The Launch of a New School Year: Orientation & Mindset

It is August. It is one of those hot and steamy Philly summers. We are in the midst of staff orientation, the air conditioning isn’t really working, yet we are bursting with excitement about what is next. New students.  Returning students. New team members- folks we affectionately refer to as “1st Round Draft Picks.” New goals. Endless possibilities. Promises made. Unfinished business.

Our challenges will be tremendous, yet, like most educators, we are looking forward to them. Securing top talent is one of the most important aspects of instructional leadership for any principal, and I believe we have assembled the team to meet these challenges successfully. (Makes me want to call out, “Avengers and Freedom Fighters, Assemble!”)

Being on the same page, same line will also be vital to our community’s success. Alignment in purpose helps us to problem-solve. And, we know with a high level of certainty that there will be problems to solve.

Getting to know those we serve and partner with, is another aspect of instructional leadership. We know kids will learn best from those who love and respect them.

We have a lot of new students and families. Onboarding each other into our school culture, our neighborhood, and getting to know each other collectively and individually are also primary goals.  A school community is made up of individuals, yet operates as a collective.

We know that with a shared vision, we can achieve great things. We are blessed to serve the 19131 zip code that encompasses 4-5 neighborhoods.  I grew up in the neighborhood that I serve. I went to high school here and attended summer school in the same building I work. I still live here. Having our immediate neighborhoods serve as an anchor for us (and we for them) always brings us great satisfaction, joy, and pride.

Instructional leadership isnt just observing classrooms and curricula

In addition to rigorous content professional development, we also spend significant time developing ourselves in the necessary mindset and actions of a highly effective educator: Culturally Literate, Trauma Informed, and a Restorative Practitioner. (Future blog)

To bring us together, we have orientation for new and returning staff, students, and families. That has evolved. For example, a few years ago, in response to feedback from families, we moved away from the traditional Back to School Night that used to occur in the evening a few weeks after school began. Families expressed a desire to meet with us prior to the official start of the school year so that they could be a part of the process of weighing in on and sharing anticipated goals and collective expectations with their children.

To that end, after teacher orientation, the first thing we do is have our “Back to School” event.   Instead of hosting this event for only a few hours in the evening, we offer two opportunities  – one in the morning and one in the evening – for families to choose from what best accommodates their schedule.

Our goal is to provide flexibility for families in order to promote their involvement and participation.  By simply adding multiple sessions for families to choose from, we have increased our parental participation at our Family Orientation to over 90%!

With the new year, comes new possibilities and the same enormous responsibility to serve our community. Well.

We know that our average 7th grade student enters 2-3 grade levels behind in reading, math, and maybe coping/social skills. We know that some of our students have encountered trauma and have ACEs scores that would have felled the strongest adults. They can give us professional development on grit.

We are anchored by our community.  It is a Strength We Draw on

We also know that our students deserve a group of educators who are wholly committed to their whole beings. Our families deserve educational partners who are willing to be held accountable for their children’s success. The Hestonville, Carroll Park, Wynnefield, and Parkside communities deserve safe, dynamic, and learning organizations. We are staunchly committed to the idea that every neighborhood should have great schools and kids should not have to go far to achieve success.

At the start of the school year, we must reflect on what our most important partners ask of us. The June letter from a father is a brief illustration of the importance of delivering on our promises to our partners. We remain committed and accountable to deliver on those promises.


“Good morning. I could not let the day go by without reaching out to you. I wanted to let you know from the bottom of my heart how much I appreciate you accepting the challenges that S. had presented this school year and helping with building on her strengths.

I know teaching is a sometimes thankless, under appreciated, challenging and definitely an under paid job. But it has its perks and seeing the effort that was put in by S’s teaching team lets me know that one of the perks is your heart.

I wish you a relaxing summer break so that you can return and continue to be blessed with a heart to take on the next S. ?. But more importantly I pray and wish that you enjoy the successes of your efforts and dedicated work.

Again, thank you so very much.”

To all educators committed to the work, partnerships, and accountability necessary for neighborhood schools and kids to be successful, salute.


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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