Taking Advantage of Young Scholars

“With great power, comes great responsibility.”

The conditions of our schools clearly communicate to us that we need authentic vanguards for our communities. Although many (vote hungry politicians, district employees, self-serving community members, etc.) may claim to hold that mantle, often, they are not the ones we’ve been waiting for. Unfortunately, there are others who wish to forge partnerships, yet their partnership leave communities wanting.

The recent decision  of Scholar Academies to surrender the charter at Young Scholars – Kenderton showed how carefully we must vet the organizations who want to operate our schools. I am a staunch believer that removing the shackles that anchor too many schools to the lowest performing tiers by any measure is of paramount importance. Too often, opponents of turnaround schools (a system of accelerating growth of student achievement partly by changing the adults who serve the students and removing restrictions that impede student success-including any collective bargaining agreements that don’t put students’ interest in the forefront) remain steadfastly wed to the failing status quo that undermines families’ efforts to improve their circumstances through education.

Having only low performing schools and magnets is not in the best interest of our communities

I believe that one of the best ways to disrupt persistently failing schools is to provide communities with more high performing options. Options that will provide the academic security and stability that those of privilege enjoy. Too often, self-serving people only want two options for Black and Latino families-try and get accepted by a magnet school or cast your lot with a perennially failing school. By using the School District of Philadelphia’s Renaissance model to turnaround failing community schools, families can enter into partnerships with charter management organizations  (CMO) to accelerate achievement levels and close all sorts of gaps (academic, social capital, opportunity) that consistently are imposed on communities.

However, the governance of a school is nothing short of a sacred endeavor. This should be the position of every school because a quality education is one of our most basic, albeit, one of the most unrealized, human rights. When a CMO, or anyone else for that matter, gains the trust of a community to right the wrongs, to tip the scales of justice back in favor of children and then lets them down, it is unfathomable. With approximately 1/3 of Philly’s students attending charter schools and many more on long wait lists, our communities cannot afford semi-committed charters. Too many families are clamoring for options. Compounding a community’s oppression is worse than the original oppression that existed.

Abandoning School Communities is oppressive

Not even a year after Scholar Academies abandoned the families at Young Scholars – Douglass, they informed more than 500 North Philadelphia families that they were abandoning them as well. Scholar Academies sold North Philly families a bill of goods, promised that they were committed to turning around Douglass and Kenderton, and then walked away, pulling the rug right out from under them. This undermines the work of those committed to turning around persistent failure. We know that opponents of turnarounds will try and use this to insist that the status quo-one that countless families can attest to its utter and generational failure-remain in tact. We must resist that.

I found it amazing that the CEO of Scholar Academies earned a $220,000 yearly salary to transform schools in marginalized communities of color. I was incredulous to learn that Scholar Academies was opening schools in two other states and the District of Columbia, while closing schools in North Philadelphia – a section of our city that is the complete manifestation of disinvestment. It is evident that everyone’s sense of commitment to educational justice doesn’t align.

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Turnaround schools are not for everyone. There is a higher bar. Accepting a charter to transform a school that has failed a community for generations requires a warrior-saint type of commitment. Traditional charters, boutique, selective schools, regardless of their success, are NOT analogous to leading a turnaround model. The School District of Philadelphia awarded a contract to Scholar Academies to turnaround Kenderton and Douglass because they were persistently failing for generations, and needed a radical solution. When Scholars accepted that contract, they made a promise to families that cannot be reneged on. Unsuccessful CMOs must be held accountable for being excited to run any school and then walking away leaving communities holding the bag. Families in Memphis, DC, or any other states that Scholar Academies intends to operate schools should be forewarned. Everyone doesn’t take their partnerships with communities as sacred pacts.

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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  • I think it should be noted that Scholars failed the 5 year review for their charter at Douglass, they did not voluntarily leave (at first). They did fight to keep their school until a deal was made with Mastery.

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