In his meticulously researched book, “The Education of Blacks in the South 1860-1935,” James D. Anderson reminds us of a story that highlights a now famous quote.
“Tell them we are rising.”
When Richard Wright, one of the most influential Black educators in the 1870s, was a student in Atlanta, he was asked (by a group of missionaries visiting his school) about freedmen, “What should we tell people about your schooling?” His response has become legendary. “Tell them we are rising.”
As we end October, which is National Principals Month, during a time with myriad distractions, and in an era where plenty of quick fixes for schools are promoted, people often ask me, what should the focus of school leaders be?
I believe that some of the single greatest contributions school leaders can make are framed in setting the bar, the pace, and the necessary mindset for the educators in our schools to create an ecosystem of achievement. Each layer of this ecosystem of achievement should reinforce and inform each other to firmly establish a culture of reflection, learning, and achievement. By firmly establishing a high bar of expectations (for themselves and others), school leaders can establish non-negotiables in how we build relationships with students, how we teach and collect data, and how we accelerate and celebrate our students’ achievement.
If we establish an urgent, yet disciplined pace, one to propel us to act and meet self-imposed deadlines for results, we can successfully cultivate a staff mindset that doesn’t allow us, as educators, to make excuses to our students, their families, or the community about what our students can accomplish.
While some people balk at the notion of “no excuses” in schools and some educators shirk the notion of personal accountability for student achievement, we know well that, before being hijacked to promote overly punitive experiences in the name of relentless pursuit of academic achievement, these ideas were initially and rightfully established to send the message about educators who would never make excuses about what Black and Brown children could accomplish. We know that when educators hold themselves accountable, without making excuses, for accelerating the achievement of our students, as if they were our own biological children, great things can happen.
Conscious educators don’t make excuses and don’t break the promises made to the families being served. This does not mean that educators don’t need additional resources. We know with surety, that the underfunding of Black schools has a long history dating back to the antebellum period. Politicians in Pennsylvania unabashedly continue to cherish and reinforce this oppressive legacy.
The work of school leaders must include coaching leaders and teachers in how to support students in firmly establishing personal high bars for their own achievements—academics and otherwise. To do this, students must believe in their own self-efficacy—often correlating with students’ self-image and positive racial identity. By helping to foster an environment where students take ownership and pride in their achievements, history, and culture, students will create and reinforce the learning environment that sustains their peers and near peers’ growth and achievement. As Dia Jones recently asked me, “How are we helping our students identify as unapologetically Black.”
School leaders’ focus and accomplishments should directly and indirectly reinforce a student-centered ecosystem that should continually challenge us to reflect, plan, and act in the best interests of children and communities. It is in the unhindered presence of this type of ecosystem and cycle of action that students, regardless of their starting points, will be able to rise.
As our city looks to re-imagine our school district and the governance structure it works under, I look forward to continuing my own evolution and that of our school community.
Tell them we are rising.
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.