Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman made it clear yesterday that she's pouring people and resources into troubled South Philadelphia High, where 30 Asian students were attacked on Dec. 3.
There's a new after-school arts program, run by Asian Arts Initiative. Classes offering Chinese as a second language. An in-school center for new immigrants. The pending appointment of an Asian assistant principal.
But the superintendent's delivery of expanded programming couldn't steady the nerves of Asian youths who joined dozens of classmates for new-student orientation yesterday. The session was a chance to hear about rules and policies, but also a lesson in majority-minority dynamics at the school, which is 70 percent African American and 18 percent Asian.
In interviews, new African American students tended to say that while they might have qualms tied to last year's violence, they expected to have a great year at Southern, as the school is known.
"I feel confident," said Kassidy Ayler, 15, an 11th-grader who transferred from Delaware. "I feel like I'm going to do good here."
Asian kids said they were worried about being targets. Even Asian adults were wary.
"Definitely," said Cathy Cheng, walking into the school with her Chinese-teacher husband, Jenson Cheng. They said they had heard stories from Asian staff about violence at the school. "The safety issue really needs to get under control," said Jenson Cheng.
New 9th-grader Mei Hui Huang arrived in the U.S. six months ago from Fujian Province, China, and speaks little English. But she said in a translation provided by her sister, Mandy Huang, that she was concerned about violence.
Mandy offered her own opinion of what happens at the school: "They fight."
The sisters said they hoped violence was limited to boys, that girls would be left alone - unaware that several Asian girls have reported being assaulted during the last two years. And that a Cambodian girl was singled out as a violent aggressor on Dec. 3.
The school made national headlines that day, when groups of mostly African American students carried out a daylong series of assaults on Asians.
The assaults triggered inquiries by the district, the state Human Relations Commission, and the federal Justice Department.
The Inquirer reported on Friday that Justice Department investigators have told the district they found merit in the claims of Asian students who said they were abused. The Justice Department advised the district to improve conditions and move toward a settlement.
The civil-rights complaint filed by an Asian advocacy group cited at least 26 assaults against Asians during the 2008-09 school year alone, and charged that district inaction led to the violence of Dec. 3. School administrators insist that they took all allegations seriously and disciplined students when appropriate.
Yesterday, Ackerman said none of the new programs or people at Southern was added at the behest of the Justice Department. They stemmed, she said, from her administration seeking to provide every possible resource for the difficult work of changing attitudes and behavior around issues of school violence.
"This has been going on at South Philadelphia for decades," she said in an interview. "The only thing that's changed is the ethnicities. What we need to say is, 'Enough is enough.'"
During the morning session Ackerman spoke to about 75 students, parents and staff, promising that this year would be different and better, her presence adding the imprimatur of the superintendent to an event that would have been otherwise routine.
"We will not tolerate any disrespect, any bullying, anything that causes any student to feel unsafe here," she told reporters. "At the same time, we're going to build on our diversity."
She said her new, hand-picked principal, Otis Hackney, would be given the freedom to fix the school.
"I don't plan to second-guess him," Ackerman said. "I just want him and everyone to know he has 100, 200, 500 percent of my support."
Hackney, who previously led Springfield Township High in Montgomery County, becomes the fifth principal in six years at a school that routinely fails to meet state academic standards and was labeled "persistently dangerous" under federal law.
This summer Hackney spent considerable time meeting with Asian advocacy organizations, usually traveling to their offices.
"He's really been reaching out," said Gayle Isa, executive director of Asian Arts Initiative. "He's doing a very good job of listening."
AAI established a new partnership with Southern to provide after-school workshops in dance, poetry, drumming and other subjects. Youths will be encouraged to create art on the topic of where they come from - however they interpret that.
"What needs to happen," Hackney said, "is me as a new principal setting the tone early, about my expectations about safety and how students should be treated."
His bottom line: harassment and violence are unacceptable.
Helen Gym, a board member at Asian Americans United, said she's encouraged by Hackney but wasn't convinced that the steps announced Tuesday would change the school.
"It feels like from the school district that there are a lot of proclamations," she said. "What hasn't been happening is any significant dialogue with community members. ... It's hard to tell whether these things are positive or not, or what they are."
School officials said yesterday that one of three new "Newcomer Learning Academies" for immigrants will be based at Southern, a potential boon to a changing neighborhood. Since the 1980s, South Philadelphia has experienced waves of immigration, melding a traditionally Italian enclave into a place full of arrivals from China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar. Many arrive knowing little English.
They can expect help from a new district hire - Deborah Wei, a veteran Chinese activist and until recently the principal of FACTS, the Chinatown charter school.
She's now director of the new Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs. She was asked what she expected this school year.
"I'm actually very hopeful," Wei said, praising Hackney as "fabulous. He sets the right tone. He approaches the job with his sleeves rolled up, and with the gravity this place requires."
Students were wary or not.
"I think I'm going to make some new friends," said Venus Joyner, 15, who is African American.
Sue Liang Lin, 15 and newly arrived from Fujian, was not focused on making friends. He was, he said through a translator, "a little bit nervous."