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).
Dr. Elizabeth Primas, NNPA ESSA Awareness Campaign Program Manager
It is not uncommon for military programs to be adopted for use in civilian life. Schools in Virginia Beach, VA, that have some of the highest percentages of military children in the country, are doing an incredible job helping those students cope with the added stresses of having parents in the military. Other schools and communities can learn from Virginia Beach City Public Schools.
I recently spent a day with families and educators from Shelton Park Elementary School. About 70 percent of the students there were children with a parent in the military or a defense contractor. There is a large population of special forces personnel in Virginia Beach and at any moment, a parent can be called on for deployment to a warzone. Their families often do not know to where they are deployed, which compounds stress and anxiety.
A unique program in Virginia Beach public schools includes 28 Military Family Life Counselors, who work closely with schools’ staff and families to support students. One mother we spoke with, talked about the fears her five-year-old daughter had while her father was deployed. After a particularly bad night, the mother let the school staff and the assigned counselor know that her daughter was going through a very difficult time. However, mom was able to send her daughter to school knowing that the school community would play an active role in engaging with her to help her work through her fears. The Virginia Beach counselors, funded under a program by the U.S. Department of Defense, are licensed and specialize in child and youth behavioral issues.
It’s not just supporting students through the stress of having a parent deployed where Virginia Beach schools excel in supporting this population of students. A reportfrom The Lexington Institute looks at how schools and districts with high percentages of military families are supporting students, who, on average, move every 2-3 years to far and distant places. Uprooting and moving so often is disruptive to a child’s educational progress, and it can stall their academic achievement.
However, moving is not the only thing that can disrupt educational progress. Low teacher retention, frequent absenteeism, and unsafe school environments are all factors that can also inhibit academic progress.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal education law, requires schools and districts to have a well-rounded curriculum. Too many schools have eliminated music, art, drama, and essential academic courses like social studies and science to give more instruction time to reading and math. Math and reading are critical, but these other subjects enrich the learning experience and help make a well-rounded, whole human being.
From the very beginning, students at Shelton Park Elementary School are exposed to art, music, leadership strategies. The well-rounded curriculum combined with support from the military counselors creates a school environment that can – and should – be modeled across the country.
As a lifetime educator, I am inspired to see how Virginia Beach Public Schools are supporting military children. They are truly a model to be emulated by anyschool, because every kid—military or not-deserves this kind of high-quality support and instruction.
Dr. Elizabeth Primas is the ESSA Program Manager for the National Newspapers Publishers Association.
The African-American community’s fight for quality education requires constant dedication and reflection on successful strategies to educate our children. Donald Hense and the Friendship Charter Network is an example of success worthy of recognition.
Hense is the founder and board chairman of the Friendship Charter Network, the largest African-American-led charter school network in America. Hense’s accomplishment is significant, because, while over 80 percent of charter school students are Black or Latino, fewer than 10 percent of charter schools are founded and led by Blacks or Latinos, according to a study by the Brookings Institute.
Three-quarters of the students enrolled in Friendship schools in D.C. are from Wards 7 and 8, the city’s two poorest areas, and nearly all are African-American. Their achievement is reflected in their continuous improvement on standardized tests. Most recently, Hense and his team celebrated, when five of Friendship’s 12 D.C. schools were rated Tier 1 by the Public Charter School Board – the highest of three ratings a charter school can earn.
As a native of St. Louis and graduate of Morehouse College and Stanford University, Hense has long understood the power of a quality education. But for years he had no interest in working in K-12 education. He was serving as executive director of Friendship House Association, a non-profit serving low-income families in Washington D.C., when he was approached by an executive from a local charter operator about using Friendship House to charter a school. After some reflection, he agreed to transfer his experience fighting intergenerational poverty to the fight for quality public education.
Hense made history as the first African American to win a grant from New Schools Venture Fund, which supports charter school founders. Friendship was among the first group of schools chartered by the D.C. Public Charter School Board in 1998. Twenty years later, it has12 campuses for students in grades Pre-K3 to 12 in D.C., an online school, and schools in Baton Rouge, La., Baltimore, Md., and Little Rock and Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Hense is proud of Friendship and of education reform efforts in Washington, but he is not ready to celebrate. “We declared victory too soon,” he says. “Fifteen years of education reform is not an institution.”
To Hense, the fight to reform school systems serving African-American students should include more leaders of color. For years, he held a monthly meeting of black charter school leaders in D.C. to talk about their experiences and discuss lessons learned, but it “fizzled out” after young leaders lost interest. “We brought in second and third generation [leaders] and forgot to show them that [African-Americans] need to work together to get things done,” he says. “New [leaders] have to participate in black organizations.”
In spite of a few setbacks, Hense is still dedicated to supporting African-Americans interested in opening their own charter schools. The greatest obstacle to their success, he believes, is lack of experience in management. A potential founder needs “a good plan and a good board of directors. It’s best to go in [to the charter application process] with a strong [management] team.”
Fortunately, there are positive examples of young, African-American charter school founders to emulate. In 2017, Dominique Lee of BRICK Avon Academy in Newark, New Jersey won a Promise Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Education Department. Dominque aims to use the grant to educate 3,000 students in Newark over the next few years, making BRICK the state’s third-largest CMO and the only one led by a person of color.
Hense recommends that other African Americans interested in starting charter schools apply for funding fromthe New Schools Venture Fund or for charter school design grants from Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), if they are in D.C.
At 75, Hense says he is not done. The Friendship Education Fund continues to identify opportunities to replicate their model around the country. Friendship’s goal is to bring what Hense and his team learned in Washington to the countless districts struggling to grow African-American student achievement. As DCPS welcomes a new chancellor with experience championing school choice, there may be new opportunities in D.C. as well.
This article is a part of The ‘Reinventing America’s Schools’ series. This series highlights Change Makers from our community who are walking reflections of what’s possible when we place Accountability and Autonomy at the forefront.
By Curtis Valentine, Reinventing America’s Schools, Guest Contributor
Lakisha Young is no stranger to education reform. A former Teach For America corps member and founding member of a KIPP Charter School, Young knows the power parents can wield when they demand educational options for their children. The daughter of a single mother who enrolled her in a traditional public school, a Catholic school, and later a private high school, Young expected to have the same power to make choices for her children when she became a mother.
A single mother of three, Young is satisfied with the choices she’s made: Her sons attend a charter school, and her daughter attends a selective high school. However, successfully securing places in these schools was no easy feat. Young knows firsthand the aggravation of dealing with the Oakland school lottery. She also understands the anxiety parents feel not knowing whether their children will have to enroll in a low-performing neighborhood school should there not be enough seats available at quality schools. Her personal experience led her to organize other parents and teach them how to advocate for their children.
In 2016, Young founded the Oakland Reach, which she describes as a “parent-run, parent-led group committed to empowering families from the most underserved communities to demand high-quality schools for children in Oakland.” Since then, the organization has informed more than 4,000 parents on the state of Oakland schools and trained over 300 parents in advocacy through its Oakland Family Advocacy Fellowship.
“If you’re black and low-income in Oakland, you have to fight for the right to a good school,” Young says. Two-thirds of black students in Oakland attend a school rated below the state average and only 1% attend a school rated above the state average (For more information visit the Oakland Reach website.) So Young looks for “parents willing to speak truth to power—and kinda trouble makers.”
Oakland Unified School District, faced with fiscal problems and too many half-empty schools, is closing school buildings to save money. Young and Oakland Reach decided to ask the district to give preference in high quality schools to students whose schools are closed. They dubbed this policy “The Opportunity Ticket,” worked tirelessly to advocate for it, and won a victory when the school board voted unanimously for it.
“Having to choose a school and having access are two different things,” Young explains. The Opportunity Ticket will give more low-income families access to the district’s best schools.
Oakland Reach wants all parents to have the same opportunities Young had, when she enrolled her sons in a public charter school. Today, more than 31% of Oakland’s public school students attend charters. Young fought to have her sons enroll in a school that, on average, graduates 86% of its students on time, compared to 75% in traditional public schools. Young’s sons and their classmates are also more likely to be accepted to college. In Oakland, 34% of African-American and Latino charter graduates are accepted to college, exceeding the district average of 15%. (For more information visit http://library.ccsa.org/OUSD%20Charter%20Report%202017.pdf)
Young is part of a wave of black women leading parent advocacy organizations around the country, including Aretta Baldon in Atlanta, Maya Martin Cadogan in Washington D.C., and Sarah Carpenter in Memphis. To Young, parents most impacted by failing schools have not been at the decision-making table. “We are at the table now,” she says. “Parents bring a certain level of urgency [because] we don’t have an out. All black mommas needed were resources. Black mommas have been fighting for their kids since fighting to keep kids from being enslaved.”
Philanthropic investments in parent-led organizations like Oakland Reach have shifted the landscape for black women in leadership. “The missing components were resources to fight,” Young says. “There hasn’t been enough resources put behind black mommas and black daddies. This is new, this is like putting on a new suit … for us and for funders. People with resources trusting us.”
While Young celebrates the voice of black women, she recognizes that the Opportunity Ticket was successful thanks to an alliance with upper middle-class parents. “You need multiple stakeholders at the table,” she says. “Passing the Opportunity Ticket took a coalition of white allied parents and a focus on quality and equity for all kids.”
In a city looking for stability after 13 superintendents in 20 years, Oakland Reach has become a steady source of support for parents. Young is excited about the future and quite surprised that what was once just an idea has become a refuge for parents. She describes how overcome she was when one mother told her, “If I want to learn more about being better advocate for my kids…everybody is telling me that I need to be part of Oakland Reach.”
“I didn’t know what was possible” with Reach, Young admits. “I was moving with sheer will, I’d be fighting this fight — with Oakland Reach or not. I did not expect it to get to this point. I’m not shocked, though. This is what happens when you get fired up parents together.”
Next Stop? Young is in search of “What tables [parents] need to be sitting at in Sacramento.” Watch out state capitol, here she comes!
This article is a part of The ‘Reinventing America’s Schools’ series. This series highlights Change Makers from our community who are walking reflections of what’s possible when we place Accountability and Autonomy at the forefront.
The experts, both from the federal and district level, provided education officials and state lawmakers with independent information on how each state could improve their plans and implementation. However, what they discovered in Florida’s ESSA plan was not encouraging.
In September 2018, Florida received final approval from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) for its ESSA State Plan. Florida was the last state in the nation to receive such approval, as state and federal education officials squabbled for months over the state’s proposed plan.
The Florida plan was originally submitted to the DOEin September 2017, but officials failed to include the waiver requests for the specific portions of the law to which it objected.
Federal officials sent the plan back to Florida Department of Education, saying they couldn’t pick and choose which aspects of the law to follow, and that they needed to submit waivers for the areas where they would like to be granted exceptions.
Florida submitted a revised ESSA plan to the DOE in April 2018 in an effort to comply with their requests and included a separate federal school rating system—one that factors in English-language learner proficiency and subgroup performance—which would work alongside the state’s existing A-F grading methodology to target struggling schools.
The primary areas of difference between Florida’s education officials and those within the DOE had to do with the Florida’s proposed approach to provisions regarding English-language learners and demographic-based subgroups — and federal officials weren’t the only ones saying that Florida’s plan left a lot to be desired. Civil rights groups repeatedly raised the alarmas well, asking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to rejectFlorida’s ESSA plan.
In a November 2017 letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, more than a dozen civil rights groups said they had “significant concerns” regarding the plan, which they believed failed “to serve the interests of marginalized students in the state” and “to comply with the requirements of the law.”
According to Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg, who serves on the committee for LULAC Florida, an advocacy group serving all Hispanic nationality groups, Florida’s “current plan includes features that contradict common sense, expert opinion, popular will, and the intent of the ESSA. Contrary to the purposes of the ESSA, the Florida plan denies attention to struggling subgroups of students. Without attention, there can be no correction.”
A year later, with Florida now implementing a revised state accountability plan, the peer reviewers convened by the Collaborative had similar (and additional) concerns.
While noting that “empowering local leaders is a core component of successful school turnaround,” the peer reviewers worried that “too much autonomy, without sufficient state supports, may not help the students and schools in most need.”
This, the peer reviewers believe, reflects a “lack of commitment to closing achievement gaps by not addressing subgroup performance or English learner proficiency in the state’s accountability system,” meaning “districts and schools are less likely to focus on these populations as they plan and implement school improvement strategies.” The same concern and fear raised by civil rights groups a year earlier.
The peer reviewers did applaud Florida for its “overall clear, student-focused vision around high standards, college and career readiness, and rigorous accountability and improvement,” and “clearly defined and easy-to-understand A-F grading system, which places a strong emphasis on academic growth and accelerated coursework.”
However, the peer reviewers recommended that the state rework its accountability system to incorporate student subgroups and English-language learner proficiency. They also noted that Florida’s use of dual accountability systems “raises issues with school improvement implementation as it can cause confusion about which schools are being identified and how to prioritize efforts.”
Elizabeth Primas is an educator who spent more than 40 years working to improve education for children. She is the program manager for the NNPA’s Every Student Succeeds Act Public Awareness Campaign. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethprimas.
By Barbara D. Parks-Lee, Ph.D., CF, NBCT (ret.), NNPA ESSA Awareness Campaign
Have you ever felt frustrated and ill-equipped to meet the needs of the students in your classroom as well as the dictates of those who have never been teachers in a classroom?
Sometimes, we teachers feel like there is too much to do and not enough time or resources to do what needs to be done well. Standardized testing frenzy, No Child Left Behind, Common Core Curriculum, STEM curriculum, professional development relegated to one day make-‘n’-take or lecture sessions, and demands from school boards, legislators, and the business community all may contribute to teacher frustration, burn-out, and being ROJ (retired on the job).
Well, how can we feel more professional and less like factory workers producing widgets? First, we must clarify our mission. Students are not widgets. There can be no reject bins for human beings with different needs and varied learning intelligence!
Secondly, we must reach our students before we can teach them. By reach I mean to be willing to acknowledge cultural and personal idiosyncrasies and to be friendly, fair, and flexible. Not everyone learns—or teaches—the same way. Being friendly involves knowing our students’ names and greeting them as they enter our classrooms.
It also involves dressing professionally as a means of demonstrating personal and student respect. There are three B’s no student should ever see on a teacher: no bosoms, no belly buttons, and no backsides. Students need a professional appearance. They form their own perceptions the first time they meet us, and we do not get a second chance to make a good first impression.
The culture of our classroom community must be one of acceptance, rigor, and high standards, for our students will either stretch or stagnate according to our expectations of them. Teachers must not only have a lesson plan A and a back-up plan B but also a back-up for the back-up in order to take advantage of any teachable moment.
If we do not have a plan for our students, they will most certainly have plans for us! I assure you, their plans will make our lives miserable and learning and teaching almost impossible.
Fairness involves demanding standards for which everyone is held accountable. Certain rules must be observed. For instance, no one can be allowed to ridicule, to bully, or to be disrespectful or disparaging of anyone’s personal appearance, answers, questions, or opinions. We, as teachers, must take control of our classrooms from the first day until the last.
When we wish not to be perceived as factory workers producing widgets, we must acknowledge that our calling is a combination of science, art, and craft. TEACHING IS PLAIN HARD WORK!
Our diverse students are real human beings with real needs and varied skills and talents. We must take the challenge of our profession and equip ourselves with the content knowledge and the pedagogy skills in order to deliver what our students must have. As we teach, we must also remember that these same students may have to serve us or to teach our children or grandchildren at some point after they leave us.
As teachers serving humans, we cannot allow them or ourselves to be treated any way except as we would want our own children and family members to be treated. We must be actively vocal as we present ourselves as advocates for the teaching and learning process.
Raise your hand if you weresick and tired but now resolveto be well and full of energy as you go forward.
By Barbara D. Parks-Lee, Ph.D., CF, NBCT (ret.), NNPA ESSA Awareness Campaign
What is the fallacy when someone says, “I don’t see color?” Immediately, when someone says this to me, a woman of color, two thoughts cross my mind. The first one is, “Is there some congenital abnormality that negates the ability to perceive colors?” The second, if more visceral: “If you don’t see color, does that render me invisible, unimportant, or not worthy to be seen?”
This statement prickles the hairs on the back of my neck. For, too often, these words are spoken by a white person to someone black or brown.
It almost fits into the trite utterance of “I have some (or a) black (or brown) friends,” or, another, “You are not like them.” So, if you do not see color, how do you know you have some friends of color or that I am not like the illusive “them,” presumably others of color?
Many of us have prejudices and/or stereotypes of those we view as “other” or ones different from ourselves in some way. It might be that culture, religious belief, ethnicity, gender, class, marital status, socio-economic status, or one or more of the –isms influence our perceptions. Some biases are so inculcated that, from infancy, we are programmed to have fears, stereotypes, and negative views of those unlike ourselves.
One part of this kind of fallacious thinking may hinge on the fact that in order for some groups to feel righteous and superior, other groups must have to be viewed as dangerous and/or inferior.
Our perceptions of the value of ourselves and others often determine our treatment of and reactions toward those we view as less than or not as valued. Wars are fought over cultural and religious differences. Regardless of the injury, all people’s blood is red and all of us can hurt or grieve, regardless of color.
In the classrooms across the United States, many children of color—and we all have a color—are castigated, segregated, and under-educated by least-qualified teachers who are sent in to work with children most needy.
As our schools become more multicultural, many of their teachers are becoming more monocultural and unprepared to acknowledge cultural differences, different styles of learning, or ways of showing respect and tolerance. The resulting revolving door of teachers who hone their craft on these children not like themselves often exacerbates the underachievement of students and the continual decline of the public-school system as we know it.
Until all of us are willing to forego our color and cultural blindness, we perpetuate students being placed on an assembly line to mediocrity, frustration, and wasted, unacknowledged potential. This, in no way applies to all teachers, for many teachers are diligent, dedicated, and hard-working people who care and who have students, many of whom, succeed in spite of the odds against them.
However, to “not see color “is, to a person of a different color, the height of insult from an arrogant, insecure, ignorant, condescending—even if unintentional—racist person!