Angela Crawford has said it for years: Philadelphia schools can’t make meaningful improvements until there’s a reckoning over the racial injustices that underpin the education system.
As a veteran English teacher at Martin Luther King High School, Crawford has lamented a lack of cultural competence and systems that disadvantage Black children and other students of color, leading to disparities in achievement, discipline, and access to elite classes and schools. The way to begin fixing it, she said, is a move toward antiracist curriculum and away from practices that center only on the experiences of white people.
Antiracism, Crawford said, “needs to be the overarching theme of every single school in the city.”
In a post-George Floyd world, as Black students speak out about their experiences with racism inside schools, it’s an idea whose time has come in a growing number of school systems. On Sunday, teachers and education supporters are planning to rally and march up Broad Street for racial justice, underscoring the ways they believe the Philadelphia School District must change, from equity boards in schools and a curricular overhaul to ridding buildings of environmental toxins — and making ethnic, indigenous, and Black studies courses available at all levels.
As educators released their demands this week, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced the formation of a district-wide equity coalition and pledged policy and curricular changes that have not been laid out yet, as well as ongoing antiracist staff training and other work in the school system of about 125,000 students, a majority of them Black or brown and taught by an overwhelmingly white teaching force.
Philadelphia’s actions are happening as some school districts across the nation are moving in the same direction. Detroit’s school board recently promised antiracist measures; closer to home, the Bethlehem, Pa., district has done the same, and its superintendent, Joseph Roy, has said that “our curriculum needs to expose our students to the history and horrors of racism.”
The American Association of School Administrators has called upon its members to move beyond equity into antiracism because “we are living at a time of obscene inequities and merely trying to compensate is not enough,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director. “Now is the time for all educational leaders to intensify our commitment to address inequities and work to dismantle systemic racism.”
For those Philadelphia teachers for whom the call isn’t new, the need to march Sunday is still urgent. School leaders are speaking out now, but problems have persisted for generations and they fear the change offered by the system will be cursory, gone when Floyd’s death no longer commands news headlines.
“It’s not a ‘do this checklist and now you’re cured,’” said Crawford.
In Philadelphia, Black students are 3.1 times more likely to be suspended as white students; white students are 1.5 times more likely to be enrolled in Advanced Placement courses as Black students, according to a ProPublica analysis of federal education data.
Black and brown students are “experiencing systemic racism and discrimination at every turn” in the Philadelphia School District, said Keziah Ridgeway, a history teacher at Northeast High. “Enough is enough. It’s time to challenge what has become normal and reenvision and implement a just and equitable education system.”
The work will not be easy, and it must be shared by white educators, some said.
Kathy Cohen Volin, a white teacher at Greenberg Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia and member of Building Anti-Racist White Educators (BARWE), a coalition of city teachers, said that not all her colleagues are comfortable with her call for change or inclusion of a Black Lives Matter curriculum. (A group of Philadelphia educators has developed the curriculum, based on state and district content standards; it is not endorsed by the district.)
But the work is crucial, Volin said, and must push into schools where such conversations are not common.
“We all need to look at our own internal racism, which is painful,” Volin said. “I’ve cried over it, thinking about how I interacted with Black male students. We just all need to do more to help, to change the structures in our schools and in our district.”
Still, Volin said, it feels as if Floyd’s death was a turning point. After the unarmed man was killed by Minneapolis police, even her seventh-grade students who had expressed more conservative viewpoints in the past said change was needed.
“Public opinion has shifted,” said Volin. “Teachers went from feeling like, ‘I feel unprepared to talk about racism, so maybe I shouldn’t,' to ‘It doesn’t matter that I don’t know how to talk about this, we need to talk about it.’”
Other local schools have pledged action on racial equity issues, many in answer to student concerns: Cherry Hill has said it will examine its curriculum and do more to teach Black history; Germantown Friends said it is “working to create and implement a comprehensive approach to antiracism”; before students return to school in the fall, Lower Merion staff will have training on equity and antiracism.
Philadelphia School District officials said changes will begin when students return to school in September. District staff is already examining and infusing antiracism into the social studies curriculum, and other subjects will eventually be addressed. But the goal to amplify the work of activists goes well beyond that, said Estelle Acquah, a special projects director working on antiracism.
“This is an organizational-wide effort,” said Acquah. “Nothing is off the table. We’re looking at what policy changes we need to make as a system, but also how we affect every worker in the system’s thoughts and beliefs.”
Equity has been a focus of his administration, Hite said; it is accelerating.
“I think the collective will is different now,” he said.