Educators face task of helping students cope with turmoil gripping city, nation

School board member Mallory Fix Lopez wanted the District to offer guidance to teachers.

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

As school resumes this week after a distressing weekend when violence broke out in Philadelphia and elsewhere in response to police killings of African Americans, teachers and education leaders are working on how to best discuss the issues and help students process what has been happening.

Superintendent William Hite said Sunday night that teachers will receive materials to guide them in talking to students Monday about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and others. The task will be more difficult because classes and communication are being done remotely due to the pandemic. According to teachers, Hite sent an email to staff at 8:36 p.m. that includes some resources.

The topics are big, important ones — social justice, institutional racism, and nonviolent and violent protest. The events of the past week and weekend have made these issues impossible to ignore, in much the same way that the limits of online learning have thrust systemic educational inequity to the forefront.

Board of Education member Mallory Fix Lopez used Twitter to take the District to task for not being more proactive in responding to the crisis.

Apparently @PHLschools won’t be talking about it tomorrow. Or they will, but staff won’t have leadership and guidance from @SDPHite on navigating conversations. silence is acceptance via @Chalkbeat — Mallory Fix Lopez (@FixMallory) May 31, 2020

Fix Lopez, who teaches at Community College of Philadelphia, also cited a message from the college’s president, Donald Generals, as an example.

“I have spent the last few days like many of you, compelled to consume news I can hardly bear to read or watch,” the letter from Generals said. “Once again, America’s original sin – racism – has reared its ugly head. The events unfolding in Minneapolis after the death of another Black man – George Floyd – is a reminder that our plea for social and racial equality continues to fall on deaf ears.

“Knowing that racism permeates our culture and civic life is hard enough to accept, but seeing it carried out and sanctioned by a justice system that purports to serve and protect makes us all hold our breath, waiting for the next tragic murder of a Black person for driving, jogging, sleeping or living a normal life. Yes, none of us can breathe until we are all allowed to breathe freely from the horrors of racism. Those of us with Black children and grandchildren are forced to live with this pain, and fear, as part of our daily lives.”

Generals offered sympathy to the families of people killed by police “and all of those who are mourning his murder. I also want to echo and amplify their fury.”

Generals said that CCP was preparing a virtual teach-in and town hall meeting on the issue and that details would be announced shortly.

Hite made a statement on Twitter around 9 p.m. Sunday, saying the deaths of George Floyd and others are a consequence of “systemic racism and social injustice” and noting that it is important to confront these injustices “courageously” but “peacefully.”

He said the District’s headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. and the Parent and Family Technology Support Center at the Fitzpatrick Annex Building, 4101 Chalfont Dr., would be closed Monday due to the unrest. Remote learning will go on as scheduled, and all staff are expected to work remotely as they are able, he said.

All city services and Philadelphia government operations — except for public safety — will be closed tomorrow. City-run meal-distribution sites normally open on Mondays have been postponed to Tuesday.

Some Philadelphia principals have sent messages to their school communities.

Mary Libby and Stacey Burnley, the principals of Chester Arthur and E.M. Stanton, both in South Philadelphia, put a joint statement on Facebook.

“Staying silent is not an option,” the message said. “All voices and lives matter! … Together we are taking a stand against the racial injustices that are affecting our students, our neighborhoods, our city, and our nation.”

Science Leadership Academy principal Chris Lehmann sent a letter after Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, addressing the “anger and hurt” and saying “we are here for you” to members of the community who are hurting.

“Once again, we are confronted with the very real impact that systemic racism has on Black Americans.”

The letter lists actions and materials for students and teachers to consult, including anti-racism resources for white people. Lehmann also suggested donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which works for racial justice and investigates hate groups, and emphasized the need to vote.

The Philadelphia School District’s enrollment is about 85% students of color. Two-thirds of the teachers are white, and the proportion of African American teachers has been declining.

Charlie McGeehan, a humanities teacher at the U School, said white educators like him need to read and reflect to understand what is happening in the city and why.

“What we are seeing now is connected to a long history of racism and deep inequity in our city and society – and we need to familiarize ourselves with that, as well as what’s happening right at this moment,” he said. “And, most importantly, we need to open space and listen to our students – and even be willing to admit when we don’t know something.”

Philly educators from the Caucus of Working Educators and the Teacher Action Group, including McGeehan, have been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action nationwide and also formed a group called Building Anti-Racist White Educators. In 2018, this work was recognized by the national organization Teaching Tolerance, a branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“We’ve been making a major push for racial justice – and teaching about racism and white supremacy – in our schools for years and have a lot of expertise and resources to offer,” McGeehan said. “This seems like an amazing moment for the District to draw on the expertise of its educators.”

Building Anti-Racist White Educators just received a grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center to work more closely with the Melanated Educators Collective (MEC), a Philadelphia group whose mission is to empower teachers of color and increase their numbers.

Ismael Jimenez of MEC said he agreed with Fix Lopez and called for a more specific anti-racist focus.

“The District has a responsibility to address specific issues of systemic and institutional racism as an organization that educates primarily students of color,” Jimenez said. “Unfortunately, this society has not reconciled the inequality set in motion at the nation’s founding.”

Specifically, Jimenez said, “anti-racist education and orientation is the only thing teachers should be focused on professionally right now. We are in a historic moment that can go several ways, and our society’s contradictions are coming to a head. Educators should have purposeful conversations with their students, focusing on student voice. … If teachers are not discussing and learning about the context of police brutality, they are complicit. Moreover, teachers should be educating themselves about the racist history of American society.”

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, has also publicly made strong statements decrying racism and described George Floyd’s death as “a horrifying example of the life-threatening consequences of being black in America.”

Research for Action, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that does research on education with the aim of driving social change, also issued a statement. It expressed its “solidarity with communities of color, particularly Black communities, in our home city of Philadelphia and across America as they confront the trauma of systemic racism at America’s foundation.”

RFA quoted Bayard Rustin, the civil rights activist who was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr.: “Let us be enraged about injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it.”

“In that spirit,” the statement said, “RFA reaffirms its commitment to working in solidarity with all who are dedicated to eliminating racism, and to raising the voices of the educators, students, and advocates engaged in the struggle to advance solutions. Ensuring the right to a just and equitable education is a cornerstone of that work.”

The Notebook also learned Sunday that Avi Wolfman-Arent, a WHYY education reporter and one of our longtime collaborators, was arrested while covering a protest near Independence Hall, for allegedly failing to follow a dispersal order. He had identified himself as a member of the press.