Like hundreds of thousands of Black families, my paternal grandmother and several of her relatives participated in the Great Migration, one of the most dramatic population shifts in American history.
Although some Blacks left the South to pursue economic opportunities, a lot of them had no choice—it was often for safety and security, to escape overt and violent oppression. Blacks leaving the South in droves, was not, of course, the same as being sold as chattel, but it was rooted in oppression nonetheless.
My grandmother’s family left Batesburg, South Carolina, after her father was beat up and White men threatened to kill the family if they didn’t find my great-uncle. They fled to New York and Philadelphia.
Every once in a while, I tell my grandmother that I am going to go back to Batesburg and reclaim any land my family abandoned—and after she smiles and gently chides me, I tell her I am only half-kidding.
Not Much Better Up North
Of course, even as Black families settled in Northern cities, it wasn’t like they were done with oppression. And nowhere was this systemic racism more insidious than in the schools.
My grandmother wanted to ensure that her children—all six of them—had a strong education. Unfortunately, she did not view her neighborhood school as conducive to learning, so she sought other options.
She and my grandfather scraped together the little money they had to ensure their children were educated and supported in pursuing their dreams. Despite the taxes my grandparents paid to the public school system, they could not rely on a return on that investment for the education of her children. Today, one of the neighborhood schools my grandparents avoided is now a turnaround charter school. It only happened a few years ago. Why do Black families have to wait so long before there are better options in their neighborhoods?
This Is the Second Great Migration
Over 700,000 Black families have opted out of traditional public schools and migrated to charter schools.
Today, Black students represent 27 percent of charter school enrollment nationally, versus just 15 percent of traditional district school enrollment. Here in Philadelphia, almost a third of the total students in the city attend charter schools. In my community some estimate that only 30 percent of the students attend their neighborhood school (many attending magnets, charters, and homeschool). Nationally, 1 in 10 Black students who attend a public school in this country attends a charter school.
Despite a chorus of resistance—often from those who use their own privilege to choose their school and/or neighborhood—more than one million families are on charter waitlists around the country, many of them Black.
In addition to this exodus from our traditional school districts, the National Home Research Institute states that in 2016 there were about 220,000 Black, school-aged children who were homeschooled, over double the amount of homeschooled children in 2003. The reasons are many, including protecting their children from school environments that assault their Black psyche and deliberately undermine their positive racial identity. Increasingly, Black families believe homeschooling and public charters are more viable options than their neighborhood schools.
Close to Home
I’ve seen this transformation in my own neighborhood, where I grew up and where I now lead a 7th through 12th-grade charter school.
Many years ago, after some misery at Mann, our neighborhood elementary school, my mother finally opted to homeschool my younger siblings. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently wrote about the school’s transformation, and it was painful to read the words of Elizabeth Moffitt, a grandmother whose description of Mann Elementary mirrored my own family’s experience. Like my mother, decades earlier, Ms. Moffitt pulled her grandson out of Mann’s first grade because of its poor performance and high violence. She recalled the long history, decades long, of poor performance that her own children had previously experienced at Mann.
But, after Mann became a turnaround charter school, she returned her grandson to Mann.
“Now the students are told you are going to come in and treat each other with respect. Just the change in the culture in the first semester. The nurturing. The respect. The order they brought to the school. The kids started to progress faster than we thought they would,” Mrs. Moffitt said.…
“This turnaround has been wonderful. He gets a great education in his neighborhood. Tax dollars are well spent and there are good public schools,” Mrs. Moffitt said.
Listen Before You Judge
Many who call for the end of this second Black migration are disconnected from the anguish these Black families are experiencing.
These same folk love to say families are opting out of the public schools because they are underfunded. While it’s certainly the case that Pennsylvania woefully underfunds its schools, that doesn’t explain desperate Black families helping to spur charter growth in the District of Columbia, New York, New Jersey, California, and other urban centers across the country.
If these school choice detractors are serious, they should listen to what these Black families are saying. They should understand the whys and address them. Until then, the fight for school options, and, the Black migration to other school options, will continue.
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.