Statement: Alumni support Central student demands

Letter to Central president Timothy McKenna from the school's alumni. As of Thursday it had more than 1,200 signatures from graduates as far back as 1945.

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

Dear President McKenna,

We, the signed alumni of Central High School, stand in solidarity with the African American Student Union (AASU) and support their demands to improve Black student life at Central. Central would not be Central without its remarkably diverse student body. Especially since Central prides itself on its diversity, it must work hard to truly uphold its mission of providing all students with a rigorous and caring college-prep education. That’s why it was particularly abhorrent to see a recent string of racist and misogynistic texts written by Central students and the subsequent outpouring of student testimonials on social media sharing experiences of racism at our alma mater.

As alumni, we know racism isn’t new to Central. The administration has an obligation to do much more to support Black students in this predominantly Black city and school district. We appreciate that Central administrators have begun to meet AASU’s demands but we urge them to meet all demands, particularly in regards to testing and tracking, accepting more Black students, and hiring more Black teachers. While we support all 10 demands, we highlight the following three for immediate action:

As alumni, we are appalled at the declining number of Black students accepted to Central every year. While Central was once heralded as the “most diverse public high school in America,” that’s clearly no longer the case. In the 2019-2020 school year, only 18% of the first year class was Black, compared to the 2009-2010 school year, when 35% of the first year class was Black. That’s a 50% reduction over the past decade. In addition to systemic barriers preventing Black students from applying to Central, a 2017 Pew Research study further found that qualified Black, Latino, and low-income students are more likely to be rejected from Philadelphia special admission high schools than qualified white, Asian, and middle- and high-income students. It’s not that high performing Black students aren’t applying to competitive high schools — it’s that Central isn’t accepting them. It’s time for that to change.

“Tracking” systems — which, at Central, separate students in honors, AP, and IB students from the general student population — have been shown to increase segregation within schools, harming the mostly Black students in “lower track” classes with watered-down curriculums and lower quality instruction. Standardized tests used in tracking systems were created to uphold white supremacy. Central can’t claim to be a diverse high school when students are segregated in the classroom. It’s time to omit entrance exams, which continue to reinforce racial divides, and recruit Black and Brown students for advanced classes.

Black teachers help Black students, as they have at Central and beyond. For instance, one study from Vanderbilt University found the “tracking” disparity between white and Black students disappeared when Black students had Black teachers (8). Another study from the London School of Economics found that white teachers not only graded Black and Latino students harsher, but that this grading disparity accounted for 22% of the “achievement gap.” Central must actively recruit Black teachers, administrators, and hire a diversity and inclusion coordinator to support Black students.

While focusing on these three demands, we urge Central to meet all demands made by AASU, including: examining disciplinary actions taken against Black students, ending the censoring of students during the AASU showcase and International Day, expanding English and History curriculums to include African-American history and authors, increasing accessibility of school events to Black families, recruiting more Black orientation leaders, and addressing implicit bias in teachers, students, and dress codes.

Central is a leader within the School District of Philadelphia and the city at large. Failure to meet AASU’s demands would tarnish Central’s legacy. We’re ashamed to think that racial injustice at our alma mater would be allowed to continue. President McKenna, how will you listen and respond to the Black students speaking up for change? What concrete steps will you take to meet their demands? We look forward to hearing your plan.