they were not obligated to dedicate a department to the subject because “just being a Black school was sufficient.”
At Princeton, Black Studies has proven to be a popular and successful program. Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the Center for African American Studies at the New Jersey campus, believes the burgeoning interest in Black Studies may provide ground for a degree program.
“I think we’re seeing a new phase in the presence of Black Studies in higher education,” Glaude said. “We need to find an institutional configuration that reflects the complexity and nuance of the field. We haven’t changed our name to ‘Diaspora studies,’ and we have insisted that in order to mark that, as a field, Black Studies should be thought of more broadly.”
People of African ancestry have a long history and tradition in practically every region of the world. This history has been hallmarked by a number of struggles for recognition and against discrimination. In the present context of global uncertainty and the political reshaping of nation states Black Studies can play an essential role in the examination of the world’s Black population and the challenges that lie ahead.
This article originally appeared in Our Weekly News.
The number of states that can try out new ways to test students under the Every Student Succeeds Act just doubled.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that she had approved Georgia and North Carolina to try out new assessment methods for the 2019-20 school year, joining Louisiana and New Hampshire as states to successfully apply to participate in this pilot.
Georgia’s approach to the pilot is particularly notable, since it will be trying out not one but two assessment systems for the upcoming academic year. One will rely on adaptive assessments, which present students with questions based on their answers to previous ones, instead of relying on a fixed progression of test questions. The other will rely on “real-time” information on student performance. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s pilot system will rely on customized “routes” based on students’ prior answers on formative assessments. (More on formative assessments here.)
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Personal finance education is most effective when teachers are comfortable with it themselves
By Annamaria Lusardi & Nan J. Morrison, Education Week
Would a school allow athletes into a game without any practice? Send kids to their library or point them online but not help them learn to read? Should schools stop teaching math because some children find it hard or might fail? The notion, as advocated by some, that America should let students slide into adulthood without teaching basic personal finance concepts is equally shortsighted. As a researcher and a leader of a financial education organization, we could not disagree more. In fact, we experience every day the profound, lasting impact that financial education has on our nation’s young people.
One high school senior who recently completed classes in economics and personal finance told us that this practical curriculum was transformational: “At first, it felt like a foreign language. Now, I understand how to make more thoughtful decisions about my life. It’s a new way to think,” the student said. We’re thrilled the teacher was able to get the training necessary to master the subject and inspire kids in another avenue of knowledge.
Not every teacher, student, or school has that option.
“Teachers, like many other Americans, need to build the competence and confidence to teach this subject.”
The 12th grader’s observation puts a fine point on who needs financial education and how to deliver it. If we want to demystify the language of finance and build capability, we must ensure that every child has access to quality financial education. That happens best in the classroom when personal finance is treated like any other subject. Ideally, these essential life lessons should be integrated into the K-12 curriculum—a bit each year, culminating in a full semester class. In a standard math education, for instance, we teach kids to count in kindergarten so they build readiness for algebra years later. Personal finance education should be treated similarly.
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In the Federal Register, which is where the U.S. government publishes agency rules and public notices, DeVos’ proposed priority is to “align the Department of Education’s … discretionary grant investments with the Administration’s Opportunity Zones initiative, which aims to spur economic development and job creation in distressed communities.”
Perhaps the best-known program to get funding through discretionary grants is the Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Program, which gets $440 million and supports new charters as well as those seeking to expand. In fact, the department announced at the start of this month in a rule that a priority for distributing these charter school grants will be to fund charters that are in Opportunity Zones, which provide tax breaks to investors in exchange for long-term investment in identified areas. (More on that below.)
But the department’s proposed rule, published on Monday, could broaden the extent to which these competitive federal grants are tied to the zones. It’s possible federal grants to magnet schools, arts education, and programs like TRIO and GEAR UP that help bridge gaps between K-12 and higher education could also prioritize Opportunity Zone investments in the future…
And in general, there’s some hope these Opportunity Zones could strengthen schools by bolstering and diversifying the services available to students in struggling communities.
Remember: The big-ticket education funding programs, such as Title I services for disadvantaged students and special education state grants, rely on formulas and not competitive-grant applications. So those funding streams wouldn’t be affected by this new grant priority.
To read the full article, visit Education Week. May require a subscription.
Smartphones are replacing scissors in the decades-old Box Tops for Education program that raises money for schools through food purchases.
General Mills, which founded the program 23 years ago, announced Wednesday the program will soon be digital-only. Customers now earn money for their schools by scanning receipts rather than clipping box tops and mailing them in.
Participants can download the new mobile app, scan their store receipt, which will automatically analyze which products were box-tops items and tabulate the amount that will be donated to their school of choice. Every box top will still be worth 10 cents.
For those with a competitive spirit, the mobile app will allow participants to track their personal contributions as well as the school’s running total.
One noteworthy caveat: receipts must be scanned within 14 days of purchase.
As for those who like the old-school clippings, there will be a transition period during which each item can be counted twice — once during the receipt scan and another by mailing in the traditional box top.
Since 1996, 70,000 schools have received more than $913 million through Box Tops for Education.
“Modernizing Box Tops to fit the needs of today’s families brings the next generation of supporters and brands into the program, so we can stay true to our mission: to help schools get what they need,” Erin Anderson, manager, Box Tops for Education, said in a statement.
Jon Nudi, General Mills’ president of North America retail, announced the digital transition at the company’s annual investor conference earlier this month.
“This well-known program,” Nudi said, “is now available on a mobile app, allowing our brands to show up in a modern way, making it easy for our consumers to buy, scan and earn.”
Copyright (c) 2019, Star Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.