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Black and Hispanic students in Philly suburbs are disciplined more harshly than white peers, underrepresented in AP classes, report finds

The report by Public Citizens for Children and Youth lays out sweeping achievement gaps in Philadelphia's increasingly diverse collar counties.

Schools should be graded on equity and held accountable by the state, according to advocates.
Schools should be graded on equity and held accountable by the state, according to advocates.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Black and Hispanic students are punished more harshly than white peers in Philadelphia’s suburban school districts and are underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses, according to a new report laying out sweeping achievement gaps in the increasingly diverse collar counties.

Throughout districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, Black and Hispanic students scored worse than white classmates in reading and math on state standardized tests in 2019 — with average gaps ranging from 16 to 27 points, according to the report by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group. The trend carried across almost all of the 61 suburban school districts, with just one exception, and has been widening in most districts over the last seven years, the report said.

Among other barriers, the report faults school policies that have “criminalized” Black and Hispanic students, and “informal and formal” practices that have failed to ensure all students have access to a full array of academic options, including career and technical programs. In more than 90% of suburban districts, Black and Hispanic students were underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses, according to the report.

Collin Woodland, a sophomore at Strath Haven High School in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, said during a news conference Thursday that he “had to fight” to get into honors and AP courses, during lengthy conversations with guidance counselors and administrators.

“No one at the school was looking out for me,” said Woodland, who is African American. “The problem is that I shouldn’t have to push them to do their jobs.”

While racial achievement gaps in education have long been a cause for concern, the report contends they haven’t been adequately discussed in the context of suburban schools, particularly as those schools grow more diverse: A quarter of children in Philadelphia’s suburban districts are Black or Hispanic.

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“Certain pieces of the puzzles have been addressed — but not collectively,” said Tomea Sippio-Smith, K-12 education policy director at PCCY. “You can’t just keep looking at these things in isolation and expecting a different result.”

Her group’s report details how even amid growing diversity, racial and economic segregation in the suburbs persists — within counties as well as individual school districts.

In 34 suburban districts, the report found, the share of Black and Hispanic students varies between some schools by more than 10 percentage points. Eight districts have schools where the shares of enrolled Black and Hispanic students vary by 30 or more points.

In terms of funding, suburban districts with greater shares of Black and Hispanic students have less to spend on instruction, according to the report. Those that are mostly Black or Hispanic — 9 of 61 — spend an average of $11,418 per student on instruction, a figure that grows as the enrollment of those students decreases. In districts with less than 10% Black or Hispanic students, instructional spending per pupil is $12,910.

Multiplied across 24 students in a classroom, that gap amounts to more than $35,000.

The report noted that Black and Hispanic students in the highest-spending districts scored better on tests than those in the lowest-spending districts — and said Pennsylvania has not done enough to fix funding inequities. While the state has adopted a funding formula to steer more money to needier districts, it applies to only 11% of state education spending. A lawsuit challenging the funding system is ongoing; plaintiffs have identified a $4.6 billion gap in what public schools need to adequately educate students.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal, which would add $1.5 billion for schools, “would certainly begin to remedy that barrier to Black and Hispanic achievement,” said Donna Cooper, PCCY’s executive director. Republicans who control the legislature have opposed the proposal, which would require increasing the income-tax rate on the top third of earners.

Still, the problem isn’t a matter of money alone, Cooper said. The report says schools should be graded on equity and held accountable by the state.

It calls for shifts in discipline practices, which it highlights as a key measure of harm for Black students in particular. Black students make up about 13% of enrollment in the suburban school districts yet receive 43% of school suspensions.

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Schools are also more likely to involve the police when disciplining Black students, according to the report — which said Black students were referred to police three times more often than would be expected given their share of the population. While Hispanic students on average were only slightly more likely than white students to be referred to the police, the report noted that in 10 districts, they were referred three times more often than would be expected.

The report calls for the state to ensure schools have funding to hire counselors to improve their climate. It also backs requirements that teachers and staff receive implicit bias and racism training, recruitment of a more diverse teaching force, and the adoption of a “culturally rich and competent curriculum” that covers contributions of people of color.

Some school leaders said they have begun tackling such measures. In the Abington School District, which hired an equity officer in 2019, Superintendent Jeffrey Fecher said the district was reviewing staff hiring and retention, curricular materials, and disciplinary practices.

But while it has allowed open enrollment in honors and AP classes, the numbers of enrolled students “still do not reflect the demographics,” Fecher said. To address that gap, Abington is focusing on improving school climate to encourage more students to participate in higher-level courses.

“We know that there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said.