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Education as a Core Civil Rights Issue: Zachary Wright ’01

Zachary Wright is a fixture at the Mastery Charter School network’s Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia, having taught senior English to nearly every student the school has graduated, more than 700 over the past six years. For forging a unique college scholarship program exclusively for Mastery Charter School graduates at the University of Vermont, his alma mater, as well as for his outstanding work in the classroom, he was named Philadelphia’s 2012-13 Outstanding Teacher of the Year by Mayor Michael Nutter. 

After college, I connected with physical education teacher and coach Russell Tombline about substituting at Packer. One day I covered an Upper School health class. The topic was drugs and alcohol, and I remember having a conversation with the students that was based upon mutual respect and honesty. As class let out, I felt a surge of energy, a distinct feeling of purpose, mission, and inspiration. I had found my calling. 

The Mastery Charter School network was founded upon the belief that schools can be turned around and made into successes with the same student-body profile as before. We do not have entrance exams or tuition fees. If a family resides in the school’s zip code, their child has a spot at the school. 

Before Mastery, I taught at Philadelphia’s most persistently dangerous and lowest performing high school, which has since been torn down. I broke up fights, stopped drug deals, and witnessed school police officers throwing students into cages. I came face to face with an all-too-common fact of urban schools: that segregation remains, is tacitly approved of, and is deeply entrenched.

I steadfastly believe that education is, and has always been, the core civil rights issue in this country. The very families that are told to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, are the ones who — after displaying resilience and grit unseen in many affluent schools — still cannot afford college. I have come to understand that no matter how amazing a student of mine might be, to the larger world, he is another black or brown face in a hoodie, a face that inspires fear, and all too often, violence.

In my day, the Packer community, blessed as it was with considerable means, retained a sense of higher moral obligation. Even though many of my friends and I came from wealthy backgrounds, there was a streak of urgency in regards to social justice and equality. It is a quality that I hope remains. 

This profile appeared in a feature on alumni in education published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Packer Magazine.

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