One Foot in His Mouth, the Other Foot Stomping on Black Students’ College Aspirations

Recently, John Eichelberger, a Pennsylvania lawmaker made remarks that were insensitive, devoid of intellectual curiosity and logic, and projected a biased and racist posture towards “urban kids.”

Eichelberger is the chairman of Pennsylvania’s Senate Education Committee. He sits on (and chairs) a committee that is supposed to make policy that supports all children. But, when you have a tainted mindset, a mindset that sets low expectations for Black children, how can your policies be trusted?

At a town hall, Eichelberger shared that our “inner city” students should not be sent to four year colleges and implied that educating these students at four year institutions is a waste of tax payers’ money.

“They’re pushing them toward college and they’re dropping out,” Eichelberger said. “They fall back and don’t succeed, whereas if there was a less intensive track, they would.”

Really?! Republican President George Bush’s people might call this “soft bigotry of low expectations.” I’d call it hardened bigotry and woeful ignorance. This is a perniciously dangerous mindset when it has power and a platform.

When the appropriate backlash ensued, Eichelberger claimed that “false news” was running amok and that the Sentinel was mischaracterizing his statement. Eichelberger claims that his record shows that he supports all students. Mind you, Pennsylvania for years has chosen to deliberately underfund inner city and other poor school districts. The underfunding is particularly apparent and brazen when a district has a sizable Black population.

A Strong Rejection of A biased generalization is warranted

Newsworks reported that Adam Oldham, a local high school counselor and registered Republican, attended the town hall where these divisive statements were made.

“He seemed to be expressing frustration that too many kids are going to college unprepared and aren’t getting anything to show for it except college debt. And that’s a very real frustration. He did take it one step farther — and I’m not sure why he chose to talk about inner-city kids versus just kids in general — but he chose to talk about inner-city kids and inner-city schools and how they specifically seem to push their kids into college where they go and they fail. And we need to push them more into vocational training and trade schools, where it’s more on their level.’ Which comes across in a very particular way, and I think the reaction we’re seeing to some of that thinking is warranted,” said Oldham.

We should not be surprised by Eichelberger’s comments. Just because someone is an elected official does not make them a just leader with a healthy vision for the citizens of the state. The racist tone of Eichelberger’s comments has been directed at Black folks for a long time. This mindset is the very reason that our schools are perpetually underfunded in Pennsylvania. One thing about racists, they’re consistent.

So, Pennsylvania has consistently underfunded the inner-city schools and then at the same time, there are policy makers who say students aren’t prepared for college.

But, in addition to underfunding our city schools, which is blatant sabotage, there is another assault happening against our Black children. The consistent messaging that they can’t achieve in college and they are best doing something else with their lives.

Limiting Black Students’ Aspirations is not new

Even though Malcolm X earned the position of class valedictorian, he was told he should be a carpenter. He wrote, “It was a surprising thing that I had never thought of it that way before, but I realized that whatever I wasn’t, I was smarter than nearly all of those white kids. But apparently, I was still not intelligent enough, in their eyes, to become whatever I wanted to be.”

Some folks will say that Malcolm’s experience was too long ago to demonstrate a consistent thread of dangerous biases against Black brains. But, Colby Tyner attended Northeast High School in the 1980s. He shared, “I’m not surprised by this at all. One way to keep a person trapped…is to steer them away from college. This has been going on in our schools for a long time. I remember my guidance counselor at Northeast High telling me that college wasn’t in my future and I should try a vocation. Thankfully, I have parents who raised me otherwise, but I often think about how many kids’ lives were altered because teachers/counselors in public high schools pushed them away from pursuing a college education. I got into an argument with someone over going to college vs. taking up a trade and they stressed that ‘college isn’t for everyone.’ That is true, however, if you never give someone a chance to even consider college, then you’re doing them a disservice.”

His friend, Bilal Al-Jayubi, recounts his experience at the same high school, “The same thing happened to me! She told me I should get a job at Budd instead of going to college. I ignored her and I got my degree from Lincoln University 4 years later with honors!!”

The issue isn’t that college isn’t for all. The main issue is: Which communities are consistently told that? A blanket statement for what is best for other people’s children is irresponsible and reckless. For white communities, there were plenty of kids who may get matter-of-fact conversations about college…”when you’re finished college…” Black students are told, “you don’t belong here.”

When we saw that some of Shoemaker graduates were struggling to finish college, we reflected on what we could do differently. We didn’t blame our students. We didn’t absolve ourselves of our responsibility and the promises we made to our community. We went back to the drawing board, incessantly asked alumni about their post-secondary experiences, and inquired about how Shoemaker helped and/or hindered them in the pursuit of their dreams. We are a better school because of our collective humility, curiosity, and ownership of the challenge.

Senator Eichelberger needs to own the fact that there is a cost associated with not properly preparing students. In Pennsylvania, everyone might not verbally say what he did…they say it with the state’s checkbook. By undermining our schools, many of our state’s politicians are clearly telling kids, “forget college, you don’t even deserve a well-funded K-12 education.” A person’s priorities can be measured by his/her spending. For Black kids, PA’s priorities are filling prison beds, not college gowns.

Eichelberger and his ilk don’t believe all students should follow their dreams. Only certain students – inner city kids, need not apply.

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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