Are schools further traumatizing students who already have enough challenges?

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“I have experienced a lot, but that doesn’t define all that I am.” -High School Student

Many students across our city and country experience trauma that is pervasive and unrelenting. Often these experiences go unspoken and untreated.

With social services constricted and schools feeling like they are forced to cut counselors, our students are consistently told that they are not cared about. Even before the most recent slashing of school budgets that we experienced in PA, many Philly schools were far below the ratio recommended by experts-which is a paltry 250:1. I have yet to work in a school where that ratio serves students well.

Previously, in my brief stint as a social worker, I saw the impact of trauma in children. As a social worker, I made dozens of home visits and parents would describe conditions that would make grown folks wilt under the pressure. Later, I would learn that researchers called this Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and conducted studies.

Researchers determined that “ACEs are adverse childhood experiences that harm children’s developing brains so profoundly that the effects show up decades later; they cause much of chronic disease, most mental illness, and are at the root of most violence.”

Per researchers, 13% of adults in PA have an ACES score of 4 or higher. In the community we serve, 30-45% of adults reported an ACES score of 4 or higher.

Read all of this blog post by Sharif El-Mekki at Philly’s 7th Ward.

Why I chose to teach

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My fervent desire to serve my community is what led me to a career as a teacher. But, it was anything but a straight path.

I have previously alluded to one of the main reasons I ended up choosing teaching as my desired profession and mission. Teaching is, by far, simultaneously, the most challenging and most rewarding career out there.

Although I had a social justice framework in my upbringing, had positive relationships and experiences with many of my teachers, and grew up in a household with a mother who taught, I did not initially consider teaching as my role in society. Even when my martial arts teacher would tell me that I should strongly consider becoming an instructor with my own class of martial artists, I would quickly demur and change the subject.


I just didn’t see myself as a teacher (of any kind). But, something changed.

I wrote about being shot here and here. That traumatic, near death, experience led me to teaching, but not directly.

After 12 surgeries and several weeks in the hospital, teaching was still far from my mind. After briefly contemplating law school, I decided to do some social work, which led me to a position as a counselor at the Youth Study Center (YSC).

My thinking at the time was that I needed to help kids like the one who had tried to kill me. Where else could I find youth who might struggle with trauma and tempers, who may have far too easy access to drugs and guns, who dropped out of 8th grade? This seemed like the place to help youth who had lives that mirrored the kid’s who shot me. I believed I could find and support them at the YSC-a holding place for kids waiting to be adjudicated.

The YSC is where I would make my mark in the community and how I would serve those who were in need of support, guidance, tough love, and compassion.

I didn’t make it through orientation.

Although the youth at the YSC desperately needed help, I yearned to find them before they entered such a place. I felt myself falling into depression at the thought of seeing kids as young as 12 in what would constitute as a kiddie jail. When I spoke with a few counselors at the YSC and educators, including my mother and some of my former teachers, they strongly encouraged me to join teaching to make the impact I envisioned. I didn’t just want to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by working within the system, I wanted to join people working hard to dismantle it by ensuring our youth had a great education and great opportunities to match. I needed a proactive way to fight for justice and equity. I needed to be in a school.

I knew the children at the YSC needed gifted and committed counselors and staff; however, I also knew I needed to find another way to make an impact. I didn’t need to look far because at that very time of my mental and spiritual meandering, the School District of Philadelphia was looking for Black men to engage and instruct youth in the classrooms of Philadelphia-before they ended up in a YSC. The District was partnering with an organization called Concerned Black Men, and a concerned Black man, I was.


So, in the fall of 1993, I began my life’s work in southwest Philly at John P. Turner Middle School as an 8th grade Literature and Social Studies teacher. I knew I was in the right place, doing what I was destined to do. I could not have predicted it, but the intersectionality between my love for learning, my commitment to social justice, and my personal north star pointing to serving my community were the magnets that drew me to teach.

Twenty-four years later, I remain immensely grateful to have the opportunity to serve our city in such a capacity. In an effort to honor those who encouraged and supported me, I recently helped found an organization, The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, that can trace its ancestry to the Concerned Black Men who helped launch my career. The Fellowship, similarly, was established to support aspiring (and current) Black men who want to serve in the capacity that marries academics to social justice-teaching.

Today, the Youth Study Center still houses too many of our youth. And, we need far more educators-especially men of color-willing to enter the teaching profession. Our communities need educators to serve as “railroad switch” operators, supporting our youth in changing the trajectories of their lives and to help establish social justice in our communities.

Youth, like the one who shot me, are counting on this to happen.

The politics over charter schools isn’t helping kids get an education

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On Saturday, America’s oldest civil rights organization made its opposition to charter schools and Black families official.

What the NAACP should have done, like their local chapter leader, Rodney Muhammad did, was spend time in schools like the one that I run on the west side of Philadelphia. Mr. Muhammad sang praises for the work being done by and with the Black youth in our school community after visiting last spring. But, he was reluctant to share his experiences and the potential that charters have to addressing the massive inequities perpetually forced on our communities.

Mastery Charter School – Shoemaker Campus empowers hundreds of families each year to address generations of educational neglect.  In urban areas long forgotten by the politicians, public school options have become the path to a better life.

Our public charter school has now graduated almost 600 students since it opened in 2006 and has boosted the percentage of students meeting state standards in reading and math by 50 to 70 percentage points on the previous state exams. With the new Common Core aligned state standards, we are currently using this past success to improve our academic program even further.

Despite the fact that most of our students enter our school 2-3 grade levels behind, every one of our students has been accepted to a post-secondary program and 80% were accepted to four-year colleges and universities. By comparison, almost one in every two black boys living in a major American city will drop out of high school.

Equally powerful is the learning that goes on in our classrooms, the new opportunities provided to students before and after high school graduation, and the pride shown on parents’ faces when they watch their children liberate themselves from the school-to-prison pipeline.


Like many other communities in Philadelphia and other urban areas, we have found successful, cost efficient, and needed solutions through public charter schools. Yet, the NAACP made the unprecedented decision to call for a national moratorium on these very same schools.

As a principal of a community charter school that has been recognized nationally, this decision by the NAACP is alarming and unjust.  And as an African American who has worked his whole adult life to expand opportunity for African American families, I am offended by the NAACP’s misguided, politically-motivated decision.

I have learned the hard way that when decisions by those who claim to work on your behalf leave you scratching your head in confusion, follow the money. To explain why the NAACP sided against Black folks and to go after schools like mine, the answer is pretty clear: the most vocal opposition to charters comes from teacher unions, who also fund the NAACP to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

By falling in line with these funders, the NAACP has declared war on the very constituency it was created to help.  Instead of influencing policy to support a high-quality education for all children, this wayward organization has turned its back on 700,000 Black children in charter schools and millions more who are desperate for a better education.

Our school districts were failing long before the advent of public charters schools 25 years ago.  The idea that Black families who live in the catchment area of a perpetually failing district school system would be denied choice is unfathomable.


The stubborn achievement gaps facing Black students can be mitigated with more – not less – access to better schools like Shoemaker. Public school choice is a right that must not be compromised, especially by a civil rights organization whose stated mission is to ensure “political, educational, social, and economic equality.”

Sadly, the NAACP’s decision perpetuates the kind of unfair stereotypes it was originally created to fight against. To rationalize their decision and cloud their relationship with the unions, the NAACP makes the absurd claim that public charter schools are taking over public education. The fact is, fewer than 7% of all public school children attend charter schools and no one is forced to attend. They are open to all and do not charge tuition.

Stereotypes have long been a part of American history and our culture.  We have all witnessed how these stereotypes play out, whether it is a poorly trained and biased policeman or a racist vigilante assuming the worst of our black children and shooting them on our streets.

For families in Philadelphia’s 19131 zip code, politics and philosophical differences are not luxuries that are part of the decision-making process of our parents. They just want safe, good schools for their child to attend.

Rather than ignoring results and showcasing stereotypes, the NAACP should speak in one united voice that all Black lives and all Black families matter. To suggest that Black families should not have unmitigated access to quality public education shows how far away the NAACP has strayed from its noble inception.

The NAACP has fallen and it can’t seem to get up.

*A version of this post appeared on NBC.

The total sum of childrens’ school experiences

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We are the total sum of our experiences.”

This quote is attributed to a few and experienced by all.

I had three very distinct and radically different school experiences growing up. The collection of these experiences helped to shape me as a person, educator, community member, and father.

My high school was Overbrook High School in west Philadelphia-famous for alumni like Guion Bluford, Jon Drummond, Wilt Chamberlain, Malik Rose, James Lassiter, and Will Smith. It was and is my neighborhood school.

My middle school was in the center of Qom, Iran. My brother and I attended this public school not long after the Iranian Revolution and in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. My sister attended the elementary school.

In future posts, I will share more about the role each system played in who I am, what I believe in, and what I am chasing for my own students. I also asked a class or schoolmate from each sector to share their experiences. None of my guest bloggers are in the K-12 sector, but within their posts, you’ll see our shared worlds and how our experiences continue to shape us. Windows and mirrors.


There is a reason I remember all of our elementary school teachers and very few of my high school teachers. My former classmates and I frequently reminisce about our good fortune and privilege to have attended Nidhamu Sasa in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. It was a pan-African school that was started in the home of activists and quickly expanded to our building on 422 Queen Lane.

The school itself no longer exists, but as you’ll see from Ohenewaa White’s piece below, the lessons we learned are alive and well. The lessons our teachers taught us are as relevant now as ever before. Their teachings will continue to matter and endure.


Why is the concept of Nidhamu Sasa and school choice important then and now?

My parents made a conscious decision to seek and choose the best educational outlet to ensure we received an education that prepared us to compete at a national and global level. We attended an independent African-Centered free school, Nidhamu Sasa (Discipline/Freedom Now).

Nidhamu Sasa (NS) provided a framework for challenging and deconstructing the traditional (Eurocentric) curriculum, a curriculum that Freire asserts is embedded with archaic social practices that structures every aspect of society.

My parents, as did all of the NS parents’, understood that for their Black children to thrive, we needed to be exposed to a learning system that developed a positive self-concept, our self-consciousness, self-determination, and a sense of African identity. All of which leads to the uplifting of the community and the celebration of African and African-American contributions to history, science, mathematics, and culture.

NS was intentional about providing us with the skills and knowledge necessary to expand our capacity to think critically and challenge historical and myths that contributed to a lower sense of self-efficacy. We were taught to agitate and fight for change.


We attended Nidhamu Sasa in the 70s, during a time when Black consciousness was an emerging discourse and African-Americans were empowered to challenge the political and racial unrest that affected communities of color.

It is no coincidence, however, that both public education and racial unrest are again in the forefront, and equally as damaging to Black and Brown communities. As such, it is more important than ever that African American parents, educators, community members/leaders take control of the education of our children.

In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Friere enlightens, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

So, some 40 years later, it is still imperative that education is informed by an awareness and understanding of the lived experiences, interests, and needs of the communities.

The enduring question remains, whose future, story, and interests does the current education system represent?  And, when communities push and demand for change and choice, who are the ones resisting the voices and demands of our communities?

Freedom (and Choice) Now.

Sharif El-Mekki wrote this post for the blog Philly’s 7th Ward.

Believe it or not, education reform is blacker than you think

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Anti-education reformers are some of the most interesting people I know. They often reminisce about and allude to a time when schools and systems worked for our communities. I try to follow them, but their recollections seem to escape me.

Quite often, amongst the usually entitled (and overwhelmingly white) anti-charter, anti-high standards, and anti-progress groups, education reform is assailed as one of the problems with the American education system.

According to these folks, many of whom I count as friends, everything was fine in our school system for Black, Latino, and poor kids before higher standards were common, data was disaggregated, school choice was provided, and the number of dropout factories decreased. This line of thought represents a disillusioned nostalgia for yesteryear’s “educational heyday” –one that largely ignores our youth’s actual experiences in schools. Their misguided and amnestic arguments about what American schools were is akin to Trump’s lemmings being seduced by the call for making America great again. It begs the question,

“Great again for whom?”


  • When a Black grandparent can point to a school and system that failed them, their children, and, now, their grandkids, yet middle class (mostly white) folks tell them not to opt out of that school/system, something sinister is askew.
  • When in far too many places, only half of Black boys graduate high school in four years (that represents progress in a lot of cities), we are lying to ourselves. Some would say that we are lying to our youth, but they actually know better.
  • When in far too many neighborhoods school choice options are failing, crumbling, almost impossible to staff buildings, it is oppressive.
  • When Pennsylvania has the most inequitable school funding in the country, and knowingly violates the Constitution, we know that things are not just. When a suit is filed to address the massive underfunding of our educational system and the state Supreme Court dismisses it, we know that help (at least from that corner) is not on the way.
  • When systems, politicians, and sadly, some educators, put the wishes of the adults, who volunteered to serve, over those supposedly being served, it is oppressive and champions the inequitable components of the status quo – the very status quo that helped usher in the massive inequities present today.

Great again for whom?


Malcolm X encouraged us to study history. We know that in southern states, it was a crime to teach over 4 million enslaved Africans. In The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein, provides detailed accounts of inequities that were introduced to the very foundation of schools for Black children. You should be able to easily recognize that those foundations remain prevalent in most systems that educate Black children.

Great again for whom?

During Reconstruction, teachers were sought (and largely underfunded) to teach recently emancipated youth. Teachers like Philadelphia’s Charlotte Forten, granddaughter of the famous James Forten, signed up to do their “duty” as teachers. They persevered through constant threats, actualities of violence, and almost no funding streams. Frederick Douglass described the white supremacist violence that attempted to suppress Black liberation and educational justice. “Schoolhouses are burnt, teachers mobbed and murdered, schools broken up.”  Today, in Pennsylvania, the supposed keystone state, schools are systemically underfunded and the PA system undergirds massive inequity, mainly in schools attended by the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Great again for whom?

The issue with Reconstruction, including schooling for Black children, was not that it failed. It was engineered to go off track. The progress was dismantled. It was jettisoned. It was undermined by those who benefited from the status quo. And, it was largely ignored by those who claimed to have been invested in ensuring equity for Black communities. Today, one can’t help but to wonder why it isn’t apparent that our schools are again being undermined by those who want to return to a time when the educational system “worked for Black families.”

Fast forward to the 1960s-70s.


In 1967, outspoken and courageous leaders, who stayed woke, like Cecil B. Moore, engaged the community and supported students to ensure that “schooling was not interfering with their education.” Students criticized Philly schools because they consistently deprived our community of quality education. High school student leaders from throughout Philadelphia decided to rally together to denounce what they deemed the “white policy of the Board of Education.” When these student activists demanded higher standards and an expansive curriculum (particularly a Black studies course), the police chief brought his henchmen and commanded them to “get their Black asses.”

In the 1970s, nation building groups like the Black Panther Party for Self Defense were calling for educational reform, much to the chagrin of the defenders of the status quo. “The Intercommunal Youth Institute was established in January 1971 by the Black Panther Party. In 1974, the name was changed to Oakland Community School. The Black Panther Party’s goal was to get children to learn to their highest potential and to strengthen their minds so that one day they would be successful. The school graduated its first class in June 1974. In September 1977, California Gov. Edmund “Jerry” Brown Jr. and the California Legislature gave Oakland Community School a special award for “having set the standard for the highest level of elementary education in the state.”

Great again for whom?


While there is much angst amongst the “traditionalists” about progressive things like charter schools and school choice for poor families, we know that Malcolm X  called for school systems to significantly shake things up. He demanded that there be a significant number of turnaround schools-calling for 10% of their persistently failing schools to be turned over to the community.

Today, Malcolm X would strongly advocate for charter schools.

“…this city has said that even with its plan there are 10 percent of the schools …that they cannot improve. So what are we to do?…A first step in the program to end the existing system of racist education is to demand that the 10 percent of the schools …be turned over to and run by the Afro-American community itself. Since they say that they can’t improve these schools, why should you and I who live in the community, let these fools continue to run and produce this low standard of education? No, let them turn those schools over to us. Since they say they can’t handle them, nor can they correct them, let us take a whack at it.” Malcolm, as often is the case, knew the blueprint for our liberation. He knew that limiting school choice options was not in the best interest of the Black community. Still isn’t.

It is still escaping me. Please remind me again. When exactly were these schools and systems great for Black and Brown students?

Sharif El-Mekki wrote this post for the blog Philly’s 7th Ward