Statement: Central teachers stand with Black students in demanding racial equity

"As educators, we believe that we cannot be neutral when anti-Black racism harms our students."

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

This statement as of Wednesday afternoon, July 8, had been signed by 57 current and former Central staff members.

Black students in Philadelphia and across the country are speaking out against the anti-Black racism in their high schools. The collective outrage at the murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Dominique Fells, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery has prompted students to direct our attention to the systemic racism within our own school communities.

And Black students at Philadelphia’s Central High School have had enough. Alongside students from other schools, they are sharing their experiences on platforms like the BlackPhillyStudents Instagram account. As teachers who have heard innumerable stories directly from our students over the years, we can attest that these are not isolated incidents but rather part of a larger pattern of bias and systemic racism. Such acts have often been addressed in ways that have done little to assure those who are most harmed that they are safe.

To disrupt and transform this pattern, Black students and alumni of Central High School have developed 10 demands to improve Black student life. They organized a virtual event on June 9 and delivered these demands, alongside testimony of racism they have faced at our school, to an audience that included administration, teachers, alumni, and students.

As educators, we believe that we cannot be neutral when anti-Black racism harms our students. It is our responsibility as educators to listen to our students, follow their leadership, and proactively build school communities that humanize and value Black lives.

We are a group of current and former staff members of Central High School who aim to be antiracist educators and improve Central by making it an antiracist school. It is not enough to celebrate Central’s diversity without a commitment to racial equity demonstrated by action and policy.

We believe that without clear antiracism and anti-oppression policies at all levels of our school, including admissions, professional development, curriculum, discipline, and acceptance to advanced classes, Central will continue to replicate racial inequity.

As we implement these antiracist policies, we must protect Black students and Black staff. Racism is traumatic. We must recognize it as a public health crisis with detrimental and far-reaching health implications that neither Black students nor staff should have to face at school or work. Our District has set the expectation that we care for the social and emotional well-being of our students, especially during the COVID crisis. Supporting our students’ demands is an act of caring.

Therefore, we follow the leadership of our students and support all ten of their demands to improve Black student life at our school. We chose five to elaborate upon and believe that Central should address these demands in the ways outlined below.

We support student demands to address bias and racism and recommend Central administration mandate ongoing, teacher-led antiracist training for all school staff, including administration. Furthermore, we want priority given to work that teachers and students have already been doing to provide antiracist inquiry spaces and resources, such as Building Anti-Racist White Educators (BARWE), Black Lives Matter Week of Action at School, and the Advanced Class Minority Mentorship. These staff initiatives must be provided written and verbal support from administration. Too often, this teacher-led work at our school faces resistance and a lack of institutional support.

We support student demands for an antiracist and culturally responsive curriculum in all departments and classrooms. This means a truly representative curriculum that celebrates Black excellence, persistence and resistance, affirms Black culture, and grapples honestly with the truth of racial oppression so that students can make sense of current inequities. All of us at Central, and across Philadelphia classrooms, must develop a curriculum that acknowledges racism and white supremacy, engage in vigilant self-awareness of how racism shapes our decisions and culture of the school, allow for students to honestly reflect on the impact of race and racial trauma on our lives and how we address it, and stand up to racism and racist acts when they occur. African-American History must not be seen as the sole course where this happens; rather, it must extend to all courses. This work is vital if we are to interrupt both the Eurocentric bias in our own curriculum and the repeated incidents of students using hate speech.

We support student demands for equitable access to Central High School for Black and Brown students. The School District of Philadelphia is 52% Black and 21% Latinx, yet Central High School’s student population is only 20% Black and 7% Latinx. Therefore, we want standardized testing removed as an admissions requirement given that it historically and currently serves to restrict access to magnet schools and maintain racial and class hierarchies. Standardized tests measure relative family and community wealth more than individual academic ability. The current seventh graders in Philadelphia have not taken the PSSAs due to COVID, therefore our schools have no choice but to envision a new admissions policy just as many colleges are. We want an end to the school district’s “colorblind” admissions policy that removed racial data from the selection process and we want more students to be recruited and accepted to special admit and magnet programs, such as Central, from predominantly Black and Latinx and chronically underfunded public schools. We want real equity, and real equity calls for special admit and magnet programs, such as Central, to match the demographics of the larger district in which it sits.

We support student demands for equitable access and support in AP, IB, and advanced courses for Black and Brown students. In the 2018-19 school year, although Black students made up 21% of Central’s student body, they represented just 10% of all AP students. Policies for acceptance into these courses and programs must be restructured to represent the school demographics. Systems of academic and emotional support, including mentorship and tutoring, must be implemented to make up for prior inequities in educational access. We want real equity and again, real equity calls for the demographics of special academic programs to match the demographics of the larger school body.

We support student demands for the recruitment and retention of Black educators. Central’s Black teacher population is substantially lower than the overall average of 21% across all District high schools. If our goal is to support our students, promote academic equity, and improve Black student life at Central, we must recognize that representation matters and consider the studies that have shown that Black students have higher academic outcomes with Black teachers. We want real equity and this calls for the demographics of teachers to match the demographics of the larger school body. Furthermore, when interviewing all applicants, questions should be designed to ensure that all hired teachers are committed to racial equity, prepared to use antiracist and culturally responsive frameworks, and able to reflect on their own implicit bias and racist ideas that may manifest in the classroom.

As Central student Mariame Sissoko writes in the introduction to the ten demands, “…we urge Central to live up to its mission, ‘preparing students to be thoughtful leaders in a heterogenous world.’ As a school community, we cannot hope to address the larger inequities in society without first reflecting on ourselves.”

Current and former Central staff:

Elizabeth Wesley

Monique McKenney

Nick Palazzolo

Thomas Quinn

Ken Hung

Andrea Keefe

George Bezanis

Catherine Bergeron

Heather Durkee

Leo Johnson

Tatiana Olmedo

Rachel Toliver

Lina Bader

Darcel Bonner

Yaasiyn Muhammad

John Lobron

Melanie Young

Dana Y. King

Sandra Campbell

Galeet Cohen

Van Truong

Matthew Fischetti

Heather Wardlaw

KD Davenport

Deborah Holston

Alicia Oglesby

Paul Grow

Naveed Chaudhry

Andrew Giacomini

Michelle Vigil Thornton

Anne Brooks

Michael Johnson

Lynda Shim Lee

Sophie Date

Marina Isakowitz

Avi Snyder

Julie A. Woodlin

Herolin Simmons

Jude Saleet

Elana Chasan

Peter Kelsey

Akil Parker

Elliott Drago

Lisa Chen

Stephanie Virgo

Carla M. Johnson

Marianna Allen

Joyce Coleman

Paola Gutierrez

Gail Cervantes

Rob Paul

Rochelle Flowers

Sheila Gerson

Maria Barracca

Marianne Gruzwalski

Kristine Morrow

Marie Woodward

The list of signers continues to grow and may be viewed here.