After hundreds of educators marched down Broad Street demanding racial justice and calling for bias screening for newly hired educators, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. joined them on the steps of Philadelphia School District headquarters.

As a black man born in the South in the 1960s, Hite said, he was incredulous and angry that such an assemblage was called for “because we got to witness a black man be stomped out,” referring to George Floyd, killed at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Demonstrators march to the Philadelphia School District Headquarters in support of George Floyd on Thursday.
Staff Photographer
Demonstrators march to the Philadelphia School District Headquarters in support of George Floyd on Thursday.

“No justice, no peace," said Hite, who urged educators to stand up against institutional racism and racist acts in schools.

Before the superintendent joined them, Philadelphia principals, teachers and supporters knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds, marking the length of time an officer knelt on Floyd.

Ayris Colvin, principal of Building 21, a district school in West Oak Lane, said she was heartened to see thousands of people taking to the street to oppose racial injustice. Many students, Colvin said, are “hurt, they’re angry, they’re frustrated. They feel a sense of hopelessness.” She hoped young people seeing their school leaders and teachers marching would comfort them.

Educators and union leaders, including Jerry Jordan of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, criticized a school-funding system that disadvantages Philadelphia and other cities that educate large numbers of black and brown students.

Michael Roth, principal of Olney Elementary, said everyone can play a part.

“It’s not good enough to say that I am personally not a racist,” said Roth, who is white. White people, who make up the bulk of Philadelphia’s teaching force, must stand up to racist policing, housing, education, and prison systems, too.

Robin Cooper, president of the district principals’ union, which organized the march, called for “culturally responsive material” inside classrooms. Educators need to “seek to understand the children we teach,” Cooper said.

Demonstrators take a knee in support of George Floyd during a march that ended at the Philadelphia School District Headquarters on Thursday.
Staff Photographer
Demonstrators take a knee in support of George Floyd during a march that ended at the Philadelphia School District Headquarters on Thursday.

Hite, who earlier spoke at a news briefing, said the most difficult part of the current unrest has been the inability to connect in person with the district’s 125,000 students, now at home because of COVID-19.

The superintendent acknowledged the district has work to do.

“As a district, we have to be a lot better at calling out racism and talking about that and how it impacts our young people, creating the conditions for young people to say what’s on their mind,” Hite said. “We don’t want to lose this when we move away from what’s happening now. We have to start with making sure that everyone is OK.”

The School District issued guidance Monday morning on how teachers should help students cope with Floyd’s death and the protests it has sparked, though Hite took some heat for the district’s initial response to the emerging crisis.

Conversations about and action addressing systemic racism must continue, the superintendent said. They will be uncomfortable, but space must be made to address them. “Our school community is in mourning,” said Hite.

He said he understood the community’s anger over Floyd’s death and the deaths of other black men and women because of police actions and persistent racial inequalities.

But, he said, he worries “about our young people in those communities and their families that don’t have access to services that some of the places that were looted provided.” He hopes that protests center on police brutality and violence against people of color, he said.

“Let’s not make it about tearing down the communities that will have to support families after all of these things are over,” said Hite.

Pennsylvania says districts may consider resuming in-person classes as soon as next month, but Philadelphia is still figuring out plans for September, and may need to delay the start of the school year if staff needs extensive training on health and safety and other new procedures, Hite said. The first order of business will be tending to students’ social and emotional needs.