Racial slurs, dress codes, few Black teachers: How Black girls say Philly schools are failing them

A girl in a light shirt and dark pants wearing a face mask walks towards a doorway in a colorful school hallway.
A new report from the Education Law Center, based on focus group discussions with Black girls who attended Philadelphia public schools, says the district needs to put an end to unfair dress codes, fundamentally change discipline policies, and make school environments more welcoming by hiring more Black staff and using “affirming” curriculum. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

Black girls in Philadelphia public schools say they’re routinely subjected to racism from fellow students, teachers, and school administrators, and it colors every aspect of their school experience. 

That was one of several “overarching” themes found in five student focus groups hosted by the Education Law Center and highlighted in “We Need Supportive Spaces That Celebrate Us: Black Girls Speak Out About Public Schools,” a report from the nonprofit advocacy group released Thursday. Black girls bear the brunt of systemic inequities in school and throughout society, yet they are under-represented in research and investment aimed at students of color, the center said.

How to fix a problem that’s so pervasive? Having more Black teachers and staffers in schools would make a difference, the group’s attorneys said, based on student input in the focus groups. The report also focused on the importance of using a curriculum that makes Black students feel comfortable expressing their views, as well as criticisms of certain dress codes in schools and the role of police in schools. 

“We cannot create equitable education spaces without intentionally considering the needs of Black girls and addressing the interlocking systemic barriers to accessing a high-quality education,” the report said. 

For its report, the Education Law Center lawyers talked to some 20 Black girls who attended public middle and high schools, most of them in the Philadelphia area. Some attended neighborhood schools, some went to charter schools, and some were in educational programs at juvenile justice facilities. In every setting, students reported anti-Black racism in practice and in policy. 

The students described being subjected to racial slurs, being singled out for discipline because of their race and gender, and a lack of access to appropriate support and resources. The findings align with research showing Black girls are singled out or punished more often and more harshly than their peers for similar behaviors. 

“The girls we met with spoke consistently about pervasive, anti-Black racism, which shaped all aspects of their educational experience,” Education Law Center staff attorney Paige Joki, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview. 

Joki said the group focused on Black girls in its report because they are “uniquely harmed” by various prejudices and inequities in society, and also because they often get ignored by research and data-based studies. She also said that the report “really confirmed for us the importance of addressing barriers,” and that the Black girls said they had universally negative experiences regardless of school demographics. 

“Black girls deserve schools that are supportive and affirming and well resourced,” Joki said. “These spaces are possible.”

Black teachers and ‘affirming’ curriculum are crucial

Research has shown Black students learn better from teachers who look like them, though some students don’t get taught by a Black teacher for years

Black teachers have made a difference for Kerla Milius, a junior at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School. 

There aren’t many of them at the school, but they have banded together to support each other and avoid being “overshadowed,” said Milius, who is outreach coordinator for the Philly Black Students Alliance. 

“That’s inspired us [students] to stick together,” said Milius.  

Meanwhile, the girls interviewed for the report said they felt uncomfortable, and sometimes unsafe, in classrooms with no other people of color. One said she didn’t think her school was “built” for her because “there are very few Black teachers.” 

The focus groups themselves were all led by Black women, which made for an intergenerational bonding experience, said Joki. “There was a lot of discussion about when students were able to be educated by a Black teacher for the first time and how special that was,” she said.

That ties in with another of the report’s recommendations: Schools should adopt a “culturally responsive and affirming curriculum.” All the girls expressed a desire to learn about Black history, beyond the history of racism and oppression. 

“It is very uncomfortable to be the only Black student in class when you are talking about slavery,” said one girl quoted in the report.

“A Black teacher often either supplements or supplants a curriculum that is problematic,” said Sharif El-Mekki, founder of the Center for Black Educator Development. Learning is “undermined” if students are taught that Black history “begins with enslavement,” he told us. “It’s important that we have people that actually know history” and can tell students about positive contributions Black people have made, he said. 

El-Mekki also sharply criticized school policies for layoffs that hit the newest hires hardest, since they tend to affect teachers of color more than white teachers.

In fact, the girls interviewed noted examples of Black teachers facing discrimination, and were on the lookout for such instances, the report said. 

Dress and grooming codes were another source of angst for the girls in the focus groups. “Every single student was able to share with us a way they had been harmed by their school’s dress code,” Joki said. Bans on certain hairstyles or head coverings create discrimination and make students feel unwelcome, she said. 

In schools with uniforms, a Black girl may get sent home because of the way the uniform fits, the center found. One girl said her uniform made her feel “sexualized” and “grown.”

The girls said having police in schools made them feel unsafe, rather than protected. That’s in line with research showing that Black girls are more likely to be arrested or get in trouble at school than white girls, said Joki. “They were keenly aware that they would be subjected to racist stereotypes,” she said. “They were treated like Black women despite being Black girls.”

The report recommends that schools do away with discriminatory dress codes and remove police from schools. 

Joki said she’s optimistic the report will help bring about “some overdue change in our schools.” It comes as Pennsylvania deals with a Commonwealth Court judge’s February ruling that the state’s school funding system is unconstitutional because it shortchanges children in low-income districts.

“I’m hopeful that will bring needed resources to our schools,” Joki said.

The Latest

The city enlisted Accenture to help analyze supply and demand for preschool seats. Their initial findings, obtained through a public records request, don’t shed much light on the topic.

Longtime activist cites his own health issues, and the recent death of his sister.

The leadership change at the city’s largest network of charter high schools comes as Chicago’s Board of Education has increased scrutiny on charters and school choice.

The federal Office of Civil Rights’ investigation found students didn’t get the support the law guaranteed them. The Michigan Department of Education wants the case thrown out.

Across all high schools in the city, 1 of every 5 students are mandated to receive special education support under an IEP. At specialized high schools, that number is only 1 of 50.

Access to acceleration has long been wildly inequitable. Here’s what schools can do to reduce the financial and logistical barriers.