Philadelphia Principal Sharif El-Mekki Embraces Servant Leadership to Make a Difference
By Autumn A. Arnett
The Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker head takes a hands-on approach to buoy school climate.
The introduction came via an article announced on Twitter: Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus Principal Sharif El-Mekki was taking on the NAACP over its resolution to issue moratorium on charter schools. The full title of the piece was, “The NAACP was founded by white people, and it still isn’t looking out for black families.” Whew.
A few months earlier, the organization had called for a ban on all privately-operated charter schools, saying they only increased segregation in K-12 education, while accusing the network operators of predatory practices, putting disadvantaged students at even greater risk of poor educational outcomes. By some accounts, Mastery was considered one of the worst offenders. Thomas Butler, a Philadelphia education advocate and the director of advancement and operations for the Philadelphia College Prep Roundtable, said “Mastery and KIPP — to a certain extent, they’re perceived as, while they’re education groups, they’re money-making machines.”
But if the perception of Mastery and, in some circles, charter schools in general is negative, the perception of the Shoemaker campus principal is the complete opposite.
“It’s almost like they let him run renegade,” said Butler. “He has this visual face in the community of being a very positive, strong” leader.
“Folks of all colors and all ilks are reading his stuff as a critical voice, and a valuable voice in the Philadelphia community,” he continued. “Once you talk to him and know him, you see wow, not only is this guy brilliant, intelligent, but he’s just a good dude. And I don’t care what your race or ethnicity is. Based on what I’ve talked to folks, everybody loves Sharif.”
A hands-on approach
Opening the doors of his West Philly campus one Friday morning, El-Mekki offered a glimpse into life at the school. As he walked through the halls in between classes, he greeted students, chatting with them about their specific circumstances. “Hey, man, where have you been? Haven’t seen you in awhile?” he said to one student. The student mumbled a vague response. “Glad to have you back. What class are you headed to?” El-Mekki asked while ushering the student down the hall. El-Mekki suspected the student may be experiencing some housing instability and may be living in a shelter, noting that he was keeping an eye out for the school’s counselor and social worker to mention the student.
Homelessness is a growing challenge for schools across the country. In the city of Philadelphia alone, there are an estimated 650 people living on the street at any given time, a relatively low rate given the city’s size and percentage of people living in poverty, but youth homelessness is a huge issue in the city.
A few minutes later, El-Mekki popped into an English class, standing quietly in the back of the room observing as the teacher instructed students on a writing activity. “May I see that? What are you working on?” He whispered to one student, reaching for an open composition book on her desk. The student obliged, he scanned the page’s contents, nodded and returned the book to her.
The personal interaction with teachers and students earns him a tremendous amount of respect and adoration from all of those within the school’s walls.
Nadirah Sulayman has been teaching at Shoemaker Campus for over a decade and described El-Mekki as possessing “just a willingness to interact with teachers on a personal level, the willingness to listen to your ideas” that makes him stand out over Sulayman’s previous bosses.
“He is the fourth principal that I’ve worked for in my career as a teacher, and he stands out amongst the other three because he operates under servant leadership as a model versus a hierarchical top-down ‘because-I-said-so kind’ of leadership,” she said. “When El-Mekki came aboard, we were working on Saturdays … and to look up on a Saturday or a Sunday and see that … your principal and your leader is willing to give the time, the resources, the sweat and the tears … He’s not asking anything of you that he’s not either done already or is not willing to do,” she added, noting what a difference this has approach made compared to others who are rushing to dart out of the building before all of the students are even gone every day.
Leading with empathy
An hour or so later, El-Mekki apologized for pulling out his phone. “SEPTA workers are supposed to strike tomorrow,” he said, referring to the city’s public transportation system. “I’m trying to get some [charter] buses for our kids.”
In Philadelphia, like many other major cities around the country, many students are reliant upon public transportation to get to and from school. Among the challenges of leading a school within a major metropolis is that the city’s problems are also the students’ problems, and thus the principal’s problems as well.
“In communities, everything has a trickle-down effect and impacts children. With almost 60,000 students relying on SEPTA to get them to school, this poses a significant challenge for families who need to get to work and get their child to school. Even without a strike, there are [roughly] 15,000 Philly kids absent on a daily basis,” El-Mekki explained. “We have approximately 300 students who use SEPTA. Some are right at the divide line (1.5 miles for a bus pass) and may walk, but others will be too far. Three buses can only pick up half of these students.”
The contingency plan? Classes would start on a delayed schedule, as they would for inclement weather, to allow students additional time to commute.
“Kids can still come at 7:30 for families that need to do early drop offs. But, classes will begin at 10, because we couldn’t get buses to start picking up until 9:15. They’re already on contract with our District so we have to wait,” he said. “We have encouraged families to carpool when possible. We will also freeze grades for students who live far and excuse their absences. Teachers are emailing assignments as well.”
“As unfortunate as this all is, it is also an opportunity for students to dig into issues of fairness and justice when it comes to labor,” he said. “Our students will get to look deeper at what the chasm is between the two groups and determine what is actually fair from their perspectives. A part of our mission is to help students lead and serve in their communities. By practicing the application of their critical thinking skills to wrestle with real-world situations is the best practice.”
The next morning, El-Mekki sent a message from his iPhone: “I’m actually in southwest Philly as I type this at one of the bus stops picking kids up.” El-Mekki drives the bus too? “No, just meeting kids at the bus stop as a familiar [and] friendly face, answer any questions in case a parent is there.”
Relatability is key
“It’s no surprise El-Mekki came from the community that our kids came from,” Sulayman said. “His parents are lifelong activists and scholars, so I think for him he understands the struggle — real and imagined, urban and worldwide and international — that our children are going to face. So he’s not real big on sugarcoating or making things easy or lowering the bar. He’s big on making … sure they’re equipped.”
Referencing the humility and relatability of El-Mekki’s mother, Sulayman said, “I feel like to understand El-Mekki is to look at his parents.
“I think he’s trying to carry on this tradition where we don’t need to do a lot of talking, we don’t have to be these huge overpowering figures, but [we’re] doing the work,” she said. “Keeping your head down and not looking for any accolades, praise or recognition, and ironically that gets him a lot of accolades, praise and recognition.”
“His work speaks for itself here in Philadelphia,” said Butler, who serves on the Mayor’s Commission on African American Males with El-Mekki. “I can definitely see where he has a trajectory for his young people.”