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Remember this name: Tamir Harper, a kid from Southwest Philly, is going places

"Tamir is the whole package," his high school principal says.

Tamir Harper, onstage with former First Lady Michelle Obama at National College Signing Day.
Tamir Harper, onstage with former First Lady Michelle Obama at National College Signing Day.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Remember the name Tamir Harper.

At 18, the Southwest Philadelphia kid has become a go-to speaker at education conferences both local and national. School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. considers Harper "remarkable," and Michelle Obama recently introduced him on stage in front of thousands of cheering students. Harper has already co-founded a nonprofit dedicated to student advocacy and launched his own consulting business.

Harper just graduated from Science Leadership Academy, a Philadelphia School District magnet school, and he's headed to American University on a full scholarship — but first, he'll spend the summer working for State Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia). The first-generation college student is focused on being a teacher someday, starting his own school, perhaps eventually running the Philadelphia School District.

Harper is now focused on that goal because of his own story, the acute awareness that there are thousands of students like him: bright kids who don't have great educational options close to home. His own gifts and his parents' insistence on more got him out, but many students aren't as lucky.

Chris Lehmann, SLA principal and himself a nationally recognized educator, said that in a school full of bright, good kids, Harper stood out.

"Tamir is the whole package," said Lehmann. "He brings a fierce intellect and an amazing sense of service and community. He is a learner in the best way, and he has a humility about him."

“He needed to see that there was more”

Harper freely admits he's in a strange position for a kid who once did anything he could to get out of class.  He grew up the youngest of four kids in a Southwest Philadelphia rowhouse and earned good grades in his neighborhood school, Morton Elementary at 63rd and Elmwood. But when Harper started sixth grade at Tilden Middle, he struggled with a school that, he said, lived up to its tough reputation.

"Life got real," said Harper. "I remember walking in the building and seeing metal detectors. I hated school; I called my mom every morning and said, 'Can I come home?'"

Harper's parents are hyper aware of the community they raised their children in, which has one of the city's highest rates of violent crime. The Harpers wanted them to go further then they did — Valeska Harper aspired to be a nurse, and Troy Harper Sr. dreamed of being an engineer, but life got in the way; she now works at PNC Bank and he for Herr's, the snack food company.

"He needed a different environment," said Valeska Harper. "He needed to see that there was more than Tilden."

The Harpers weren't sure how to make it happen, but their son's school counselor suggested trying to get him into Fell, a calmer K-8 school in South Philadelphia. Fell accepted Harper, and he thrived.

At SLA, the project-based, inquiry-driven school, Harper quickly distinguished himself as a leader and opportunities came his way: Lehmann sent Harper to Washington to speak on a panel about teacher diversity; Hite asked him to speak at a principal training session on what equity meant to him. He earned seats on the city's youth commission and Hite's student advisory council.

He started dressing like the people he ran into at City Hall — khakis most days, a button-down shirt, often a blazer, sometimes a tie. When he wore ripped jeans to school on one of the last days of the term, people at SLA were shocked: Tamir Harper owns jeans?

Harper's vision for his future shifted. When he was small, the jobs that made sense for a bright kid from Southwest were the ones with big paychecks and prestige titles: lawyer, doctor CEO. But at SLA, he had a black male teacher for the first time, and it opened his eyes to the power of role models who looked like him. And he got to thinking: Why did he have to spend 35 minutes on a SEPTA trolley to have the kind of learning experience that would make those big jobs possible someday?

"In many of our zip codes, you have to travel and fight for a good education," said Harper. "We are in the back of the plane, with the bathroom doors still open. As a teacher, I believe I can be a social justice change agent — I want our neighborhood high schools to look more like SLA does."

“Let me check my calendar”

These days, it's tough to get an audience with her son, Valeska Harper said.

"When we ask him to go someplace, it's always, 'Let me check my calendar,'" she said. He works, but instead of scooping water ice or bagging groceries, he's racking up experience at internships.

Harper is an officer with Educators Rising, a national organization that grooms bright students committed to teaching, and in May, former first lady Michelle Obama hugged and praised him on stage as part of the National College Signing Day event held in Philadelphia.

And then there's UrbEd, the nonprofit that Harper co-founded in 2016 with Luke Risher, a fellow SLA student, to push the needle on issues of equity in education.

In his free time, Harper runs, hangs out with his friends, and spends time with his young nephews. This winter, he took in some Drexel basketball games — his brother, Troy Jr., now plays for Drexel. But there are not many unscheduled moments, Harper admits.

Harper's parents are a little wistful about becoming empty nesters, but they are off-the-charts proud of him, and a little amused that their baby seems to know important people wherever they go, such as the family's recent trip to the Odunde festival.

"A lady came up to him, and said, 'Tamir!' She introduced him to everyone she knew, and she said, 'Let me take a picture with you!'" said Troy Harper Sr.

Harper does not take his family for granted; he hails "two dope parents — my mom is my stylist, and my dad is my Uber driver," he said. They wanted an Ivy League school for him, but Harper loved D.C. and American. He was eventually chosen to join American's Frederick Douglass Scholars community, given the university's "most prestigious, merit-based scholarship.

"As parents," Valeska Harper said, "we have to sometimes put what we want aside and let him lead."

Presence and maturity

Harper is fixed on his future: He's headed to D.C., but he'll be back sooner rather than later — to teach, perhaps at Tilden or at Bartram, his neighborhood high school.

"I want people to see that a young black boy from Southwest can come back with his Ph.D. and teach in his community," he said.

Hite doesn't doubt that Harper might be his successor one day.

"He has a presence and a maturity that is unique in a young man his age," said Hite.

Harper wears his relatively high public profile comfortably, but lightly.

"For a typical high school kid to get the kind of recognition that he has gotten, it can be easy for someone to believe the hype, and as the world has sort of discovered him, Tamir doesn't believe the hype," said Lehmann, his principal. "He remains this profoundly grounded, thoughtful person."

Harper attributes that in no small part to the mother and father who playfully threaten to FaceTime him daily when he heads to college. And to the neighborhood that shaped him.

"I still have to walk through the streets of Southwest," Harper said. "I still live here."