Photo by U.S. Department of Education, CC-licensed.

Randi, We Don’t Need a Photo-Op, We Need Better Schools

Recently, Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite announced that North Philadelphia school E.W. Rhodes Elementary would be among four schools undergoing a district-run turnaround plan—requiring staff to reapply for their jobs, with only half able to remain.

In opposition, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, stood with other union leaders and politicians in defense of this persistently failing school. After an hour-long tour of the school Weingarten had this to say:

If you didn’t know the school was slated for essentially a destabilizing turnaround, you would never have known that by walking through the school.

In fact, you would have said: “Wait a minute. This is a place where parents want to send their kids, where educators want to work, where the kids are engaged.”

It is a little more than alarming to continuously have Weingarten parachute into our neighborhoods and identify schools that have been ineffective at best and oppressive at worst as “gems” and “beacons” of achievement and success—all surmised from an hour-long tour. It demonstrates that she and others are disconnected from the actual lives of students and the impact that failing schools have on Black, Latino and poor communities.

Although Randi and friends consider Rhodes Elementary a beacon of achievement and success, the community—which has the highest stake in the school’s success—does not. According to the School District of Philadelphia’s most recent data, only 32.7 percent of children who live in the catchment actually attend the school.

And it’s easy to see why:

  • Only 1 percent of students at Rhodes scored proficient or better on the state math exam.
  • Only 9 percent scored proficient or better in reading.
  • The district ranked it as 135th out of 139 schools on school climate.

The parents and guardians apparently know something that Randi refuses to acknowledge: Rhodes is not a place that the community wants to send their kids. When you pop-in and directly contradict what families are actually saying, it is beyond concerning—it is disrespectful.

Schools like Rhodes have failed hundreds and thousands of students and dozens of communities. The time for action and immediate intervention is now, not later.

We’ve Been Here Before

Predictably, opponents of school turnarounds will continue to tell communities to wait for another generation or two before they demand immediate change. In addition, while many of these opponents would never send their children to the “gems” they point to, they also stand in the way of improvement, school choice and accountability.

There are examples of schools in this city and elsewhere that have used the turnaround model to address poor achievement and climates not conducive to learning—and it’s worked.

Anna H. Shaw Middle School would have definitely been considered one of Randi’s “gems.” In 2002, less than 5 percent of the students were proficient in math and 6.7 percent were proficient in reading. Almost 80 percent were below basic on the state test that year. The previous year, 75 percent of the students were below basic.

Despite the violence, apathy and utter failure, there would have been opponents of drastic measures, not realizing that every year more members of the southwest Philadelphia community were being oppressively shortchanged.

In five years, after utilizing a turnaround model, scores for reading and math were seven times higher while still serving the community’s students. It needed a turnaround.

It Has to Be About a Great Education

Unfortunately, Black and Latino families are accustomed to outsiders taking self-serving stances without taking the time to learn more about their impact on our communities. It is a fact that Black and Latino families have been demonstrating that they were not happy about school choices for decades.

For example, I recall that before the advent of turnaround schools in Philadelphia, there were devout Muslim families who, in an act of desperation, sent their children to Catholic schools to escape failing neighborhood schools.

And, don’t think that it is only Black and Latino families who wanted school choice and better options for families. White families did too, they even have a term for it: “white flight.”

When people put labor and themselves over the most precious resources we have, we must be wary. When they look at labor as a more important civil right than a great education, then we should be alarmed.

[pullquote]At the end of the day, Black families want great schools, fair funding and rigorous courses for their children—and they want them now.[/pullquote] We don’t care what kind of schools they are, just that they are high-quality and created for our communities with a sense of urgency. If you stand in the way of this, we have to seriously question your allyship and your alignment with the interests of our communities.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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