Black Families Have a Long History of Using School Choice as Resistance to Racist and Inadequate School Systems

National School Choice Week is an independent public awareness effort spotlighting effective education options for children, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online learning and homeschooling. The week runs yearly and this year, National School Choice week ran from January 22-28, 2017. For more information, visit or follow the discussion on Twitter using #SchoolChoiceWeek and #SCW.

For Black families, school choice has always been intertwined with our self-determination, liberation and education. While forces always have tried to limit our options in America, we, in turn, have always resisted and pushed for the ability to create our own opportunities for quality education.

Despite some of the rhetoric about charter schools, school choice has long been a staple in Black communities. For us, this journey did not begin 25 years ago. And, just as the notion that Black Lives Matter isn’t new, Black families exercising school choice is rooted in our trek for liberation itself. Although we can go as far back as the 1860s to highlight the inadequacies of the schools established in Black communities, for now, let’s just fast forward 100 years.

People find it surprising that Malcolm X, in the 1960s, advocated for community schools—schools wholly apart from the traditional public schools in Harlem. Black Panther Party members also created schools to ensure that Black students were receiving the quality of education they deserved.

Activists, including teachers, launched over 40 Freedom Schools in Mississippi to respond to the wholly inadequate and racist school systems thrust onto our communities. The Freedom Schools’ mission was to create a choice, a real choice, that was:

The school is an agent of social change.
Students must know their own history.
The curriculum should be linked to the student’s experience.
Questions should be open-ended.
Developing academic skills is crucial.
Later, under the leadership of Marian Edelman Wright, the Children’s Defense Fund was established to relaunch the concept of Freedom Schools.

Education as the north star

Financially strapped parents—like both sets of my grandparents—who saw education as the North Star to liberation scraped together meager earnings to send their children to private school, even while paying taxes for a persistently failing neighborhood school.

My mother exercised school choice for similar reasons that her mother did. Black families pursuing educational justice cannot be bound to neighborhood schools that have struggled to properly educate children for generations.

I attended a full-time Freedom School in Philadelphia, Nidhamu Sasa (Discipline/Freedom Now), established to ensure students were highly educated with a focus on nurturing a strong positive racial identity and a lasting commitment and accountability to community. Nidhamu Sasa was one of several local and national examples of entire communities exercising school choice.

I never attended a traditional public school in the United States until my 10th grade year. As a teenager, I grew to love several aspects of my traditional neighborhood public school, but it didn’t take me long to realize why my family did not view our neighborhood schools as transformative experiences. My siblings were homeschooled after my mother pulled them out of the neighborhood elementary school that would, over 20 years later, become a charter school.

We study history to learn from it, but it also warns and inform us. We know that if we allow people to restrict our school choice for generations, we do it at our children’s peril.

And, just like #BLackLivesMatter, so do Black children’s school choices.

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. I am enjoying your posts. I, like you, was shaped by my parents unwavering determination to provide the best education for me, as a young black child living in America. Nidhamu Sasa was the catalyst that allowed me to grow, think, challenge, fight, and persevere. My educational experiences have been varied. After attending NS for several years , I attended Ada Lewis Middle School, a public school on the border of Germantown and Mt. AIRY. That was followed by 4 years of high school at a nearly all white boarding school in Connecticut. I had earned a full scholarship through A Better Chance,Inc and thus began my teenage journey navigating life in a small town of Connecticut with 6 other Brown girls who would become my sisters. This was the first time I had ever experienced feeling like a “minority”. “They ” would stop by my room to watch me do my hair, amazed at the shrinkage after washing it. The iron was no longer needed because “they” wore their clothes wrinkled in stark contrast to the crisp creases my mother had taught me to put in my pants. I now felt that I needed to acquire a string of pearls for everyday wear so I bought a cheap necklace for about 2.99. I couldn’t understand why someone wanted to wear ripped jeans because in my neighborhood that was never done by choice. It was at this school that I learned that girls shaved their legs and underarms and that “they” were allowed to smoke at the age of 14 because their parents had signed off on a permission form. Therfeore, the school had a designated smoking room for kids called “The Butt Room” . It was here that I learned that “being well rounded” meant being exposed to Eurocentric art, novels, theater, music, dance, speakers, etc with the goal of my assimilation. Underneath my uniform of kilt and Polo shirt….underneath my hair which I struggled to maintain without the help of my mother, underneath my wearing of my cheap pearls and Tretorn sneakers, underneath my curiosity about L.L. Bean and it’s significance….was my education from Nidhamu Sasa and my parents. My will to challenge, question, demand, and be true to myself surfaced. I was reminded of Mama Samira, Mama Fasaha, and all the other Mamas and Babas who taught me to demand equality and justice….and so the wheels began to turn….my sisters and I began demanding change and forcing it upon them when necessary…We were tired of a van service that only took students to a Catholic Church when none of us were Catholic, we demanded that they invite Nikki Giovanni as a guest speaker (and they did), we researched and slowly changed the face of some of the “required events”, we invited teen black boys from Hartford to spend the day on campus ( this made many nervous, including the security guards who would grow frustrated with their inability to curtail this), we grew tired of the school dances that invited other boarding schools and included a DJ that played other music so we invited kids from Hartford, including a DJ and began hosting our own parties…I never forgot who I was and the rich history of my ancestors……I am thankful for my varying educational experiences for they have shaped the educator that I have become.

    • Thanks, Adicia! We have an amazing foundation from our families and Nidhamu Sasa. I am eager to get an official list of former students to see what we are all up to. I am confident that we are serving the community in all manner of ways. Everyone I am still in touch with, including you, is in tune with the struggle of our people and making an impact. Thanks for reading! I think it might be my turn to host the NS reunion!

    • I loved this, sis! We draw on so many of our experiences from Nidhamu Sasa. I hope you consider being a guest blogger about your experiences and how it relates to you as an educator! Let me know what you think!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Up Next