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Education pioneer John Skief dies at 59

John Skief, an educational visionary and founder of one of the first charter schools in Philadelphia, had a favorite saying: "Where would the world be without funk?"

John Skief, an educational visionary and founder of one of the first charter schools in Philadelphia, had a favorite saying: "Where would the world be without funk?"

Today, it's doubtless that the world is just a little less funky. Skief, 59, died unexpectedly Saturday from a heart attack, leaving behind his wife, his family and his dream, the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology in Overbrook.

As the charter school opens its doors today to the 500 students in kindergarten through eighth grade who frequent its halls, administrators hope students will be able to follow Skief's wishes.

"John always said that at whatever point he left us, he wanted it to be a celebration," Rhonda Sharif, school business manager, said. "He didn't want a whole lot of gloomy people walking around. That tone will be set for the children."

Skief's wife of 27 years, Tonya, said he expressed the same sentiment to his family.

"He wanted to be celebrated. He told me, 'Do not have a funeral where people are going to be sad. I want a band to play. I want music. I want James Brown!' " she said. "So that's what I'm going to do, I'm going to have a party."

Skief's life was far from a party at times. He struggled ceaselessly to establish education alternatives for black youth in the city.

A West Philadelphia High School history teacher for many years, Skief established the Harambee Institute in a rowhouse on Girard Avenue near 55th Street in response to the 1973 teachers' strike.

The educational institute and community center operated until 1987 and celebrated black culture and history. During the institute's tenure, Skief simultaneously taught there and in the public school system.

"He was always trying to find a home [for Harambee] in various places - churches, old school buildings, apartments; wherever somebody was willing to give space, he'd set up and teach," Tonya said.

"He was just that determined to overcome any obstacles. He was relentless in his pursuit. It was very difficult watching him struggle to get there, but he did it and I am so very proud of him because he never backed down," she added.

When the state passes legislation approving charter schools, Skief was first in line to propose the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology, an African-centered school.

"He always focused on African-American children. As an African-American male he studied African history and saw the benefits in terms of self-esteem," said Veronica Joyner, a friend, colleague and founder of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences charter school.

"His students needed to know where they came from and he was the one to say to them, 'You are great and you come from a great people.' "

When Skief opened his school in 1997, it was one of the four pioneer charter schools in Philadelphia. Today, the city has 32,000 students in 61 charter schools, with another 20,000 on waiting lists, Joyner said.

"I'm certain he'll be sorely missed at his school and in the Philadelphia education arena as a whole," Joyner said. "We have certainly lost a soldier who represented children and education in this city."

While his absence as founder, chief executive officer, educator and friend at Harambee will be undeniable, Sharif said Skief never saw his school and his dream as depending on his existence.

"He always told us, 'I'm preparing you to run this without me,' " she said.

"He always envisioned this as being bigger than him. He knew what he was doing from the '70s on was never about him."

Skief also leaves two sons, two daughters, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A son preceded him in death. *