Staying Power

A Philadelphia principal is grounded in his inner-city roots

Salome Thomas-El did not discover his calling alone. It’s no wonder that he commits his life to helping inner-city youth realize theirs. As principal of the Reynolds Elementary School in Philadelphia, he has rejected six-figure offers to teach in suburban school districts because of his commitment to educating children in the inner city. Thomas-El’s decision to stay results in fulfillment for himself and the students he educates. “There are so many benefits to giving back,” he says. “If nothing else, it’s a way to sustain generations of people coming after us.”

His transition into teaching came in a roundabout fashion. After a stint at a sports television station, he began giving motivational presentations to area students. As a result, students began to notice his penchant for teaching, commenting: “If you can motivate us as a speaker, then you can motivate us as a teacher.”

Eventually, Thomas-El took their advice. He obtained a master’s degree in education while substitute teaching at schools in the North Philadelphia community where he grew up. In 1989, he started teaching full time.

“I didn’t realize it at first — that [teaching] was my calling. But the students led me to it,” says Thomas-El. Over the years, students have led him to do a lot of things. For instance, Thomas-El and others in the community restarted a championship chess team at the Vaux Middle School in North Philadelphia. The team has traveled around the country and received funding from Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Inner-City Games Foundation.

Thomas-El views chess as a way to encourage high academic achievement among students. He notes that chess helps students develop critical thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills, and produces high SAT scores and college acceptance rates. He also sees chess as a venue for exposing students to extracurricular activities outside of athletics.

“I saw a lot of students focusing on sports, but many were going to college and not finishing,” he says. Although the administrator views athletic participation as a positive outlet for students, he also wants them to concentrate on developing their mental abilities. “I want students to focus on getting an M.B.A. instead of making the NBA,” he says. He also takes students to visit colleges and universities around the country and makes it a point to attend many of their graduations.

“A lot of people chose to stay to help me,” says Thomas-El. “My hope is that some young person will also choose to stay. When young people stay, they give back to the young people following behind them, as well as their mentors.”

Although some may be hesitant about inhabiting inner-city neighborhoods, Thomas-El encourages them to look past their fears and find out more about these areas. He challenges people to “get past stereotypes” of what they perceive the inner city to be and “get to know people.”

Community Outreach

  • Salome Thomas-El, author of I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City (Kensington Publishing Corp.; $23), offers the following suggestions for giving back:
  • Become a reading coach, mentor, or role model. “No
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