Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s, I lived in a remarkably homogeneous neighborhood. I attended remarkably diverse schools.
Back then, I didn’t think much about the fact that my public schools — Fox Chase Elementary, Woodrow Wilson Middle, and Northeast High — educated not just the white kids like me who lived in the neighborhoods that surrounded them, but a lot of kids of color, too. Now, I regard it as one of the best parts of my education.
School desegregation and busing are back in the national consciousness since Sen. Kamala Harris’ criticism of former Vice President Joe Biden’s stance on the topic in the 1970s (he sided with segregationists at the time, opposing a policy he called a “liberal train wreck”). Since that pointed discussion during an early Democratic presidential candidates’ debate, I have been thinking a lot about my experiences in Philadelphia schools — which were overwhelmingly positive.
I had great teachers. I had the opportunity to participate in arts and after-school programs. And because I attended schools that received large numbers of children who participated in the voluntary desegregation program, I had classmates who were black, classmates who lived in different parts of the city, classmates who had different life experiences than I did. It taught me how to get along with all kinds of people.
It made me a better person.
I entered kindergarten in 1983, around the time Superintendent Constance Clayton began a voluntary desegregation program that aimed to improve schools’ diversity. At its peak, more than 10,000 mostly black students were bused to schools outside of their neighborhoods, mostly to majority-white schools in the Northeast. My classrooms were laboratories for the program, which formally ended in 2009, when a judge signed a consent decree resolving a 1970s state lawsuit over school segregation.
Ruquyyah Abdul-Akbar and I met in 1984, when we were in first grade. I liked her because she was nice and good at reading, like me. I didn’t know at the time that Ruquyyah, who is black, lived in Germantown, and that her mother chose to put Ruquyyah and her older sister on a bus to get a better education than what was available at their neighborhood, majority-black school.
She’s Ruquyyah Hashmi now, a registered nurse and the married mother of two children. She lives in Delaware and works at a hospital in the Pennsylvania suburbs.
(Ruquyyah’s bus ride wasn’t bad, she said, but my friend Cherae Grant, who attended Rhawnhurst Elementary, then Wilson and Northeast, lived in West Philadelphia. Getting to school meant a bus ride of about an hour for her and her sister.)
There is no doubt in Ruquyyah’s mind that her Germantown friends who went to their neighborhood schools had different experiences than she and I did in the Northeast, that resources mattered and schools in majority-white neighborhoods had them.
“We had a computer lab, everybody had their own books, we had assemblies and special holiday programs, school trips, and I was in the mentally gifted program,” Ruquyyah said. “And I always got the message ‘You’re going to college.’ " A lot of her friends had to share books, and lacked the extras and expectations we had.
Ruquyyah said she felt accepted at school and not targeted because of her skin color, with one exception: When a white friend invited Ruquyyah to her house, then had to walk back the invitation because her parent didn’t want Ruquyyah to come over and wouldn’t explain why.
My sister, Amy Graham Barth, was three grades ahead of me in school. She remembers a few instances on the Fox Chase playground when kids told a black classmate “go back to where you came from!" But Amy also remembers most of the white kids jumping in to shout down the bullies. Mostly, though, Amy remembers kids who got along.
As Jennifer Azzarano, a white friend who attended Solis-Cohen Elementary, another target of the desegregation program, put it: “I don’t like when people say, ‘I don’t see color.’ If you don’t see color, you ignore who people are. But I see things through a different lens because of where we went to school. I see people who are different, and I think, ‘Well, I can learn from them.’ "
My friend Jamal Trusty grew up in North Philadelphia, attending Clymer Elementary through second grade, in 1984. When his mom told him he’d be going to a different school for third grade, Jamal, who is black, remembers expecting it to have all black kids, just like Clymer.
“I see things through a different lens because of where we went to school.”
When Jamal arrived at Fox Chase, where he was in class with my sister, “it was a different world. I hadn’t really been around white people, and this school had white people, Asians, everyone.”
Jamal felt welcome, he said. He had opportunities, and he felt he deserved them as much as his white classmates. (And as much as his friends who stayed at Clymer but didn’t get the same shot.) Jamal had one disturbing experience — getting stopped by the police when he was leaving a skating rink with a neighborhood friend and the friend’s uncle, doing nothing more than being three black males walking down a street in a white neighborhood — but that was outside of school. Overwhelmingly, he thinks positively of the desegregation program.
Jamal, who lives in the Northeast himself now and works in case management, said he didn’t really experience the full heat of racism until he attended a historically black college in the South.
“I think if I had stayed in North Philly, in those schools, there would have been more things in front of me, like drugs and crime, and my life could have turned out different,” Jamal said. “I think the opportunities wouldn’t have been what they were.”
Let me be clear: I am well aware of my privilege. I had the benefit of diversity without having to leave my neighborhood, and I know that even if my schools were not purposely desegregated, I still would have had resources. I’m sure that some kids in desegregated schools felt unwelcome and coped with teachers who doubted their abilities or worse.
But I know for sure I want my children to attend diverse schools, because of what it gave me.
So does Cherae. Her daughter, a recent graduate of Philadelphia’s Charter High School of Architecture and Design (CHAD), was tossing around the idea of attending a historically black college. She had attended mostly black schools growing up, and it felt comfortable.
Cherae purposely steered her daughter in another direction, to Shippensburg University, a Pennsylvania state school in rural Cumberland County.
“I said, ‘No, you know who you are, you’re confident in being a black kid,’ ” Cherae said. “I want you to experience being around a diverse population.”
Kristen Graham covers Philadelphia public schools for The Inquirer and still knows all the words to her elementary, middle, and high school songs.