The Total Sum of Our Childrens’ School Experiences

“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.

We are the total sum of our experiences. What experiences are we providing our youth?

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.

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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.

Our school equipped us to think critically and have high levels of self-efficacy

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.

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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