AS WE anticipate the hiring of a new head of our public schools, I have a few suggestions for the decision-makers. Not that they'll listen, since I'm an outsider. But I thought I'd share my ideas.
We need an educational purist who knows numbers, not just a businessperson-turned-educator to fix our schools. I'd like to see a superintendent instead of a CEO because, as we learned too late the last time, Paul Vallas' business-infused model was a disaster. But all is not lost. I hope lessons were learned and everyone involved with the school district is now on board with the idea that our children aren't pawns.
There are some other qualities I think the new school leader should have. But first a tribute to the late John Skief, founder and head of the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School, who died over the weekend. Skief was a tireless pioneer and an advocate for black children. He set a high bar for his students and inspired thousands during his three decades as an educator.
There are three types of people: those who wait for things to happen, those who let things happen and those who make things happen.
Skief's vision (as defined in the school's charter) was "to use the knowledge of science and technology as a means of promoting self reliance in the African-American community specifically and in the world community in general."
Because he felt that the Philadelphia School District dropped the ball for black children, Skief cultivated his own brand of African-centered education. "He was unwavering in his commitment to building a culturally corrective education," says educator Camara Jordan, who remembers Skief's work from the '70s, when he first founded Harambee Institute. "When he didn't have a building, Harambee was a traveling cultural institution."
Ralf Stevenson, who teaches cultural awareness at the charter school, hails Skief as one of the few black educators who actually brought his vision to fruition. Stevenson calls it "an indictment on this country that more teachers aren't as committed to developing a child's ability to build self-respect, self-reliance and self-empowerment."
Skief also believed that educational achievement requires a partnership between students, parents and the school.
Back in 1988, when he taught social studies at West Philadelphia High School, he told this reporter that his biggest obstacle wasn't the schools, or students' unwillingness to learn, but parents who didn't make their children's education a priority, and didn't even show up on Back to School Night.
Today, parental commitment remains a requirement for Harambee students and should become a model for all schools.
Our children's education must be a top priority for Mayor-elect Michael Nutter. I hope that he throws his weight behind finding a Philadelphia educator who has good political skills and will focus on building great schools.
And that mean - please, don't let any other talents like Deidre Farmbry get away again.
Farmbry, a highly qualified Philadelphia educator, retired from the school district after being passed over for Vallas, who was imported from Chicago.
I was curious to know if she'd be interested in the job again. (Just in case anyone remembers her fine credentials.)
For the record, Farmbry, who was on her way out of town to attend an education seminar when we spoke on the phone, told me that she's quite happy running her nonprofit, the Urban Education Fund, an educational resource service, which offers tools to improve academic achievement.
SO I HOPE that our new school boss is passionate about education, and truly loves our children. We need someone who is progressive, who believes that black kids (especially) can achieve and who is committed to preparing them to one day compete in global arenas.
Perhaps I'm fantasizing, but I'd also like a school leader who, like John Skief, will dare to build a dream, and leave a fine legacy for others. *
Fatimah Ali is a regular contributor. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.