Philadelphia has a history of grappling with teacher segregation

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Over the last eight years, since the lifting of a consent decree that grew out of a longstanding civil rights action against the Philadelphia School District, data show that the faculties at individual schools are becoming more segregated.

This is troubling to some people, not least because for a large part of its history – right up until the 1950s, when Brown vs. Board of Education was decided – the District practiced deliberate segregation and overt discrimination against black teachers.

For much of the 20th century, District leaders exacerbated the isolation of blacks and whites by how they drew school catchment areas, where they chose to build schools, and how they assigned teachers.

In the middle of the 20th century, the black student population in Philadelphia increased rapidly, from 20 percent in 1940 to 30 percent in 1950 to 47 percent in 1960, according to the journal article “A History of the Struggle for School Desegregation in Philadelphia 1955-67” by Anne E. Phillips.

This growth was fueled by the Great Migration of blacks from the South, post-war white flight to the suburbs, and a robust Catholic school system that, at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, enrolled more than half of the city’s white students. By contrast, in 1960, 92 percent of black city students went to public schools.

Discriminatory practices slowed in Philadelphia but did not stop after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed school segregation by invalidating Jim Crow laws in Southern states.

Brown set a tone for the country, but did not force immediate change in Northern cities like Philadelphia, where federal policy drove segregating forces, including rapid suburbanization. African Americans were virtually prohibited from moving to the suburbs by Federal Housing Authority regulations, including the denial of mortgages and “redlining” that identified black and diverse neighborhoods as higher lending risks. Public housing projects in Philadelphia were segregated.

But unlike the Southern states’ Jim Crow laws prohibiting black and white children from attending the same schools, these policies were not recognized by the federal courts as legal impediments.

Black teachers restricted to all-black elementary schools

For generations – and right up through the time of the Brown decision – the District’s leaders limited where black teachers could work. District policies prevented sizable black faculties from teaching any white children and black principals from supervising white teachers.

Philadelphia created all-black elementary schools to employ the black teachers and principals. Many neighborhoods had all-black and all-white schools, with children often passing the school nearest to their home, depending on their race. Even black teachers who had prepared to teach at the secondary level – from 7th through 12th grade – were limited to working in those all-black elementary schools.

One of those teachers was Ruth Wright Hayre, a trailblazing Philadelphia educator who, in 1991, became the first female president of the city’s Board of Education.

Hayre, born in 1910, was from a prominent family. Her father, Richard R. Wright, a minister and businessman who had been born in slavery, founded the first black-owned bank in the city. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1931, at age 20, during a time when attending Penn was rare for both women and blacks. (A mural of Hayre was recently unveiled at the North Philadelphia elementary school named after her father.)

She wrote in her autobiography, Tell Them We Are Rising, that while at Penn, she was compelled to do her student teaching in Chester, 10 miles away. Her white classmates walked up the street to West Philadelphia High.

Once she graduated, Hayre was forced to leave Philadelphia, for Arkansas, in order to get a job that suited her preparation as a secondary school teacher of English and Latin.

Hayre ultimately returned to Philadelphia, and in 1946, she became the first African American to teach in a School District high school. She prevailed despite the barriers and loved to tell the story of acing the written test, but then sitting for the oral part before “five elderly white men” who peppered her with eyebrow-raising questions that were not asked of white applicants (“Do you think white children residing in a predominantly colored neighborhood should be required to attend their neighborhood school?”). Then they failed her.

She complained, however, and was re-tested by a panel that included two African Americans, and in February 1946 she was appointed to teach at William Penn High School. In 1955, one year after the Brown decision, she became principal there, the first African American high school principal in a city where, by that time, nearly half of the student population was black.

40-year desegregation case

By this time, Philadelphia’s overt practices to maintain segregation had drawn the attention of civil rights lawyers and then the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The local NAACP looked to Philadelphia as a place to bring a case that would have the impact on the North that Brown had on the South. For several years, it worked on litigation focusing on racially gerrymandered school catchment areas.

That lawsuit foundered, however, and the NAACP turned its attention to integrating Girard College, founded by Stephen Girard for orphaned white boys. The 50th anniversary of that milestone was just recently celebrated.

The state Human Relations Commission, however, kept after the District. For an unprecedented four decades, it monitored student and teacher assignment policies, school boundaries, and other practices. One of the most enduring effects involved teacher assignments.

In 1969, the District entered into a voluntary agreement with the Human Relations Commission that no elementary school would have less than 20 percent of either black or white teachers, and no secondary school would have less than 10 percent of teachers of either race. New teacher assignment and transfer policies were adjusted to meet these goals.

Ironically, given how U.S. government policy had served to exacerbate residential and school segregation, a set of federal regulations compelled the District to do more. In 1978, when the District applied for funds under the Emergency School Aid Act, Washington’s Office of Civil Rights studied Philadelphia’s teacher assignment policies and decided that its school-by-school racial balance of teachers was insufficient. ESAA regulations set a 75-125 percent quota, meaning that each school would have no less than 75 percent and no more than 125 percent of the proportion of qualified black teachers (either elementary or secondary) employed citywide.

Meeting these goals – and qualifying for the money – necessitated the mass transfer of hundreds of teachers (including current Board of Education member Christopher McGinley).

Subsequently, the PHRC and the District agreed to adhere to the stricter federal guidelines going forward. In 1981, individual teachers unsuccessfully challenged the policy in court; the teachers’ union backed the goals of the order.

Although the District was willing to agree to mandatory assignment policies for teachers, a succession of superintendents resisted any mandatory means for assigning students, such as busing.

The case nevertheless had an impact. It resulted in the creation of several themed and desegregated “magnet” schools designed to draw students from all over the city. These included the High School for the Creative & Performing Arts, Bodine High School of International Affairs, and Carver High School of Engineering & Science.

And in the 1980s, a voluntary busing plan for students was implemented under Constance Clayton, the District’s first black and first female superintendent. Thousands of mostly black students were bused to predominantly white schools in the Northeast, and schools in residentially integrated areas like Mount Airy got perks, including after-school care and all-day kindergarten, designed to attract and keep white students.

Ultimately, however, as the white student population continued to shrink, the focus of the desegregation case shifted. It became a battle over whether the District was giving sufficient resources to the poorest schools with the most students of color – a strategy that gave up on pursuing integration, either for its own sake or as a means to improve outcomes for students.

In 2010, District leaders found that it was becoming increasingly difficult to fill all teacher vacancies and also meet the terms of the court order. Two black women agreed to bring the racial balance requirement to an end: Superintendent Arlene Ackerman sought the dissolution of the consent decree, and Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith, then presiding over the case, agreed.