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School Days II: Fiasco at South Philly High

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By Dale Mezzacappa

 Last spring, with solemnity and a great sense of closure, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) settled a desegregation case against the Philadelphia School District that had dragged on for decades.

In doing so, Commission leaders expressed confidence that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman could end longstanding discriminatory practices and provide a high-quality education for all students, regardless of their color or ethnic backgrounds.

No one involved in the settlement, neither Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith, nor the civil rights and education advocacy groups that had helped negotiate an end to the nearly 40-year-old case, was na├»ve enough to think that Ackerman could solve all the district's problems. But they put faith in her attributes as a leader and declared that they believed her comprehensive strategic plan, Imagine 2014, could bring positive change.  

But no sooner had the ink dried - in a 40-year-old case, months is nothing - than the PHRC heard personally from Ackerman again. And the appearance certainly cast doubt in the faith they had placed in her.

The PHRC is just one of several agencies looking into attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High School. Ackerman's response to the violence points to her shortcomings as a leader and to the deeply embedded legacy of racism that permeates our institutions and seeps into all of us. Her behavior in the wake of incident has been puzzling at best and appalling at worst -- one official who has closely watched the situation termed it "irrational."


Asians attacked

On December 3, a group of 30 Asian students were beaten up as schoolmates, most of them African American, ran up and down the halls and invaded classrooms. Several needed medical attention. Subsequently, about 50 Asian students, with the backing of advocacy groups, boycotted classes, saying they felt unsafe in school. They said staff members not only didn't try to intervene, but sometimes joined with anti-Asian slurs. 

For their part, the Asian students and their advisors repeatedly said that they didn't blame other students They put the blame at the foot of adults in the school and district for allowing conditions to fester that harm all students, including those who attacked them.

They asked Ackerman to meet with them and take immediate steps to rectify the situation.

Ackerman not only declined to do this for several weeks, but she has appeared to take sides rather than try to get to the root of the problem. First, she suggested the incident was in retaliation after Asian students attacked what she termed a "disabled" black student the day before. Then she refused to meet with the Asian students unless they returned to school. She created a group of mostly African American "student ambassadors" who were not involved in the violence, and said their voices were missing from the discussion. She said the schools were being asked to solve societal problems. She blamed the situation on the media and on the advocacy groups who were advising and supporting the Asian students. She suggested, without any evidence, that perhaps "gangs" were involved.

Earlier this month, PHRC chairman Stephen A. Glassman called a meeting to hear from the Asian community, but Ackerman invited herself and her "student ambassadors," not including any Asian victims, and she proceeded once again to blame the incident on citywide violence and societal problems. Essentially, she said enough already - her spokeswoman said later that the superintendent was "frustrated" and she had more important work to do, like manage a touch-and-go budget in a "distressed" school district.   


A different district

In the meantime, the district has put in place predictable fixes as South Philly High: more security, a few programs on "diversity."

When the lawsuit Human Relations Commission's lawsuit began in the early 1970's, the school district looked quite different demographically. Most of the students in the system were either white or African American; while there had always been immigrants in Philadelphia, relatively few back then were Latino or Asian.

Discrimination was rampant against the rapidly growing black student population. There were only token blacks on the Board of Education, and almost all the district's administrative hierarchy was white. Many of the black teachers in the system still remembered when they were forbidden to teach white children and the district had created all-black elementary schools to employ them.

The white hierarchy of the district showed little inclination to understand or represent the interests of the black students. They were often shunted to special education or low-track classes. Teachers openly doubted their ability to learn at the same levels as whites. Teacher and principal insensitivity went unchecked.

A school district leader can't appear to be protecting the interests of one group of students at the expense of others. After all, that attitude on the part of earlier school leaders is what got the school district into this fix in the first place.

Since that disastrous Human Relations Commission meeting Ackerman seems to have acquired some perspective on the South Philly violence. In a Martin Luther King Day gathering at the high school, she expressed sympathy for the Asian students - comparing their experiences to her own as a black high school student in St. Louis in the 1950's, right after Brown vs. Board of Education ordered the desegregation of schools.

"When we were allowed to go to school with White children, we were hated, and we were spat upon, we were attacked. I understand clearly what that feels like, and I want you to know that my heart aches for you and what you experienced that day," she said.


School Days III: How the district is handling the education of immigrant students.






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