Although I have almost 15 years as a principal under my belt, I entered the profession almost kicking and screaming. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I would enjoy the principalship. I had a healthy level of self-efficacy and I had some strong principals in my professional life that would serve as fantastic models to emulate.
But, I wasn’t ready to stop teaching and leave my school. I loved my school community. I also didn’t relish the idea of working with adults as an administrator.
I started my career as a Literature/Social Studies teacher in 1993 at John P. Turner Middle School on 59th & Baltimore Avenue. I loved it! I remained there for 10 years and literally thought I would retire from there. When I was asked to consider becoming a principal at a nearby school, I initially balked because I was wary of leaving the classroom and my beloved base. I knew that my strength was in educating and building relationships with our youth. I also wasn’t quite sure if managing and leading adults would bring the same joy and gratification that I experienced when leading and teaching my eighth-grade students.
After declining the offer to become the principal of Shaw Middle School several times, I was sent a couple of articles about student violence that was occurring in the school. These incidents highlighted the need for a team of educators and advocates like City Year, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships to partner with the community and make some significant shifts in both culture and academics. In addition to that, I learned that the new principal was retiring after six months on the job. The sense of obligation that I had to my larger community compelled me to take the leap from my comfortable school community to one that I believed needed me more.
Although I would miss Turner Middle School tremendously, I never regretted my decision. Students needed help, and the team we ultimately assembled was there to serve. My first “turnaround” situation was actually in my own thinking and mindset.
I Had No Idea I Was Spoiled
I felt a responsibility to support a school community that was located within the same zip code (19143) and only one mile away from Turner Middle School, but Shaw was light years away in academics, operations, and culture.
The school was in need of a significant turnaround. I would be the third principal in six months. Violence, gambling, fires, cut classes, are just a few of the challenges that plagued this school community. Fortunately, many of the staff members were willing to redouble, and more importantly, align their efforts to change the trajectories of our youth and to obtain different educational outcomes. I was leaving a very comfortable school that boasted a stable staff, newer building, and a swimming pool that had regularly rostered classes. We even had air conditioning!
I was spoiled. I had no idea that there was another world in my beloved School District of Philadelphia. I would learn how inequities aren’t always between suburbs and cities, but could manifest within a single district. Seeing this deepened my resolve to address inequity and I believed I could do that through committed leadership, non-stop advocacy, and tenacious commitment and service.
Our staff would work relentlessly and strategically to address the myriad challenges our community faced. Shaw Middle School efforts to become a successful turnaround school was bolstered through the work of an aligned staff, an unwavering focus on improving instruction, a continuous data analysis loop, high expectations, and community building. We treasured our deep partnerships with families, students, other educators, non-profits, universities, and our school district.
And, I realized that I could help our community pursue educational justice and better student and community outcomes through the principalship. The very role I initially sought to avoid.
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.