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Philly teachers and students take to the street to protest racism

“We’re not free unless we’re all free,” Keziah Ridgeway, a history teacher at Northeast High, told the crowd as the rally for Black lives got underway. “Walk as if you are transforming education with your feet.”

Rising seniors at Central High School Sheyla Street (left) and Samyah Smalley lead protesters in a song on Sunday.
Rising seniors at Central High School Sheyla Street (left) and Samyah Smalley lead protesters in a song on Sunday.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

They marched because Black students gain entrance into Philadelphia’s magnet schools and Advanced Placement classes at lower rates than their white peers. They marched because schools that contain crumbling, toxic asbestos often educate Black children. They marched because some changes that students have been seeking for 50 years still have not come.

“Walk as if you are transforming education with your feet,” said Keziah Ridgeway, a Northeast High social studies teacher and organizer of a Sunday rally and march up Broad Street for Black lives. “The School District of Philadelphia will not be the same after today.”

Hundreds of teachers, students, parents, and education supporters chanted, waved signs, clapped and sang from City Hall to district headquarters on North Broad, saying that changes are long overdue for the district’s 125,000 students. They underscored a list of demands, from cleaning up environmental toxins still widely present in schools to creating robust ways for students and teachers to report racism against them.

In advance of the protest, district officials said they were creating a racial equity board and promised a move toward antiracist education in every area of the district, rewriting curriculum in every subject area and mandating ongoing training for every staffer.

Organizers and those who attended the march said that the district’s promises were a step, but that they would keep up the pressure, given the school system’s past performance.

The voices of hundreds of district teachers, students, and supporters, who were stretched curb-to-curb across Philadelphia’s wide major artery, could be heard echoing off Broad Street’s cavernous buildings. Over the beat of drumming students, the marchers chanted for change, “When Black students are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back,” went the chants. “No justice, no peace. Abolish school police!”

As the peaceful march reached district headquarters, musicians took to its steps to declare their intentions in song. “We’re fighting for our children. We shall not be moved,” sung parent and longtime supporter of antiracism Tamara Anderson.

Some district leaders were watching closely. Board members Ameen Akbar, Mallory Fix Lopez, and Angela McIver attended the rally, pledging they would do more than listen.

“There’s urgency, and we need to push this,” said McIver. Timing will be crucial. Less than two months after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by Minneapolis police, the nation’s attention is still fixed on the racial justice movement. And the district is led by William R. Hite Jr., a veteran superintendent who has less than two years left on his contract.

The diverse crowd marched under a blazing summer sun. Protest organizers handed out water, snacks, and sunscreen, urging attendees to get COVID-19 tested. The crowd was heavily masked.

» READ MORE: 'It's time to challenge what has become normal': Philly schools move toward antiracism

Zoe Sturges, who teaches at Mastery Charter-Clymer, was galvanized by an incident in which one of her kindergarten students was threatened with handcuffs, she said. The boy, 6, figured out how to use a classroom landline to call 911; police showed up and wanted to “give the kid a lesson,” Sturges said, with handcuffs and a ride around the block in a police car.

Sturges’ principal did not allow police to cuff the boy, but the message from society to Black children is clear, Sturges said.

Megan Cullinane said it’s her duty as a teacher to keep in mind the lived experience of her students at Edison High, where the student population is mostly Latinx and Black.

“It’s up to every individual to commit to this movement,” said Cullinane, who is white.

Elissa Goldberg, a teacher at AMY at James Martin, a district middle school, was glad to hear about the district’s move toward antiracism, but worried about buzzwords and empty promises.

“There needs to be resources and support, money to do all of this” said Goldberg, emphasizing the need for trauma-informed practices and mental-health supports for district students and families.

» READ MORE: Going to school on alternate days is favored option among Philly teachers, staff, survey says

Mariame Sissoko, a recent graduate of Central High, said the district continues to criminalize Black and brown students.

“We have counselors who despite their best efforts do not know how to counteract the effects of anti-Black racism,” said Sissoko.

The district’s teaching force is overwhelmingly white.

Central student Sheyla Street, the daughter of State Sen. Sharif Street, decried the low percentage of Black students in magnet schools such as hers. As a Black student, she has been singled out and her academic abilities doubted, Street said.

“Let’s show Black students that the Philadelphia School District does care about them, and they matter here,” she said.

Her father, himself a Central graduate, said that his daughter is still fighting for things he and his classmates demanded nearly 30 years ago.

“For many people, this is a generational struggle,” Sharif Street told the crowd.

The concerns of Black students at Central and Masterman have been elevated recently by social media accounts that detail their struggles in plain and painful detail — students called the N-word, students isolated and targeted.

After the main rally broke off, several dozen people marched to Masterman, where a group of students and alumni protested the conditions Black students have dealt with there.

“I never understand why staff would target me and my Black classmates about our shorts,” a Masterman student said. Students should not be defined by their Blackness, but by their intelligence, she said.

Johari Sankofa, a 2011 graduate of Masterman, said he’s still marked by eight years at the school and that in reading the Black at Masterman Instagram account, it’s clear to him that current students still struggle with some of the same problems he lived through.

“I don’t want anyone targeted,” Sankofa said. “I don’t want anyone called the N-word.”