Anti-School Choice Folks Love to Champion Students’ Voices, Until They Don’t Like What They Hear

This is a guest post by Austin Gibson. Austin is a junior at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).

I graduated from a west Philadelphia high school that’s a turnaround neighborhood charter school that used to be the second most violent school in our city, and, likely Pennsylvania. Now in college, I also work at a charter school that’s focused on science and technology and promoting self-reliance in the African-American community. So when I heard that the historic, yet currently irrelevant and weak NAACP — a civil rights organization I’ve revered for fighting for black students and families — was opposed to charter schools, I was shocked.

As a demonstration of how out of touch the NAACP is, they recently held public hearings about charter schools AFTER they passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools. Talk about being backwards.

They must not have much personal experience with charter schools, which are public, tuition-free, and open to all, but operate independently from local school districts. I’ll talk about my experience in a minute, but first, let me share what it was like for me in a traditional public school.

I was assigned to traditional schools in Philadelphia starting in kindergarten. By fourth grade, I was getting in fights every day. It got so bad I’d pretend to be sick to miss school. I was worried somebody was going to do something to me.

While I had some teachers looking out for me, other teachers reinforced that I might as well stay home. “You guys don’t have to learn,” I remember one saying. “I’m going to get paid regardless.” The school building was in terrible condition. Our music program had been cut. I remember textbooks dating back to 1980 — I was born in 1995.

People who don’t like charter schools will say, “See, that’s why charters shouldn’t exist! They’ve taken money away from district schools.” To that, I say three things.

  1. First, charter schools are public schools. They enroll the same kinds of kids as district schools.
  2. Second, when was that time when district schools had all the money they needed? Those out-of-date textbooks had been in kids’ hands long before charter schools were created.
  3. Third, even with cuts to school district budgets, charter schools like the one I went to still manage to do a better job, with less money than district schools. Around the country, charter schools operate with 28 percent less public and private funding than neighboring district schools.

For African-American students from low-income households, like me, the academic results are better, too. According to a 2015 Stanford University study of 41 regions, black students in charter schools learned the equivalent of 44 extra days in reading and 59 extra days in math. High school graduation rates are also higher.

The charter high school I graduated from, the Shoemaker Campus of Mastery Charter School, was 180 degrees different from what I experienced in elementary schools. Suddenly I had structure and rules that gave me safety, consistency, and certainty. Shoemaker staff helped me to control my anger. I started academically behind, but I got one-on-one attention to catch up. The building was comfortable and made me want to come to school. When it was hot outside, I knew the air-conditioning in my building would keep it open. I wasn’t afraid to use the bathroom.

Most significantly, Shoemaker’s teachers taught me how to be a leader and how to be an advocate for myself and for others, how to speak up and be vocal. Lately, I’ve been working with my university’s president to set up a dual-enrollment agreement so that students at charter high schools can take college-level courses, saving them money and giving them a head start on their post-secondary education. I’m also working at another charter school as a tutor and mentor.

When I think about where some of my friends from childhood have ended up, it’s no exaggeration to say that charter schools saved my life. I can’t thank them enough.

As the NAACP’s leaders are still pontificating that public charter schools are bad for kids like me, bad for families like mine, and bad for neighborhoods like where I come from, I say this: You’re not being the advocates you think you are. You’re not being the advocates you can or should be. And you’re not addressing the right problems alongside others who have the interests of students like me at heart. NAACP, you should retire, the human rights movement we need is fundamentally about educational justice, and you just don’t get it.

I represent the next generation of civil rights leaders who can follow in the footsteps of the NAACP’s legends from yesteryear and forge new paths for people of color. But first, young advocates like me need an education before we start out. We don’t need so-called advocates trying to close doors that gives us the opportunity to pursue our dreams.

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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