Philly Is Considered the Silicon Valley of Health Care – Let’s Give More of Our Black And Brown Students Access to It

Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now. –Audre Lorde

This evening, the Philadelphia Board of Education will face a critical decision that will impact the lives of hundreds of young people who already face the persistent and pernicious influence of the stubborn and racist opportunity gap. 

The Board will decide whether to provide the opportunity for hundreds of high school students from some of the neighborhoods most oppressed and marginalized by our city, yet which remain full of promise, to attend a high-quality school focused on the health sciences or succumb to the pressure of opponents who believe educational options in the city are already sufficient to meet all of our students’ needs.

When the typical family in Hunting Park, Tioga, and Franklinville barely survives on less than $20,000 per year, it’s clearly evident that we haven’t solved our city’s educational and economic challenges.

As a result, I call on the School Board to approve the charter application for the High School of Health Sciences Leadership Charter School because our collective efforts to provide educational and economic opportunities to our fellow Philadelphians are far from complete.

Health Sciences Leadership, with a proposed location on North Broad Street near Einstein Medical Center, proposes an innovative design with powerful connections between rigorous classroom learning in science and technology, college coursework, and lessons from the workplace. 

As soon as students demonstrate college readiness, students will take as many college courses as they can in place of high school classes – at no cost to parents.  Students will receive extensive academic and social-emotional support so that they’ll be able to achieve their own potential and meet the school’s high standards and their own aspirations and goals.

The research of the effectiveness behind providing students with rigorous college level coursework and access to robust and sustained social-emotional and academic supports are extensive. Addressing these issues is a matter of educational justice.

Health Sciences’ Leadership also pledges to ensure that every student participates in extensive internships, job shadowing, and mentorship in hospitals and health care settings beginning in 9th grade, and they’ve lined up the partners to make this happen.

The goal isn’t just for them to find jobs in the fields they pursue, but for these students to create jobs that they believe can help their communities. The leadership of the school has worked tirelessly over the past year to line up an unprecedented coalition of partners from health care and higher education who have the potential to support the elevation and trajectories of the school’s students. 

The presidents of Drexel, Jefferson, Temple, the Community College of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine have all written letters of support for the school.

In addition to preparing students for fields like nursing, medical technology, and biomedical research, Health Sciences Leadership is also firmly committed to offering a career pathway in STEM (science, technology, mathematics).  There is a significant need for STEM teachers in Philadelphia, and people of color are significantly underrepresented in the field. 

In order to inspire the next generation of African-American and Latinx scientists and STEM teachers, schools in our city need more teachers who reflect our rich diversity. As an educator who has committed to increasing the diversity of our teachers, I will partner with Health Sciences Leadership to develop the program.

The proposed new high school also has the leadership in place to execute its ambitious vision.  The school will be led by Tim Matheney, an educational leader with a track record of getting things done.  Tim previously served as the founding Executive Director of the highly successful Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders.  (I was a member of the Academy’s inaugural class of Neubauer Fellows in Educational Leadership in 2015-16.) I’m also pleased to be a part of a founding Board for the school that will also include individuals with experience in school leadership, philanthropy, and higher education.

As an educator for a quarter of a century and an activist raised by generations of activists, serving the city I love, I am not unfamiliar with how a promise as bold as theirs often meets an inability to execute, but knowing the school’s leadership, its goals and specific methods to achieve them, as well as their coalition of supporters – I believe this proposed school is set up to partner with families, community members, organizations, and other schools to change the lives of many young people.

When more than 140,000 jobs in the city and many more in nearby suburbs are in the health care sector, the city urgently needs a variety of effective schools – both traditional public schools and schools like Health Sciences Leadership – to launch students toward rewarding careers in this multi-billion-dollar industry. 

Health care holds great promise for lifting families out of poverty because of the diversity of jobs – from doctors to solidly middle-class positions like nurses, respiratory therapists, and medical technologists. There are literally thousands of jobs in health care available today in Philadelphia, and, according to the proposed school’s health care partners, positions often go unfilled for months because of a lack of qualified candidates.

We also know that we will need to educate today’s students in ways that enable them to navigate and create opportunities for themselves and their community – often in ways that we haven’t even dream of yet.

Even with the economic dominance of health care in the city, Philadelphia and its citizens could still achieve more.  The city, touted by CEOs as having the potential to become “the Silicon Valley of health care,” needs even more health care-focused educational programs to launch students toward the jobs that will help the city achieve that dream.  We cannot continue to have a tale of two cities when it comes to opportunities to health care or any STEM-based profession.

Our nation, not just Philadelphia, needs more schools like Health Sciences Leadership.  This school community, which has a particular mission to serve students of color, understands the problems we face.  In some ways, we have not only failed to make progress, but actually lost ground. For example, it’s reprehensible that fewer African American males enrolled in medical schools in 2014 as they did in the late 1970s! 

We also know that racial and ethnic minorities have higher rates of chronic disease and premature death.  Health Sciences Leadership students will understand these challenges and be prepared to address them as they embark on important careers. In this way, their careers will be aligned to the questions I ask my students the most: What questions are you trying to ask and answer? What are you trying to build in your community? What problems are you trying to solve?

In considering the truly compelling economic and educational needs of our fellow citizens in North Philadelphia and elsewhere in the city – and the tremendous pathway towards agency promised by access and opportunity careers  – we feel the need for Health Sciences Leadership is quite clear.

Please join me in calling on the Board of Education to approve the application for the High School of Health Sciences Leadership Charter School because our collective efforts to provide educational and economic opportunity to our fellow Philadelphians are far from complete. Ensuring students have this opportunity is another step towards the educational justice Philadelphia’s students deserve.

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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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