It's a warm Friday morning at South Philadelphia High, where the school's 50-50 Club, with its half-Asian, half-African American membership has gathered to talk.

All the black kids sit on one side of the room. All the Asians sit on the other.

An African American girl offers: "You know the stereotype all Asians look alike? Well, they don't. Since you get to hang around them and know them, they're actually cool."

The Asian students were asked what they had learned. One boy slowly raised his hand. "Making new friends," he said through a translator.

Sitting silently was ninth grader Zhi Hua Tian, 18. On Dec. 3, he was walking toward the lunchroom when another boy punched him in the face, breaking his nose.

Tian, who left school in an ambulance, was the most seriously injured of seven students taken to hospitals that day. His attacker was forced to transfer to an alternative school. Now, Tian said through a translator, "I'm always nervous and scared, especially in the stairways. Especially when I see a group of people."

Six months after the violence generated national headlines, some big changes are evident: The school has 126 additional security cameras. The principal has left. New programs seek to bridge divides.

Top Philadelphia school officials say Southern, as the school is known, is being transformed.

"I do think there is work to be done," said Ozzie Wright, a veteran educator now serving as interim principal. But, he added, "I think we're moving forward."

However, Asian students and advocates say that serious, systemic bias issues persist - and that district officials refuse to address them.

"We still need the school to correctly identify the nature of the problem," said Ellen Somekawa, director of Asian Americans United.

In interviews, six Asian students said they were still targets of harassment and even violence.

Hao Truong, 18, said that on May 3 he had his back to a group of black students in the cafeteria when applesauce splashed across his neck and upper back. The students laughed, he said.

Truong, a Vietnamese immigrant, complained to school authorities.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the student who threw the food maintained that he had hit Truong accidentally, that he had been aiming at a trash can. Either way, Gallard said, it was wrong, and the school punished the student with a one-day suspension and a call to his parents.

"I feel disrespected," Truong said. "I think things are the same as before."

Fewer assaults

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said Southern has made enormous strides - and not solely because the district spent $689,000 on cameras. She said students were getting along better and violence had diminished.

"Lots of Asian students are fully integrated, with classrooms and friendships that are strong," Ackerman said in a May 14 interview. She declined to comment for this article.

Fewer incidents of student-on-student assault were reported this school year compared to the same period last year, district statistics show.

Incidents of assault dropped from 92 to 44 for the same September-through-May periods.

This year's lower figure, officials said, was driven by a dramatic decline that began when added security was introduced after the Dec. 3 attacks. This year, there were only 15 student assaults from December through May, compared to 70 in the preceding year.

But Asian groups contend that incidents have been undercounted and poorly investigated. They say many victims seek advocates' help because they are uncomfortable reporting assaults to district officials, and feel they get little result.

"They have gone to great lengths to misrepresent what has been happening at the school, to avoid any responsibility or accountability," said Helen Gym, an AAU board member. "Their tone-deafness to the real cries of students, families, and community members is astounding."

Gallard said every incident reported is fully investigated. Officials would be eager to receive specifics of unreported cases, he said.

Asian advocates are counting on outside agencies to impose change.

The federal Department of Justice is investigating whether the district discriminated against Asian students, acting on a complaint filed in January. The department could sue the district, negotiate a settlement, or take no action. Conducting a separate inquiry is the state Human Relations Commission, which has the power to subpoena information from the district.

Dismal academics

Southern is huge - five floors, multiple stairwells, endless doors - but it seems empty. It was built for 2,000 students, but now serves 900. The academics are dismal: Only 8 percent of juniors read at grade level.

As school began on a recent Friday, Wright, the interim principal, moved assuredly through the halls.

"Good morning, girls!" he called to one group. "How are you all feeling today?"

Teachers and students say Wright has quickly lightened the atmosphere, instituting an open-door policy and earnestly listening to anyone who wants to talk.

In Fran Wilkins' classroom, students heard the daily announcements, dominated by the boys volleyball team's narrow loss in a city championship game. The school rallied around the squad, composed of African American and Asian players.

"I encourage each of you to reach out and across ethnic boundaries," an administrator boomed over the loudspeaker. "Together, we are better. Go, Rams!"

Graduating senior Amina Velazquez, 18, was already missing the school.

"I love it here," she said. "Kids are getting along a whole lot better."

Disparate views

For this article, The Inquirer spoke to 52 students, teachers, advocates, and school officials. Their views on changes at South Philadelphia High were disparate, as though each had his or her own microclimate.

Junior Indiyyah Bradsher, 17, one of more than a dozen African American students interviewed, said the presence of the cameras had reduced commotion. She felt relations between African American and Asian students had grown less tense.

"We say 'hi' to each other," Bradsher said. "Today, I bumped an Asian kid, and I said, 'I'm sorry,' and he said, 'It's OK.' It's cool. We're cool."

Senior Kahlil Davis agreed.

"Everybody still feels a little shaken up about the situation, but there are less fights, less people in trouble."

Table tennis has been set up outside the lunchroom, air-hockey games inside, to promote interaction among a student body that is 70 percent African American, 18 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent non-Hispanic white.

A district inquiry found that race was a contributing factor in all the Dec. 3 attacks, but it blamed them on rumors that followed an altercation the previous day between Asian and African American students. Asian leaders say the inquiry failed to link the violence to years of assaults on Asians.

Many teachers and advocates said their hopes for the future rose with the departure of Principal LaGreta Brown. She left the school May 13, when The Inquirer asked about her lack of state certification, but she has remained employed in the district.

Efforts to contact her were unsuccessful.

Many also expressed high expectations for incoming Principal Otis Hackney III.

"The tone the principal sets, and the message the principal sends, and the decisions the principal makes really matter," said Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, who serves on the city Commission on Human Relations.

Brown had replaced Alice Heller in 2009, becoming the fourth principal in five years.

"Everyone is holding their breath to see what the new leadership will do," said Nancy Nguyen, head of Boat People SOS, which aids Vietnamese families. "I feel students are hopeful."

But, she added, if she had been asked about the same topic a year ago, "it would be the same conversation: 'Alice Heller, this, that, and the other. Brown, hope, hope, hope.' "

Language problems

The day after Dec. 3, Brown sent a three-paragraph letter home to families.

"As you may have heard in the news," the principal wrote, "an incident occurred at dismissal, outside of South Philadelphia High School."

In fact, there had not been one incident. There had been at least five separate attacks on Asians throughout the day. The massive, dismissal-time assault to which Brown referred was merely the largest and last, in which 100 mostly African American youths surrounded 10 Vietnamese students.

Many families who received Brown's letter could not read it because it was in English. Asian students say language-access problems endure at the school, set in a neighborhood that draws newcomers from around the world.

Wright said the school was now striving to ensure that students and families get information in languages they understand.

"We want to be sure that everyone understands what we're saying," he said.

Senior Wei Chen, president of the Chinese American Student Association, said his family recently got a letter from the school. On the envelope, written in Chinese, was the notation, "This is important for you to answer." The letter inside was in English.

"My parents don't speak English," he said.

Chen thinks the school has changed only slightly. Everyone knows they're being watched, so violence has moved to places where cameras can't see, like bathrooms.

Will he miss Southern when he graduates this month?

"No," Chen said.

New leadership

The new principal is 37, a baby-faced Philly guy who worked as a Southern assistant principal and now leads Springfield High in Montgomery County.

At Southern, Hackney said, he'll evaluate academics, celebrate diversity, talk honestly about racial tensions, and - most of all - listen.

Does he believe the school has a problem of violence and harassment against Asian students?

He's not ready to say.

"I don't think that would be fair to the students and community groups - both sides of the issue," he said.

He's counting on groups like the 50-50 Club - and staff - to help move forward.

"We can't fail at what we do," he said. "You're going to have conflicts at school. The issue is how you deal with that."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415