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

The articles and charts in this edition of the Notebook begin to paint a picture of the issues facing students in Philadelphia’s most racially segregated schools.

That picture is a deeply troubling one, especially for the 115,000 Philadelphia public school students in schools that are 90 percent or more students of color. The words of Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner’s 1994 court ruling still ring true: that the right to an education “has not been made available on equal terms to all of the students in Philadelphia’s public schools.”

Within Philadelphia, we still have a two-tiered school system. It is still revealing to compare schools that have a population more than 10 percent White versus those that are less than 10 percent White. On measure after measure, the students in schools with the fewest White students are at a significant disadvantage.

It is true that the District has been seeing rising test scores and an influx of new resources – books, curriculum materials, afterschool and summer programs, programs in high schools, and even new buildings. These are laudable gains, but so far they have not translated into a narrowing of key opportunity gaps for students in predominantly nonwhite schools.

Here are some of the types of gaps you will read about in these pages:

  • In 2003-04, the schools with more than 90 percent students of color averaged twice as many teachers who are not fully certified compared to the schools with more White students.
  • In 14 predominantly nonwhite schools last year, not a single student was identified as mentally gifted, while at some schools with more Whites, the gifted population is 10 percent or more of the student body.
  • Fewer high schools that are predominantly nonwhite offer high-level third- and fourth-year foreign language classes than do high schools with more White students.

It is no surprise that outcomes for students reflect these and other opportunity gaps. For the past three years on the statewide PSSA exam, the percentage of African American and Latino students scoring proficient or better has consistently lagged 25 to 30 points below the percentage of Whites.

Students able to qualify for selective admission magnet schools continue to be disproportionately White. The growing population in the District’s disciplinary schools is disproportionately African American.

While the leadership has set equity goals, CEO Paul Vallas’s approach to Philadelphia’s school crisis is to infuse new resources into the system citywide, based on the premise that nearly all Philadelphia schools are needy and have high poverty rates.

The gap between city and suburban schools is deep and widening, and inadequate funding is a fundamental obstacle to making needed changes in Philadelphia. But at the same time, the kinds of persistent racial inequality seen within the District are unacceptable.

Issues of race and racism in Philadelphia schools must be addressed. Targeted investments are needed in the predominantly nonwhite schools.

To level the playing field, the critical priority should be providing superior teachers – and principals – at predominantly nonwhite schools. Teacher quality is probably the single most important factor in improving students’ academic performance.

Recent increases in teacher certification and retention rates are encouraging but are no guarantee that inadequately staffed schools will get the quality teachers they need. The modest financial incentives now offered are insufficient to channel qualified, experienced teachers to those schools in the numbers necessary. Bold steps are needed that both increase these financial incentives and improve working conditions by reducing class size, increasing access to mentors, and upgrading facilities for teachers in hard-to-staff schools.

Schools with inexperienced staff are getting shortchanged. Investing in staffing at predominantly nonwhite schools is a fundamental issue of fairness.

Beyond investing in teacher quality, closing the gaps will require prioritizing smaller class size, smaller schools, stronger early childhood programs, teacher training, and curriculum enrichment in predominantly nonwhite schools.

But while the focus should be on working to level the playing field for racially segregated schools, confronting race problems also means paying attention to the race relations in all our schools.

Philadelphia is a city with great diversity. Many of our schools are integrated institutions and should be grappling with racial biases and ensuring that integration is grounded on equity.

There are opportunities to foster more integration – through the location of new facilities, adjustments to attendance boundaries, or voluntary busing – and thereby help schools prepare students to live in a multicultural society.

Race relations are important even at schools that are essentially 100 percent African American: there are staff who need help in developing a level of cultural competency to support their students. Many new teachers arrive ill prepared to relate to the students they need to engage, educate, and empower.

At every school and across the city, it is essential to make time and create space for discussion, planning, and action to eradicate the racial inequality that pervades this school system.

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