Black Degrees Matter

Earlier this week, our Councilwoman, Jannie Blackwell, called for a public hearing on the low enrollment and graduation rates at colleges and universities for Black males in Philadelphia.

David Hardy, founder of the Boys’ Latin school, estimates that only 5% of the Black boys in our city’s public schools obtain a college degree. He recently held a joint press conference to sound the alarm:

Only 27% of African American males from Philadelphia district schools matriculate to college and only 17% of African American males persist through two years of college. Fewer than 5% of African American boys in our city complete four-year college degrees. Just 100 African American men from Philadelphia district schools earn college degrees each year. Knowing the economic and social implications of not earning a college degree, it is unconscionable that public schools don’t produce better results for these boys. Blackwell will call this problem by its true name: a civil rights issue. Black men cannot attain economic and social equality if they cannot obtain a college degree.

I was asked to testify at the hearing about my experience and provide recommendations that would positively affect our low college attainment levels of our Black men. My testimony was as follows:

Good morning. My name is Sharif El-Mekki and I’ve been an educator in District and Mastery Charter schools for more than 24 years. At Mastery Charter-Shoemaker Campus, where I have proudly served as the principal for the past nine years, 80% of the Class of 2016 directly enrolled in a two or four year college-much higher than the national average. And, 71% of the students who enrolled in college have persisted.

That City Council is assessing our collective effectiveness in ensuring the college success of the young Black men in our city encourages my work as a lifelong educator and founder of The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, whose goal is to triple the number of highly effective Black male educators in our schools.

Making sure more of our Black boys are ready for college, matriculate to and graduate from college is key to reaching our goal—1,000 Black male educators by 2025—that research has shown is critical to improving the educational experiences of all of our children, not just our Black boys.

But too often, when we look at large complex issues like this, we settle for a single technical response. I believe complex issues require complex and adaptive solutions. In my estimation, these include:

  1. Bring back the Student Success Centers at the School District, staffed with Black male role models who can guide our young Black boys in high school, especially those who are first-generation college-bound.   
  1. Create a transparent blueprint for college success for Black boys that are promoted to and adopted by colleges. This blueprint would insist on a strengths-based approach that provides early access to colleges and a counter-narrative to pervasive beliefs regarding African-American male academic performance and specify programming that holds institutions accountable. Our work must include supporting the positive racial identity for our Black youth as many of them are bombarded with negative messages about their worth and abilities. It should be no surprise that even Black college students hear these messages from institutions of higher learning.
  1. Key to any blueprint will be building earlier and longer mentorship opportunities during our students’ college years. Mentoring opportunities that are also more meaningful, for example by setting up our young men with a coach according to a path they choose, so we’d have coaching for career pathways in education, medicine, the arts, engineering, carpentry and more.
  1. College success cannot happen, however, if we can’t get more of our Black boys succeeding in our city’s neighborhood elementary and secondary schools. According to well-documented research, the average Black male high schooler reads at the same level of a White male middle schooler. This must change. 
  2. We need a transparent system of how our students are doing. With all of the issues I had with the No Child Left Behind law, the silver lining in the unfunded mandate was that it demanded a disaggregation of schools’ and districts’ student performance data. Often Black and Brown children’s performance levels were hidden from view. Before charter schools were an option, I suspect that most of the Philly’s Black male college graduates came from a handful of magnet schools.  Transparency about how we are doing as schools, will inform how we are doing as a city, and would allow us to be responsive and publicly accountable to our students’ post-secondary needs.

The city is already engaged in an unprecedented effort to help all our children be more successful in school by substantially increasing the number of high-quality pre-K slots and by increasing the number of 4th graders reading at grade level through the Read by 4th campaign.

I ask that both initiatives give special attention to our Black boys for their needs (and oppression) are greatest.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify. There’s much work to be done. We must continue this honest dialogue that makes way for difficult conversations and solutions on race, racism, and negative stereotypes, while developing and testing new programs and services. We cannot afford to wait. My colleagues and I at The Fellowship and at Mastery Charter stand ready to partner and assist. #BlackDegreesMatter

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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