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His Name in Lights

In 1997, Philadelphia teacher Salome Thomas-EL was offered a chance to transfer from his inner-city middle school to a job at another school that would give him better teaching conditions, more administrative authority, and a $20,000 raise.

Salome Thomas-EL

After introducing his students to the game of chess, Mr. Thomas-EL had earned a reputation as a teacher with the skills to help improve student discipline and morale.

But he turned down the promotion.

"I can’t leave my students," he said in a speech afterward. "They’ll say, ‘He left because of the money.’ And I don’t want them to think that way."

"I want them to know that there is at least one black male who is committed to staying," he added.

Indeed, Mr. Thomas-EL wrote a book about that decision: I Choose to Stay: A Teacher’s Fight for America’s Inner City Schools.

Last week, Walt Disney Pictures announced that it would make a movie based on the book.

Mr. Thomas-EL’s students at Vaux Middle School in Philadelphia won the National Chess Championship eight times, and the teacher is credited with helping them make their way to magnet high schools and to colleges and universities.

He’s received acclaim from such luminaries as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who visited Mr. Thomas-EL in 1999 and awarded him a $20,000 grant, and the education advocate and author Jonathan Kozol.

Promoting I Choose to Stay, published last year, Mr. Kozol said Mr. Thomas-EL’s story was "an intensely moving story of loyalty and a deeply personal tribute to the great potential of our inner-city kids."

Mr. Thomas-EL is now the principal at an elementary school in north Philadelphia, which is one of the poorest sections of the city. He is also pursuing his doctoral degree at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

He often gives speeches to groups and has appeared on numerous television programs to tell his story and promote his book.

But he lives only one block from Vaux Middle School, and he continues to coach chess and mentor students there.

—Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 23, Issue 30, Page 3

Published in Print: April 7, 2004, as Take Note

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