To Know Philadelphia’s Black Community Is to Know How Thirsty We Are for Better Schools

I often wonder what it will take for Black children in our communities to attend high-performing schools. According to many anti-school choice opponents, the only choices that Black, Brown, and poor families should have a right to are schools which are criteria-based or perpetually failing schools.

The “opt out of testing” and anti-choice crowd believes that Black families should only exercise school choice and opt into testing when it applies to selective magnet schools. No other school choice option is democratic or public, according to them.

They contend that families should only have the power to exercise choice to “escape” their neighborhoods. These “activists” believe that Black families should only pursue schools where Black children are usually the minority. In a delectable taste of hypocrisy, several of these same quasi-activists even try to lure Black families away from holding schools accountable for students’ performance. They essentially try to persuade families to opt out of yearly state testing but opt-in to testing to get into our city’s “private-public schools.”  Some of these schools are more private than actual tuition-based private schools.

And, lest you think I am anti-magnet, let me be clear: I am for magnets as much as I am for charters. From my upbringing, professional and personal experiences, school choice and high-quality options serve the best interests of Black families.

A child attending a failing elementary school has little chance of getting in a top high school

A parent who has a child trapped in a failing elementary school—in a redlined neighborhood devoid of quality options—may not be eligible to apply to a magnet school that has criteria for selection. Criteria that our elementary students face include being in the 80th percentile on test scores, interviews, writing samples, as well as strong attendance and behavior records. If the student attended a failing elementary school, the odds of them getting the education necessary to compete are unlikely.

As quiet as it is kept, the magnet schools in many cities tend to have far more White students in them than the typical failing neighborhood school. You are far less likely to find affluent students in failing schools-yet, quite often, anti-choice clamor is coming from privileged and affluent groups.

One must ask, why is that?

The number of anti-choice folks, who are fully exercising the choices available to them is stunning. I cannot count the times that someone who was anti-school choice told me out of the other side of their mouth that they unabashedly chose better options for their biological kids.

It appears, in many instances, the main group of people who stand in the way of expanding the middle class is the middle class. We know that a quality education is the key to liberation for any people. To tell people to wait from a lofty and secure foothold is oppressive and callous. It indicates unabashed privilege and hypocrisy. It shows that, despite rhetoric claiming you are with the people, you are only for yourself and your ilk.

Less than 30% of the children in some communities attend their neighborhood schools

There are some communities that have more than half of the neighborhood children opting out of a school, this should tell us something. And even more, White and affluent families who audaciously criticize families for choosing to look for better school options, haven’t opted into those same schools. Families trying to claw their way into good situations don’t need soft lullabies promoting patience. The urgency of now cannot be so one-sided.

To know our Black community is to know that the vast majority of us will do almost anything to ensure a strong academic base for our children: use our friends’ addresses, scrape every dime we have for tuition-based schools, sign up for every single scholarship, etc. It is a part of our legacy. We know that our children will “have to work twice as hard, to get half as far,” and this must begin with a strong academic background.  

To know Philadelphia’s Black community is to know how thirsty we are for quality education. To be aligned with us is to fight for our right to choose, to make choices for safety, quality academic programming, and opportunities—the very same thing you declare and demonstrate as a right of the privileged.

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.


  1. After reading your piece, I found myself reflecting on the concept of integration and the stigma surrounding failing schools. I totally agree that the lack of diversity in failing schools (i.e. low-performing schools) is a significant factor. Low-performing schools are inundated with kids of a lower socio-economic status which if we’re honest, MAY come with significant challenges for school improvement. We know that schools really do cater to middle class and above values/culture/structures/systems. This makes it difficult for some students who are disadvantaged to navigate and find success. Even more, when you fill an entire school with the same population and expect something totally different to occur, you’re kidding yourself. Think about it…we talk so much about the benefits of heterogeneous classrooms, but yet, we don’t have heterogeneous schools. I do believe if schools were integrated by race and social class, we could definitely see marked improvements.

    Lastly, I find myself struggling with the stigma that comes with working at a failing school. It’s difficult to read your assertion that students attending a failing elementary school have little chance of getting into a top high school. I know myself and my staff are working diligently to make improvements. Our math curriculum pushes conceptual mathematics, students are spending lots of time with grade-level, complex texts, they engage in science experiments, etc….but hey, we are still deemed “failing” because only 30% of the student population is at grade level. The struggle and the stigma we experience can definitely be demotivating and demoralizing. However, we come back each day trying to find the “third way” that might push the needle of student achievement a bit further. Nonetheless, I chose to work in such a failing school and I know I have to deal with the stigma that comes a long with it and as you say, knowing that although I work hard, my kids have a slim chance of getting into a top high school.


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