Black students at Central High, some faculty call for overhaul of admissions, school policies to increase equity

UPDATE: Central president Tim McKenna promises to "take action and implement the demands." Alumni join the call to increase Black and Latinx enrollment and foster anti-racist culture at the selective high school.

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

Updated at 8:30 p.m. with a statement from Central President Tim McKenna.

Central High students Youma Diabira and Mariame Sissoko say they have grown used to racism at the elite Philadelphia school. They described Central’s “anti-blackness” as covert but ugly and palpable. Most of the time, they said, it comes up casually, though that doesn’t make it any less painful.

“I was accused of cheating on a quiz because my score was too high,” Diabira said.

“In 10th grade, I had an Afro and a teacher said to me — this was a white teacher — ‘when I stick my finger in a socket my hair gets like that,’” said Sissoko, who graduated last month. “It just made me feel so uncomfortable.”

Diabira and Sissoko are now leading an effort by students, faculty, and alumni from Central, one of the most selective high schools in the city, to demand big changes in admissions policies, curricula, and staff training to increase Black enrollment and end what they refer to as the school’s “culture of racism.”

The reckoning, teachers and students said, has in some ways been long in coming, but it has been accelerated after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent nationwide protests and activism. Central’s Black student groups held a passionate virtual meeting on June 9 outlining grievances that moved faculty members to craft their own statement of support for the students’ demands. The faculty effort was led by teachers in the social studies department.

“This is a moment for change: a moment to restructure the anti-Black environment Central High School fosters,” says a statement by Black students. “It is time for Black students to be seen, to be heard, and to take action now more than ever. Central High School functions off of the myth of meritocracy. That every student who enters the red doors located on 1700 W. Olney Avenue is granted the same opportunities, perceived the same way, and if a student fails then it is their fault. This is simply not the case for many Black students who are admitted to Central.”

Central President Tim McKenna, the school’s principal, pledged to implement the students’ demands in a statement sent to the Notebook on Wednesday evening. “Student voice is critical when you are leading a school and our student voices need to be recognized,” he wrote. “The goal is for us to collaboratively improve student life for our African American students. I care deeply about the students I am fortunate to support each day as the leader of this school. I take ownership and recognize changes need to be made. As a human being, I empathize and want the best for our school community. I am inspired by the leadership that has been exhibited by our students and am committed to improving Central High School.”

Among the actions McKenna plans to take: Hiring a new full-time climate manager to support a restorative team building program during advisory and creating an equity coordinator position; instituting implicit bias training for all administrative and faculty members; and creating a recruiting team with the goal of increasing the percentage of incoming Black students.

(McKenna’s full statement is printed at the end of the article.)

Both students and those who signed the faculty statement favor an admissions policy that no longer prioritizes high standardized-test scores above all else. With rare exceptions, a student must score in the 88th percentile or above on the state PSSA standardized test to be considered for admission.

Students and the faculty’s statement call for the elimination of test scores as a criterion for admission, favoring a more holistic approach and active recruitment of students from mostly Black elementary and middle schools in areas of the city that rarely send students to Central. Students and alumni from Masterman, widely regarded as the most elite high school in the city, are demanding a similar rethinking.

“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,” says a faculty statement, which as of Wednesday had 57 signatures of current and former staff. “Standardized tests measure relative family and community wealth more than individual academic ability.”

Alumni have also mobilized, noting that the percentage of Black students at the 2,400-student school has been precipitously declining for the last decade.

“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,” an alumni statement says. “That’s a 50% reduction over the past decade.”

It cites a study released in 2017 from the Pew Charitable Trusts that found qualified Black and Latino students were either not being accepted, not applying, or not choosing to attend Central and other top schools that have highly competitive admissions criteria.

The faculty statement noted that standardized tests were not administered this year because the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, making this the perfect time to redesign Central’s selective admissions policy.

“Therefore, our schools have no choice but to envision a new admissions policy just as many colleges are,” the faculty statement says. “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.”

Efforts in the past to change the selective-admissions process to make schools like Masterman and Central more diverse have faltered amid opposition. Ten years ago, then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman vowed to upend the system in pursuit of more diversity, only to quickly retreat in the face of an outcry. The opposition was led by those who benefit most from the current system, especially those who said these schools helped to keep white middle-class families in the city.

Back then, opponents of change cited numbers showing that Masterman and Central were quite diverse, even if their enrollment did not reflect the racial makeup of the District’s student body as a whole. Masterman’s African American enrollment in 2010, for instance, was 30%. But today, those numbers have fallen precipitously. And with the current focus on anti-racism, the political atmosphere is different, perhaps signaling a renewed receptivity to re-evaluating these policies.

The issues for Black students don’t end when students are admitted to selective schools, according to both students and teachers. Like many high schools, Central has an academic tracking system. And Black students are underrepresented in honors, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate courses.

Central uses testing as a metric for admitting students into advanced classes, Diabira and Sissoko said. A lot of Black and working-class students have jobs and various other responsibilities after school, Diabira said, so they don’t have the opportunity to stay after school to take exams for advanced classes.

“It’s never been that [Black students] aren’t qualified,” Diabira said.

Other elite Philadelphia high schools, such as Masterman and Carver High School of Engineering & Science, don’t require their students to test into AP classes. At Carver, any student who wants to take an AP class can enroll, and at Masterman, admissions to AP classes are based on grades and teachers’ testimony.

Diabira and Sissoko want to introduce teacher recommendations and perhaps essays into the process of selecting students for advanced classes.

But testing isn’t the only area where racial bias creeps in, Sissoko said. Central teachers “target” certain students for advanced classes, by either pulling them aside after class or sending them an email encouraging them to apply for an advanced course. Anecdotally, Sissoko said, she’s seen far fewer Black students targeted for advanced classes than their white and Asian counterparts.

Last year, the social studies department made a special effort to encourage Black students to apply for African American history honors, and this year, Sissoko said, that class has a lot more Black students than in the previous year.

“It’s literally as simple as sending out an email,” Sissoko said.

One Central teacher said that admission to AP courses varies by department and that it is common practice for teachers to “emphasize school ranking over student opportunity” and seek out students for AP courses who are perceived as more likely to earn a 4 or 5 on an AP test — the scores necessary to earn college credit.

Diabira attended Masterman for middle school and said she always planned to stay at Masterman’s high school, but a series of events pushed her to go to Central instead. She shadowed at Central in 8th grade and realized quickly that there were a lot more Black students at Central than at Masterman.

“[I] just thought ‘wow, there are no Black kids at Masterman. … This is not where I want to go.’” The Black student population at Masterman High School is 15%.

There was one racist incident she experienced at Masterman that she said was a dealbreaker. In 8th grade, during practice for the school play, she got into a spat with a white student.

“She told her mom that she didn’t like me,” Diabira said. “And then her mom said she didn’t have to worry about me because people like me don’t get accepted to the high school.”

But when Diabira attended Central, she started noticing many of the same issues regarding racism and a lack of Black representation at the school.

Other demands from the Central students and faculty include a restructured teacher hiring process that includes Black students and parents on the committee, the screening of all new teachers for “implicit bias,” and an increase in the number of Black teachers.

The faculty statement said that interviews of applicants should include questions “designed to ensure that all hired teachers are committed to racial equity, prepared to use anti-racist and culturally responsive frameworks, and able to reflect on their own implicit bias and racist ideas that may manifest in the classroom.”

The statements also call for a curriculum overhaul in which all curriculum is “designed through an anti-racist lens,” as the teacher spokesperson put it.

The faculty statement was written by five social studies teachers: Elizabeth Wesley, Monique McKenney, Nick Palazzolo, Thomas Quinn, and Ken Hung. Wesley answered questions on behalf of the group.

Although history and social studies classes may more easily lend themselves to revamped and more inclusive curriculum, teachers in all disciplines need to be reflective about what and how they are teaching, Wesley said. Some examples: Math can be used to teach about racial inequity, English teachers must make sure they are teaching Black authors, and science teachers should make clear what contributions Black scientists have made.

No matter what the department or discipline, teachers can ask themselves whether their teaching reflects who their students are and whether they are being culturally responsive, Wesley said. “We all have a broader curriculum beyond the lessons we teach. … This all gets back to the training.”

Among the other issues that students and teachers want to be addressed are disciplinary policies as they affect Black students and a focus on more academic mentoring for Black students.

Superintendent William Hite has said that he wants to see changes in many of the areas cited above with an eye toward increasing opportunities for all students. He is planning to “address the District’s ongoing work around antiracism” in a news briefing Thursday morning.

Statement to The Philadelphia Public School Notebook
Prepared by Timothy J. McKenna, President of Central High School

As is the case across our city, commonwealth and nation, schools and organizations are evaluating their current systems regarding racial equity. At Central High School, we are not exempt from this process. Prior to the Covid-19 school closure, the Central High School Administrative Team met with student leaders from our African American Student Union to discuss issues regarding racial equity at our school. These conversations led to the development of a plan to support our students. In early June, a virtual town hall on racial equity for members of the Central High School community was held. The administrative team and faculty members were presented with a list of demands from our African American student leaders. I have pledged to take action and implement the demands.

Student voice is critical when you are leading a school and our student voices need to be recognized. The goal is for us to collaboratively improve student life for our African American students. I care deeply about the students I am fortunate to support each day as the leader of this school. I take ownership and recognize changes need to be made. As a human being, I empathize and want the best for our school community. I am inspired by the leadership that has been exhibited by our students and am committed to improving Central High School.

Here are the actions we are taking during the 2020 – 2021 school year:

  • Hire a new full time climate manager to support a restorative team building program during advisory. Advisors and student leaders will be trained to facilitate conversations on racial equity, racism and other topics
  • Develop a pilot summer bridge program that will begin in August 2020 to support student transition to our school
  • Create a new Equity Coordinator position on our faculty
  • Plan ongoing Professional Development on topics of anti-racism, beginning with implicit bias training for all administrative and faculty members
  • Evaluate current curriculum offerings and expand them regarding racism, racial equity and African American history in our English and Social Studies classes
  • Evaluate our hiring practices with an effort to hire more Black teachers
  • Work with student leaders to create a recruiting team with the goal of increasing the percentage of Black students at Central High School
  • Work with student leaders to create student mentorship program

The Central High School Administrative Team, faculty, alumni, and students are committed to this work. We are not shying away from the difficult conversations. We are proactively working as a school community to improve student life for our students.