Cool Schools: Sharif El-Mekki Talks Success at this Turnaround Charter in Philadelphia
The principal of Mastery Charter Shoemaker Campus talks about the progress of this public neighborhood charter school
In this episode of the Cool Schools podcast, EdChoice Director of National Research Mike McShane talks with Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter Shoemaker Campus. He talks about his journey for educational justice, how he effectively uses student and alumni surveys, where you can find some of his writing and more. Click to listen, or read the full transcript below.
Our Podcast Transcribed
Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another edition of the Cool Schools Podcast. My name is Mike McShane, and I’m Director of National Research at EdChoice. Today on the podcast, we have Sharif El-Mekki, and Sharif is the Principal of Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Now, Mastery is a network of charter schools. I think it educates more than 14,000 students in the Philadelphia and Camden area, and Sharif runs a particular school in a particular neighborhood for which he has deep connections that we talk about in the podcast.
This school is a really interesting one, because unlike a lot of charter schools that started fresh, this was a turnaround model, and a lot of the research on turnarounds and others is that they are very challenging and oftentimes unsuccessful, but this is the example of a school that beat the odds. We dig in to the types of things that they do to try and beat those long odds of turning around an existing public school.
I also have just wanted to get Sharif on this podcast. I’m a big fan of him as a writer. We talk about at the end of where you can find his writing on the various blogs that he writes for, so please stick around for that. In our transcript, we’ll make sure to link to those. A multi-faceted conversation, both about the school as well as some of his other thoughts on education. So, this is a really fun podcast. Without further ado, this is my conversation with Sharif El-Mekki.
Sharif, thank you so much for joining us today. I want to actually start this podcast slightly differently than I start most of these podcasts, because I have followed your writing for some time now and thoroughly enjoy it.
Sharif El-Mekki: Thank you.
Mike McShane: I think that maybe, starting with your particular educational background, dare I say you had a unique educational trajectory yourself. I’d love to know your story about your own education that you got, and then we’ll talk about the school, but I think this is worth starting with.
Sharif El-Mekki: Thanks for having me on. My educational trajectory really, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, really started with parental choice in elementary school. My family chose an Afrocentric school for us to attend for elementary. They felt that the neighborhood’s public school was not conducive to learning, and I—
Mike McShane: This is in Philadelphia, right?
Sharif El-Mekki: This is in Philadelphia, absolutely.
Mike McShane: Wonderful.
Sharif El-Mekki: And when I spoke to them later as I grew up, I also realized that my grandparents had also chosen schools, and they had decided that, “Hey, we want to find different options for you, opposed to the one that was mandated by zip code.” And so they did. My parents did the same for me, and that continued all the way through high school. Even middle school, I ended up going to school overseas, and I didn’t just go there for school, but it was also interesting that they were just exercising choice as parents have the right to do.
Mike McShane: Then, after your own educational trajectory, you became an educator yourself. You are now the principal at Mastery Prep Shoemaker Campus. Could you talk a—
Sharif El-Mekki: Yeah, let me say that for you: Mastery Charter Shoemaker Campus.
Mike McShane: Mastery Charter Shoemaker Campus.
Sharif El-Mekki: Yes, yes.
Mike McShane: Outstanding. I’d love to know about your school. When did it start? What was the kind of impetus behind its origins?
Sharif El-Mekki: Sure. This is the 13th year that we’ve been operating as a public neighborhood charter. The catalyst was how many kids were being failed at the time 13 years ago. The school district as well as the community were really pushing for a different alternative for families, but also ensuring that the kids in this neighborhood, 19131 zip code, 19143, 19139, had an option to attend.
This school is a turnaround charter school, meaning that the same students continued to attend, but different adults, different expectations, and very different results because of this partnership with the West Philadelphia community. We’re really proud at 13 years later we were able to successfully turn it around. And interesting enough, the same kids who left the school in June came back in August, and really saw that adults were going to live up to the promises that they made to them a few months before.
Mike McShane: I want to unpack a couple things in there. You used the phrase “public neighborhood charter.” Normally, we hear “public charter,” but you put neighborhood in there. Why is that?
Sharif El-Mekki: We serve … most of our students come from the surrounding area, and so the same feeder pattern that existed before we became a charter is also being served today. What that means is we continue to add grades. In our charter was written that we would, instead of just being a middle school, that we would be grade 7-12. Our students are able to stay with us for six years, but also that the two elementary schools that used to feed in to us continue to feed in to us.
By state law, parents still have to choose it. You can’t just say, “You have to come here,” but parents by and large choose to attend. We now have siblings, generational students, where their siblings also attended here, and families are saying, “You know what? You did right by my older child. I’m sending my younger child to you as well.” Most of our students come from the immediate neighborhood of 19131 zip code.
Mike McShane: What is happening in the school now that wasn’t happening, I guess it would be, 14 years ago, or the years before you all came in?
Sharif El-Mekki: I think any school, if they’re successful, they have top talent, right? They are making sure that the people that are educating other people’s children are approaching it with a high amount of accountability for themselves, that they have high expectations for themselves, but they also have high expectations and high levels of support for their students. And I think top talent will win just about all the time. Of course, with talent comes the support that you have to provide, the systems that make sense, and I would say students as well, but the students were great before we became a charter. We just gave them the opportunity to really shine and pursue their dreams that they had for their children and the students had for themselves.
Mike McShane: When you’re looking for that top talent, where do you find most of your teachers?
Sharif El-Mekki: They come from all over. I think we have a really nice mix of alternative certification as well as traditional certification programs, but we have folks who knew from very early on they wanted to be teachers and lead classrooms. They went to teacher certification programs. We have a lot of Teach For America. I think last time I checked, a couple years ago, 40 percent of our teachers were TFA/TFA alum. We have relay residents that were residents in master teacher classrooms, and now own classrooms and lead classrooms on their own. We’ve had a whole range.
We’re really looking for teachers who have a high level of self-efficacy, teachers who have the cultural competence to help students push beyond institutional barriers, institutional racism and things like that that they’re going to encounter as students of color. All our students pretty much are students of color, by the way. And our staff have the mindset that, “You know what? I’m going to teach this child. I’m going to educate this child. I’m going to support this child the same way I would do my own child.”
Having that type of mindset is extremely important, but the idea of self-efficacy, that, “I’m not going to blame the child, the child’s circumstances. I’m going to make sure that I’m holding myself accountable, and if there’s something wrong, I am going to figure out how to do it right.” And it doesn’t mean that I’m not holding high expectations for students. We want to really challenge our students, but if we have the right mindset, that usually is a motivational perspective that we use to motivate students and encourage students and things like that, but I think by and large, adult mindset is really what transforms school communities.
Mike McShane: When you’re trying to find teachers that exhibit this self-efficacy, how do you … Is that done in an interview? Do you look at their past experiences? How do you select for self-efficacy?
Sharif El-Mekki: I think you have to do a couple of things. I think one, yes, we’re always looking for candidates who can respond well to scenarios and questions in interviews. We also have demo lessons, and we get feedback from the students as well, so they will do a live demonstration lesson in front of students, and see how they think about … But a lot of it is afterwards. The lesson can be one thing, but really afterwards, we’re really trying to see, “What’s your planning process?” And, “What does it mean to educate a classroom full of black children in today’s context? How do you support their positive racial identity? How do you address the challenges that they may face? What do you expect of them, and why do you expect that?”
Also looking at, how do you approach planning with standards? What do the standards mean to you? How do you feel about holding yourself accountable? Because a lot of people sign up to teach children. Less people want to view themselves as accountable for how much kids learn, and for us, that’s what we’re looking for. Do you view yourself as accountable? The most important factor in a child’s education, outside of their parents. All of those pieces are important, and we look to really probe and investigate and see how they respond.
In addition to that, I think past markers of success is a great indicator of what future success will look like, so we want to hear about what challenges have you faced? How did you overcome them? If people are prone to blame others, blame the environment, not kind of look at their locus of control as wide and strong and sturdy, then that will show. Then we’re also looking for how they accept feedback, so we give feedback about the lesson, and then we ask, “How would you do that again? How would you do that over? What are things that you could do that will celebrate students’ achievement?” All of that’s really important, and that we really try to investigate deeply.
Mike McShane: How do you find the talent pool in Philadelphia? Do you find yourself having a lot of great options to choose from? Is it perhaps different subject areas or others are more … How deep is the pool, perhaps would be the question?
Sharif El-Mekki: In Pennsylvania right now, the pool is not deep enough. We definitely need, as a state, we have to do a lot better, and I think we’re taking some positive steps to not only recruit talented educators, but also a diverse pool. So, that’s something that’s really important to our Secretary of Ed, Pedro Rivera, and his team, as well as our district Dr. Hite, as well as many, many educators. It’s not enough. We are, right now, I think having a challenge, but not something that … it’s not insurmountable. We just have to be even more strategic. I think we’ve started engaging even high school students earlier and saying, “Hey, we’re going to support you in whatever you choose to do, but we also need our talented students to consider leading a classroom and being teachers.” That’s things that resonate with students, particularly this idea of being the teacher you knew you needed at this age. Consider becoming the teacher you wish you’d had. Really trying to encourage more students of color to consider leading a classroom.
Mike McShane: We’ve talked a little bit about public policy as it relates to the teacher supply, but given that there are a fair number of people who listen to this podcast, who are interested in public policy, I’d be interested to know kind of your experience with policy. Are there policies that your local district or the state or the federal government has that make your life more difficult? Are there changes that have happened in your time that have made it easier for you all to do what you need to do to serve kids? The easiest way to phrase this is sort of, if there was one law or policy that you could change, what would it be? But just your kind of general read on your kind of relationship to education policy in your community.
Sharif El-Mekki: Before I did a couple fellowships, one with America Achieves and the other one with the U.S. Department of Ed under Secretary Arne Duncan and John King, I was kind of just mentally far away from policy and just like, “Hey, as long as policy makers stay out of my way, I’m fine.” But really came to the realization that that’s not really the case. As educators, we have to embrace policy makers. We have to make sure that they are aware of how even the most well intended policy can have unintended consequences and if we don’t speak up and use our platforms to voice that, then that can get lost. That’s really important that we stay engaged, and it’s a two-way street.
We really want to encourage policy makers to visit schools. Sit down with teachers, sit down with families, and not just during campaign stumps, but also make that part of your monthly role that … “Hey, I’m engaging educators. My constituents, many of them have children and they attend schools.” What that looks like … I think if I, as a principal of a charter school, and I was also a principal in my traditional district, one of the things that I think always needs to really be paid attention to is how much we value children’s education and how much … what one school’s funding stream looks like as opposed to others, I think it’s really consequential that we basically fund kids’ education based off the zip code that they live in. I think that’s problematic on many fronts.
Mike McShane: Absolutely.
Sharif El-Mekki: I think that’s a huge thing that’s not addressed well enough in Pennsylvania as well as many other states. I think the other piece, being as a charter leader, I think some of the things that I see in other states or an independent charter authorizer board that authorizes charters independently, I think is really important. I think this idea of facilities and who has access to the facilities, who has charter operators, particularly if they’re high performance and have first writer refusal, so that there’s … making sure that we have the space to expand and things of that nature.
What really hit home to my families a couple years ago was our state lost a billion dollars in educational funding. For my school, for Shoemaker, that meant one million dollars. You can imagine, one million dollars less in my budget to educate children. People can say what they want about, “Money doesn’t matter.” It only matters to people that have tons of it. For everybody else it matters and it matters a lot. It’s not the only thing. I think accountability has to dovetail with it, but you can’t ignore a million dollars less in a school budget when we’re talking about educating the future of our city, state and country.
Mike McShane: So, I have to ask, what happened to the billion dollars? What decision was that?
Sharif El-Mekki: Those were kind of the decisions when there was money infused after the financial breakdown of the country. The recession.
Mike McShane: Got it, post-recession.
Sharif El-Mekki: Right, post-recession. There were some issues of how they spent the money during that time and what to do about it. I think it could have just been a stronger sense of what to do, how to do it so that schools weren’t taking this enormous hit. That being said, even with a million dollars less, I still view myself as account … I’m not just going to throw my hands up and say, “Oh, well, I can’t educate children.” But, man, that was still a massive—
Mike McShane: A million bucks is a million bucks.
Sharif El-Mekki: You can’t really get around this, so our class sizes had to balloon, including classrooms where students were far behind in reading and their problem-solving math skills. I can’t ignore that, so we continued to chug ahead and, we’re fortunate that it’s gotten a little bit better. However, that was pretty massive.
Mike McShane: How do you all measure success? How do you know if what you’re doing is working?
Sharif El-Mekki: We try to use a dashboard approach. Obviously our students … How students can perform on a grade level exam matters a lo,t and we also look at things like student surveys. We ask students, we ask families, “Does this work? Are you feeling like we are helping you meet your goals?” We look at our college matriculation rates. If we’re saying we’re doing things … Part of every school’s mission or vision is something around post-secondary or something about students pursuing their dreams of things like that. You have to measure that. You can’t just say it and say, “We have flowery language so that means we’re successful.” We have to actually see, does that work? Is it working and how do we get better? We look at things like, are students reporting to school? Or reporting to college? On day one, what does the summer slide look like and do they have the skills to navigate that? What does it look like going from freshman to sophomore? How many graduate? We’re constantly tracking that to see.
We also ask not only our current students, but also alumni, “How could we have helped you be better prepared? What should we continue doing? What should we stop doing? What should we start doing?” This idea of asking questions from our constituents and the people that we say we serve is really important. On the test we’re also looking at growth. A student may come at one level and where are they after instruction? Where are they after interventions have taken place? We’re looking at a lot of different data points. Our yearly metrics is a full page that we’re constantly looking and probing and seeing how do we keep a continuous improvement mindset and action plans to address the holes that we see.
Mike McShane: I’ve heard some skepticism in some quarters about student surveys. That they say they’re biased. Maybe a teacher was really a great teacher but they were just really challenging, and so kids don’t know … I would love to know, do you find a lot of value in them? Are there particular things that you ask in them to get the most use out of them? How do you use those surveys?
Sharif El-Mekki: I believe that you may have a couple areas of bias, a couple students where I’ve heard people say, “Students had a bad day.” I’m like, “800 kids aren’t having a bad day on the same day.” I value student voice a lot and I think it’s disrespectful just to dismiss the people that we serve and just say, “They’re biased.” Everybody has biases, but you can still … If I give a survey to 130 students in the 7th grade class, I should still be able to see some trends. The thing about it, we see a lot of positive trends and positive feedback as well so it’s not just every student is giving a lot of negative information. They’re giving … We get a range, but we can still see themes.
We’ll be able to see and the students give feedback to their teachers in our school, “My teacher notices my hard work. My teacher helps me to understand. My teacher challenges me.” We’re asking questions to get feedback that even if a child is having bad day or a child has a particular bias against one teacher, it’s not going to be 130 kids just making up stuff about their experience. We’re asking them about their experience and students are receptive, they’re honest about their experiences, and they provide valuable feedback for us to use and improve on.
Mike McShane: It’s funny, while you were talking, one of the things that sparked in my mind, I wrote a little note to myself, no other industry would completely disregard the opinions of its users, right?
Sharif El-Mekki: It’s just disrespectful, “Y’all don’t know what y’all talking about.”
Mike McShane: No one would say that, right? No one would say this.
Sharif El-Mekki: I think we have to approach the work with a level of humility and really say that we’re serving people. That means we’re curious and concerned about their experience and about our efforts. If we don’t have that mindset, then it’s going to be problematic in how we do it, how we approach the work as well as the results that we get.
Mike McShane: You have made decisions as … You spoke about doing these fellowships with the Department of Education, with other organizations, you’re a prolific writer, you’re a speaker. I’d be interested to know, being the principal of an outstanding school is probably more than enough work for one person. Your own kind of personal decisions to do these different paths, what sparked those?
Sharif El-Mekki: My parents were activists so I have always approached this as an activist/educator, meaning that I really try to champion things that I believe that are right and just. Educational justice being one of them, parental choice being one of them, high standards, high expectations for folks that are getting paid to serve communities. I think I also believe that too often many educators are very humble in their work. They approach their work with just really … I used to call myself a school rat, for example. Just want to get in my school, just leave me alone, I’ll just really focus on that. What I really came to realize is that it is extremely important that educators have more visibility in addressing some of the ills that everybody wants to try to address from afar. There’s space for policy makers and politicians and all of that, but this work should not be done without teachers and educators at the table on the front end. I think any time we’re trying to address complex problems, which we have in our educational systems in America, that you can’t do that without the people that are closest to the issues at hand.
Sharif El-Mekki: That goes for anything even outside of school. Whatever you want to approach, make sure that you’re engaging the people that are closest to the issue that you’re thinking that you want to solve. If not, you’re not going to solve it.
Mike McShane: I think those are incredibly wise insights. If we’re looking to the future, what does the next year hold? The next five years hold? The next 10 years hold for your school?
Sharif El-Mekki: What we’re really … right now we’re really looking to see how do we help students in their post-secondary pathways? We’ve gotten feedback from students that, “Hey, you know what? I’m looking at college, but I also want to make sure it’s the right fit.” We’re really trying to partner with families to make sure that we are as transparent as possible, that we’re as helpful as possible and that families are able to make the best decisions for their children. We’ve been doing really a lot of data collection around where our students are the most successful and how do we help them pay or it. Five years from now, tomorrow, 10 years from now, I want as many students to be able to pursue their post-secondary goals with as little debt as possible. I think that’s part of the educational right that our children deserve.
I think the other piece is more opportunities within our school. Our students have asked, “Hey, we want even more varied courses to engage with.” That’s something that’s also very interesting. And then just what different pathways look like and how do we increase … right now only about 10-20 percent of our students participate in dual enrollment courses and we’re looking at how do we do that more? How do we do that earlier as well as more often? I think 15 percent of our seniors, they don’t even come to our campus. They go to community college in Philadelphia for their entire senior year. We’ll see them for afterschool activities or things like that, but all of their coursework is at the community college level and we’re just like, “How do we do this for juniors as well? How do we engage sophomores in this process? How do we find multiple pathways for as many students as possible?”
Mike McShane: That’s wonderful. For the listeners, which I have to imagine will be a majority of this podcast, who would like to hear more … I could keep talking to you about this stuff for a long time, but for those who want to hear more, where can folks find your writing? All the different spots that you write for, it’d be great for folks to know about those.
Sharif El-Mekki: I have a blog page called phillys7thward.org. Phillys 7th Ward is where I house most of my writing. I’m also one of the featured voices on educationpost.org and people can find me on Twitter @selmekki.
Mike McShane: Perfect and we will make sure in the transcript that we publish. Those of you that are listening to this, if you just scroll down, you can see we’ll have the transcript and we’ll make sure that there are links to all of those in there.
Sharif, thank you so much for joining the Cool Schools podcast today.
Sharif El-Mekki: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to listening to this as well as the other episodes. Thanks a lot.
Mike McShane: That was an incredibly enjoyable conversation. Like I think I told him at the end, this could have gone on for a very long time. This could have been like one of those Joe Rogen or somebody podcasts that goes on for four hours because I could pick his brain about education policy and school operation until all of you would definitely be tired of listening to it. Like we said there at the end, though, he’s a prolific writer. Check out his stuff. Every time I read stuff that he writes, I learn something. He challenges me and so I really appreciate that he took the time. He’s clearly a busy person and so he took the time to chat with me, which is something I’m incredibly grateful for.
As always, this is the part of the podcast where I tell you, “Subscribe. Subscribe to the EdChoice podcast.” You get cool schools as well as the lots of the other podcasts where we do profiles of researchers. We talk about what’s going on related to school policy in state, we have this kind of fire side chats, we talk about pop culture. We do a little bit of everything related to school choice and education policy. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast. You can also, if listening isn’t your thing, but really I think listening is kind of everybody’s thing, but if it’s not, sign up for the EdChoice email list. You can go on our website edchoice.org. A little thing pops up, put your information in there, and get the information that we send out. If you’re interested in research, if you’re interested in policy, if you’re interested in, like I said, what’s going on in states, all of those things are at your fingertips.
In closing, I always like to put the call out there: more cool schools. If you know of a cool school in your area, if your kids go to a cool school, if your niece, nephew, grandson, granddaughter, random person that you meet on the street know about a cool school, send them my way. Tweet them at me, email them to me. I would love to profile that cool school and the way that I hear about these overwhelmingly is via word of mouth. This was a great conversation today. Look forward to chatting with you all again when I sit down with another talented, interesting educator and talk about their cool school.
Read some of Sharif El-Mekki’s work:
Visit his blog, Philly’s 7th Ward.
Check out his featured articles on Education Post.
Follow him on Twitter @selmekki.