For some reason, Carol Burris believes she speaks for Black families. I give her credit as a lifelong and respected educator. We served on a panel together and even exchanged friendly emails. But, I remain concerned about how much Carol pretends to speak for Philly’s Black community.
Black students made up less than 10% of the student population where Carol served as principal—the total enrollment of students of color was less than 25%. She worked in a very privileged, very white district, yet loves to position herself as the expert on Black students. This is what white privilege does. It tells the privileged that they don’t need to listen, they know better than Black folks. If you haven’t served our communities, you should hold your tongue and open your ears. Even when you do serve our communities, remain humble.
I am writing this in response to a very shameful story published by The Washington Post which painted an ugly picture of a very special event that happened here in Philadelphia. An event where parent power and parent resources emerged, and a community United, to protect and give their kids a better school.
In 2000 my three kids attended Wister Elementary in the second third and fourth grades. It was a total nightmare. My kids never understood what they were asked to do; never understood the classwork. The teachers were always too busy to maintain contact with me. There was no parent involvement; no way for parents to connect with the teachers-it was just a nightmare. At that time I was also a football and baseball coach for the Wister recreation centers. The Wister Wolverines had a lot of kids that were directly from Wister, and they struggled to speak and write legibly. Many of my younger kids, the first and second graders, the five and six-year-olds couldn’t read.
While waiting for Superman, I transferred out of Wister to Kelly Elementary School, where I served on the school advisory council and became President. I also started working very closely with Dorian Harris, of the district’s Family Engagement Resource Center. It was there in my outreach duties that I learned that in 2014 Wister never addressed staff issues. All of these experiences are what lifted my spirits when in 2015 I got the news that the school district finally had an answer for Wister, Mastery Charter Public Schools. Today I have a 7th grader that is doing well and a sixth grader that is excelling every day.
The problem that I saw was that there was no apparent interest. After so many years of broken promises and disappearing resources parents just didn’t care. The the other issue was the politics that brought retired PFT members to our neighborhoods posing as community members and parents opposing the change at Wister. I was successful in gathering a group of parents who wanted more information, and without the organization and help of Mastery we would have stayed in the dark and never knew that we had options and avenues to travel, period.
The truth is there were no high performing schools, there were no schools with growth. Dr. Hite removed the only solution being offered, and it seemed at that time there was an avalanche of parents who disagreed with Dr. Hite’s decision; we wanted the changes at Wister. We were ready to speak up. I was chosen to lead the charge, and I did, right past Dr. Hite, who in meeting in October of 2015 told parents that Mastery was too big of an answer and solution for Wister. It sounded to me that there was a general belief that our kids had not suffered enough and had not failed enough for the district to make hard choices.
Commissioner William Green and Commissioner Sylvia Simms had no choice but to face the constant wave of parents, students, and community that flooded every SRC meeting; shouting begging and testifying for change. When Commissioner Simms delivered her solution in December, we knew then that our voices were finally heard.
Shame on the editor for making it seem like parents were paid and given incentives to fight for their kids. You know some of us poor black folks want our kids to have a better future and are willing to fight for it. My name is William Jackson, and I led the parent charge, and I never received a dime from Mastery. My payment was that my kindergarten student who goes to Wister Mastery now can read and spell and loves going to school.
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.