Philly principal goes to work for Obama

Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker campus, will participate in a federal fellowship.
Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker campus, will participate in a federal fellowship.

A Philadelphia educator is receiving national attention — the positive kind.

Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker campus in West Philadelphia, was chosen by the U.S. Secretary of Education as one of three principals to participate in the first Principal Ambassador Fellowship (PAF) program.

El-Mekki, of West Philadelphia, was chosen by Secretary Arne Duncan to offer feedback on the effectiveness of the education system and its policies, fostering community engagement, and opening clearer lines of communication between educators and policymakers.

He said he wants to bring the perspective of “someone that is on the ground” to the table and “not only highlight my views but also to share what I’m hearing from my colleagues as well as my team,” El-Mekki said.

Chosen from a group of more than 450 applicants nationwide, El-Mekki will be involved in the program for the next eight months.

To him, the greatest challenges in public education are retaining talent and for educators to hold students to the same standards as their own family members.

“If we have high achievement standards for students,” he said, “then we also have to make sure that we have that for ourselves.”

He hopes to learn more about what are considered best practices on a national scale.

“I would also love to learn how they make decisions at the federal level,” he added. “Everything from implementing Common Core, or the next generational assessments, to teacher and principal evaluations and turnaround schools — a lot of initiatives that are happening, just hearing more about the rationale.”

He was a criminal justice major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania before getting into education, teaching at John P. Turner Middle School. After 10 years he became the assistant principal, and then switched to Shaw Middle School for five years before taking the job in West Philly.

This is his sixth year at Shoemaker, which was transformed under his tutelage from a school for grades seven and eigh, to a seventh- to 12th-grade school.

PAF, first launched in February, will gather perspectives from three principals to add to feedback received from the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program, which is in its sixth year of operation. The two other principals hail from Chatanooga, Tenn., and Washington, D.C., respectively.

When you get down to it, El-Mekki said, the key is to develop the whole child, not just the student.

“It’s not about taking tests,” he said. “The tests are really to see how successful we are as adults in conveying information and supporting kids in problem solving and literacy. But they should also have a robust experience that makes them a whole person and be able to fulfill their own destinies and dreams.”

But they also need “soft skills.”

“Grit and being able to engage other people, resolve conflicts, be able to do the necessary research to really see what your path is in life,” he said.

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