Black Families, Be Grateful for What You Have and Don’t Ask for More.

From presidential candidates to affluent parents to public school principals, I am weary and wary of anyone trying to convince Black and Brown folks that fewer school options better serve their children’s advancement and liberation. The only thing these families should have less of are bad schools.

This morning, I read Nimet Eren’s piece in the Philadelphia Notebook. While I am sure Principal Eren is a strong advocate and principal, her piece has several pretty wild claims that don’t jive with the experiences of many Black families. However, her claims are very consistent with the mostly white teachers unions here and around the country. 

Parents want [only] what’s best for their own children. [Only] Teachers want what’s best for all children.

Eren makes the assumption that Black communities aren’t filled with adults who love and care for their community’s children and youth. I’ve been surrounded by Black parents and advocates who have consistently, over the course of 50 plus years, been staunch advocates for other people’s children, as well as their own. Eren should get to know the countless Black folks who have advocated for their own and for others, who have been the epitome of servant leadership, often, even at the sacrifice of their own children. 

Also, to make a broad statement that all teachers care about all children, belies the inherent racism, explicit biases, and macro aggressions that Black and Brown kids say they encounter daily in our schools – often as early as pre-school. One of the most naive (ignorant) things I consistently hear from educators is that racism, oppression, and constricted, negative mindsets about Black and Brown kids magically dissipates the moment teachers, most of whom are white, are hired by districts and schools. Bullshit.

The problem with school choice is that it creates segregation. 

I have to run a few errands today, so I don’t have time to walk Eren through what actually created and continues to cement segregated cities, schools, and neighborhoods. But for starters, Principal Eren, segregation is state sanctioned, supported, and funded. Think redlining, disinvestment, racism, gentrification, etc. Poor parents having options, ain’t it. 

Choice takes away limited resources from inclusive neighborhood schools and leads to even fewer resources being spent on our students who are most in need.

Money should follow students. Families have the sovereign right to demand quality options, expect quality schools, effective teaching and learning, and choose what they believe best fits their children’s intellectual, emotional, and cultural needs. Exercising these choices have always been standard practices for the affluent and influential. 

However, the resources Principal Eren refers to are actually for children and should follow them to wherever their parents choose to send them. It’s rare to hear people scold white folks and the privileged people of color for choosing their schools. You don’t hear the “you’re taking resources away” argument if you are white and/or affluent. Contrary to many peoples‘ abhorrent beliefs, Black and Brown children are entitled to a quality education, not just the education their parents can financially afford. 

Principal Eren goes on to state that Ms Felix, a teacher and parent, “trusted me and our staff with her own child’s education. Although this is common in suburban districts, it is rare in Philadelphia’s largest high schools.”

Principal Eren, why is it so rare, pray tell? Could it have something to do with the outcomes for Black and Brown children? The lack of accountability for what Black students learn and are able to do ? The lack of opportunity poor students are afforded? The wanton racism and classism that exists in our schools? 

Principal Eren is right about educators exercising school choice for their own though — in many cities, it is rare for teachers and educators to put their own children in non-gentrified neighborhood schools. No one exercises school choice more consistently than urban teachers, educators, and politicians. 

While I don’t know what was promised to Principal Eren and Kensington Health Sciences Academy, if she was misled, as she described, that would be extremely disappointing. There is no place for more broken promises to our communities.

As a principal, I have been disappointed more than once. However, I supported the school choice banner and practice as an educator who grew up in Philadelphia, who watched my parents’ frustration with zip codes schools that because of the racism Principal Eren points out, were subpar, oppressive even.

Neighborhood high schools in Philadelphia have become the safety net for many children.

As a principal, I championed great schools and blasted bad ones. When a magnet school opened in our school’s backyard a few years ago, I didn’t lament that they shouldn’t open a magnet school or that this new school shouldn’t receive support. On the contrary, I celebrated that families in West Philly would have more quality options, an increased number of strong schools, and I was absolutely thrilled that a principal I knew and admired would be leading it. 

Because I intimately know, that what Principal Eren describes as a safety net, is often nothing short of a nightmare for far too many families.

Lastly, Principal Eren came into education through an alternative route, Teach for America, a program often derided by the same groups who vehemently oppose Black people having the audacity to pursue the “white only” privilege of choosing their children’s school.  

A lot of folks who applaud Principal Eren’s piece, would’ve permanently barred her from teaching unless she went through a traditional route of certification. 

I am glad Principal Eren used whatever means that were available to become a teacher. I’m glad she opted to remain in education, and I’m happy that she chose to lead a school. It’s pretty obvious that Principal Erin made choices and accessed options throughout her career. She should not stand in the way of others exercising options and gaining access. 

What do you think?

About the author

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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