“An educator in a system of oppression is either a revolutionary or an oppressor.” –Lerone Bennett, Jr.
There is a war going on. When war is mentioned, most folks will immediately think about what is happening overseas or in our streets. But, the war I am talking about is the war against Black boys. In our classrooms. The carnage is real.
When you reflect on the number of Black boys who are not finding even mediocre success in our schools, it is alarming and infuriating. And, the worst part isn’t just that our youth, our very future, are being academically maimed and stunted, it is that so many so called experts and educators are okay with the current results. Sure, folks will pander for votes or positions by claiming they are committed to the cause. But, their cause and our community’s cause are not one and the same.
The Black male enrollment in our city’s public schools is a little over 34,000. That equals about 26% of the total student population in Philadelphia (not including charter schools). Yet, 47% of the students suspended are Black boys. As far as academics, 80% struggle with passing the state reading exams. Black boys graduate at paltry rates.
This isn’t new news, but the issue is that the response to the data too often is consistently old (and ineffective) news. Our state legislature hastily patted themselves on the back for finally coming off of the list of 3 states without a school funding formula. However, despite continuing to have the most inequitable spending between poor and wealthy districts, there is refusal to properly fund the new formula. So, now we have a formula without the money to apply it to in our schools. Our equity resistant legislators deemed it prudent and just to only legislate that new funding should be equitable. That means that only $200 million out of the $5.48 billion state funding will be fairly distributed. It is abundantly clear that Black lives don’t actually matter to all.
The war against our youth continues…
Dozens of neighborhood schools are failing miserably with the worst suffering being realized by our Black boys (and Latino boys-with our sisters not too far behind).
And, despite the hand wringing of policy makers, families are actively looking for solutions. As a matter of fact, 66% of the charter population in our city is made up of boys. Sixty-six percent. One has to wonder why so many flee to this alternative space. Despite the anti-charter rhetoric of several local politicians and wanna-be activists, families who are trying to save their Black boys are increasingly looking at the charter sector for partnership and deliverance.
I remember when I initially saw some stark realities within a school. As a young teacher, wide-eyed with excitement and naive about everyone who was trusted with our community’s youth, I was taken aback when a seasoned educator told me that she didn’t even like kids and she wasn’t there for them. Although, I initially thought she was joking, over the course of the years, I saw she was not. If I had a book for every time a student told me that someone in our city said, “I don’t care, I am getting paid regardless if you learn,” I would finally have a well-stocked library for my school.
In historically failing schools, classroom visits may reveal a level of apathy that one would normally see in a movie stereotyping urban education. Unfortunately, too often these scenes are real-our main issue with cinematic version is that the singular superhero is depicted as the savior. Recently, during a visit to a school that the School District of Philadelphia (rightfully) designated as a turnaround school (because of the stagnant achievement and the decade long oppression within the walls), visitors were shocked at the lack of engagement, achievement, and accountability.
Although, this clearly does not represent the sentiments of most of our fabulous educators, there are enough instances to undermine our collective work. When you couple this type of mindset with the very real data, it shows that we all must do a lot better with suspensions, expulsion, and overall disengagement. Over the summer, this will be one of my team’s top priorities. Despite the fact that our campus, Mastery Charter-Shoemaker Campus, has found success with our Black boys, we know we can do better.
Just as the data that shows how our schools are failing our Black boys, the answers are also pretty pervasive. We know with certainty that equitable school funding, student engagement strategies, adult mindset, a positive and affirming school culture, diversity amongst staff, and self-efficacy in impacting the achievement of Black boys, all work to support the academic achievement of Black boys (and all students). What we also know is that, as a society, far too often, we don’t wholly commit to these changes in our schools. So, as in most (if not all) cases, it is not the kids, it is the adults.
Philly, let’s commit to ending the war inside our schools. A war waged primarily against our Black boys that dove-tails all too well with the war against them outside of school.
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.