So, You Want to Serve Philly’s Communities?

The end of a school year appropriately provokes a lot of reflection. Did we reach our goals? Did we remain consistent? What regrets do we have? How did we start out and were we nimble enough to respond well to real time challenges? How much did our students learn? How much did we? We ask these questions of ourselves and each other throughout the school year. And, when we “close” our doors for the summer, these questions (and their answers) help us to prepare for next year’s home-school-community partnerships.

As I broken-heartedly read reports of three teachers in Rhode Island display mindsets that undermined trust within the school community, deflated students’ self-esteem, and thwarted efforts of dedicated colleagues, I thought of their students’ all-too-forgiving responses. It also led me to reflect on the mindset I wanted our team to start with this year and every year as we continue our 15 year partnership with the communities in Philadelphia.

I had the opportunity to share my thoughts with hundreds of teachers and school staff who were poised to embark a new year with the same and new students and families. Here were some of the ideas that permeated my thoughts in August 2015. I hope I (and we) lived up to them.

Power is having unfiltered access to our Communities’ children

…I was raised to speak truth to power. However, there is a different type of power represented in this stadium. You are powerful because you have unfiltered access to our communities’ most treasured investments and resources. Please recognize the immense amount of trust that a community invests in schools because anyone is vulnerable when strangers have access to their children. This is a huge gift and a trust that we don’t dare to squander.

Too often we hear about what businesses want from graduating students and not enough about what our communities are asking for and deserve.  Our communities are asking for leaders, problem-solvers, thinkers, doers, and nation builders. We are not here to spurn the growth of business directly. We are here to directly support the galvanization, empowerment, and the development of communities. So please promise to be leaders that are doing that. Promise to never (again) say anything to our students about getting an education in order to get a job. Our role is not to inspire students to work for anybody. You volunteered to be here. You chose to be here.  We call on you to inspire our students to touch and change the world.

Dont talk to me about what businesses want. what do our communities want?

Alternatively, what many of us used to take for granted, has been a part of our organization’s (Mastery Charter Schools) evolution over the years. We are here to serve communities in the most authentic ways. We are not here to save anyone. We are not here to put down their families if they never attended a college. We are not here to (conspicuously or inadvertently) flaunt privilege in their faces. We are here to Serve. And, when someone serves others, they are to do it with the utmost humility, respect for, and awe of those they are serving. People who authentically serve look at those they serve as equals, as experts, and as partners.

To authentically serve a community effectively, purge any thoughts you may have that our schools are schools for poor kids, or that neighborhood schools are for kids from broken homes and from disadvantage. Look at our schools as schools for great kids. Look at our schools as places where you’ve been invited by the community to teach some of the most brilliant, resilient, and boldest students you will ever meet. Embrace them. Engage them. Empower them. Know with surety that, “We only matter when we serve. So, serve well and matter the most.”

We only matter when we serve. So, serve well and matter the most.

Lastly, as you are working to be excellent managers of your classroom, floors, departments, buildings, please be sure that you’re supporting the development of our communities’ current and future leaders as well. Although, people confuse the two (managing and leading), they’re not the same thing. As an organization, we are nationally renowned about how we manage to success. But some of us also managed our kids so much, so tightly, that they remained passive students and rarely active scholars. They learned how to be managed well and that is the worst vision I could have for my own kids. Too often, the greatest managers produce people who become great at being managed.

My challenge for all of us is to be leaders who partner with families to develop a new generation of great leaders. It is really the only way.

Thank you.

Sharif El-Mekki
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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