Sharif El-Mekki didn’t come to a career in education right away, but the families in his boyhood Philadelphia neighborhood sure are glad he found his way there.
As the principal of a Mastery charter school serving the West Philadelphia neighborhood surrounding its Shoemaker Campus, Sharif has returned home to help lead a school transformation that earned him the opportunity to serve as a principal ambassador with the U.S. Department of Education.
Are you a coffee drinker? Tea?
I drink both. I usually start my day with coffee and end it with a few cups of tea. They each are comfort beverages for me. I lived with my great-grandmother when I was a junior and senior in high school. She made coffee and the aroma while percolating was irresistible. She would make me a cup before I went to school. I miss her.
Tea became a habit while growing up in Iran. They are some serious tea drinkers.
Talk about your education and background and what led you to becoming an educator.
My parents were activists, so we were exposed to myriad social justice issues and the necessary resistance at a very early age, including our enrollment in a Freedom School in Philly.
Later, we moved to Iran and I attended middle school in Qom. After returning in 1986, I went to Overbrook High School in West Philly. Then I was fortunate enough to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship.
By the time I graduated, I had landed on criminal justice as a major with an eye on law school, but that never happened. An organization called Concerned Black Men was recruiting Black men to become teachers. I chose to make my impact through the classroom.
We have to assertively approach and recruit Black men as if they are a part of the solution for what ails our schools. We also must begin much, much earlier. Recruiting college graduates won’t get us to where we need to be. That approach has yielded the dismal numbers—2 percent—we have now.
Early on, White female students are encouraged to be teachers. Our Black boys need to hear the same positive messages about their worth, brilliance and contributions. I also advocate for highly effective Black men, not just Black men.
I’m proud of the organization I helped found, The Fellowship. We are entering our third year in supporting current and aspiring Black male educators.
You’re the leader of a neighborhood charter school in Philadelphia. In the education debate, the concepts of “neighborhood” and “charter” get portrayed as contradictory. Your take on that?
Some public schools serve their neighborhoods, some don’t, whether they’re traditional or charter. I am proud to work in a charter school that serves the same neighborhood I grew up and live in. The vast majority of our students reside in the 19131 zip code, and Shoemaker is right up the street from my alma mater.
In fact, I even went to Shoemaker for summer school one year. The chasm of difference between what it was then and what it is now is tremendous.
Shoemaker was once the second-most violent school in the city, and likely the state. That is no longer the case. Same community. Same kids. Different adults with very different results. Today, it’s one of the top schools in Philly.
What’s the one thing you wish everyone in the education debate could agree on?
I wish everyone agreed that all of us, not just the privileged, deserve good school choices and high standards, and that anyone who signs up to educate our youth must also sign up to be held accountable for what and how much these youth learn.
That doesn’t just go for teachers. Accountability for students’ success is for everyone. We should all have high expectations for our children, but the absolute highest expectations are to be reserved for the adults who serve them.
Thoughts on having the Democratic National Convention there in Philly? Would you hire any of the speakers to teach at your school?
Glad Philly was spotlighted. We have a city that has a lot to offer, despite the plethora of challenges.
I was also happy that many of our city’s activists raised their voices through protesting various social injustices. Most often, change comes from both the outside and the inside.
As far as teaching, now you know not everyone can teach, but, if they were willing to go through a lot of rigorous professional development, I would probably hire three or four. I think Cory Booker, POTUS and FLOTUS, and, perhaps, Anne Holton. I’d hire a convention analyst too, Angela Rye.