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Are you a player? Are you being played?

Students talk about inequities in school

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

About this special section :

At a June Notebook editorial board meeting, two student activists who were invited to participate said they wanted to see if student experiences could be added to this edition that is advocating for and about them.

To bring their voices into the discussion about organizing for equity, the Notebook decided to do this insert. First we brought together a group of students who are active in two youth organizing groups – Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change – to talk about the work that they do.

The students discussed public schools in Philadelphia and how they see their work organizing for equity while dealing every day with inequity.

The students

from Youth United for Change

Saeda Washington, Kensington Business, senior
Marcella Gibbs, Kensington Business, senior
William Elkins-Crosby, Kensington CAPA, 2007 grad
Christina Holley, Olney West, junior

from Philadelphia Student Union

Ben Landau-Beispiel, Masterman, 2006 grad
Lawrence Jones-Mahoney, West Philadelphia, senior


“Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) was started in 1995 with seven chapters. We [helped launch the] Student Success Centers and worked against privatization. Currently we have three chapters, West Philly High, Sayre, and Masterman, and we’re going to open new chapters – in Bartram and CAPA and Bodine High School.”

Lawrence Jones-Mahoney

“Youth United for Change (YUC) is a nonprofit organization started in 1991. It gives us a voice, an opportunity to express how we feel. We’re working on college recruitment at Edison, and to get small schools – we recently opened three small schools at Kensington and two small schools for Olney, and we’re working on getting a fourth small school for Kensington. In Strawberry Mansion, we just got the right to organize. Mastbaum is working on academic rigor and working with unions.”

William Elkins-Crosby

Where do you see inequities in your schools?

Marcella: Suburban and Center City schools get more money and resources than we do, but then we get the same tests. But they actually pass because they have what they need to succeed.

William: All the Center City schools, suburban schools, get teachers that are real experienced, and we get teachers that don’t know their subjects. When they can’t handle it, they quit, and then we get permanent substitutes that don’t know what they’re doing. Some of our teachers are still in school getting certified.

Marcella: Yeah, it’s like how are you teaching me if you’re not even certified?

Christina: We had a math teacher teaching English. My freshman year, she taught math, and this year she’s teaching English, and she says she’s going back to math, and I’m like, “Why do you keep switching?”

How does school violence connect to issues of equity?

Saeda: When the violence increases in our schools, they send us more cops. But they send counselors to suburban schools.

Christina: I feel like they are trying to send us to jail. A Caucasian person could do the same thing and they’d get a shrink.

William: To me, that’s downgrading! Minorities came up so much in the last 100 years, and for them to put us back down to how we were treated before – I’m disrespected.

Lawrence: It’s just like a pipeline. Having more cops in schools is a pipeline for more violence, which means a pipeline to jail.

Do you think there are people who actually care?

Christina: There are only a handful of people who care, and they are overpowered by people that don’t. They try to put their voice out there but at the end of the day they still have to think about how are they going to live, get their bills paid, so they can’t speak out too much or they might lose their job. A lot of teachers care, but they have bosses and their bosses have bosses, so they can’t really speak out too much.

Marcella: I feel like people are tired of fighting for the same thing. Like, we’ve been fighting for small schools at Kensington for forever now, and we’re like, when is it going to happen? When you don’t see the finished product quickly, you just start to give up.

Saeda: I think there are people out there who do care. They know that they might not have the resources that they need, but they’re doing their best to work with what they have. Like I know that I might not make a change for me or my senior year, or for anyone who is [now] in ninth grade and on, but I know that I might make a change for my younger brother and my sister, or my next-door neighbor.

Lawrence: I feel like I have a lot of people who care: my mom, all my relatives, and my teachers. When I’m doing organizing stuff, they try to give me advice and come to meetings. But at the district level, I know there are so many people who are kind of against us. PSU has been supported by Sandra Dungee Glenn, an SRC member. She lives right in the neighborhood, so anything that happens to West affects her.

Christina: People live in the suburbs and come into Philly to work, so it doesn’t really affect them. … I feel like they just deal with it for a day, tell you what they want to hear, and they don’t really care.

What would your school be like without PSU or YUC?

Saeda: I think the organizations keep a lot of kids out of trouble, speaking for myself. And I think that without these organizations, kids really wouldn’t be here, and they wouldn’t know that they had a voice to be able to speak up with. Before YUC, I didn’t know that I could go to the District and demand what I want.

Marcella: I didn’t like school. I only liked YUC, so that’s why I kept coming to school.

Lawrence: If YUC and PSU weren’t here, all our schools would be privatized.

Christina: I feel like without YUC at Olney, we would just go down the road of another Germantown or West … Olney is known as the “violent school,” but I feel like it would get even more violent if we weren’t going to the principals and discussing our problems and going to the District. We have voices.

What are the obstacles to youth organizing?

Marcella: Some of the kids got angry because YUC broke up the schools [into small schools]. They were like, “Why’d you all do that – it’s corny now!”

William: Yeah, and I was like, “What are you worrying about it for? You weren’t here in the first place!”

Saeda: We tried to include the neighborhood in the process of trying to get the new Kensington built. But at first they kept saying they don’t want to be around us, that they don’t want to have anything to do with it. We live in a prejudiced neighborhood.

Lawrence: West is the same way. It’s right on the edge, it’s separated. That’s one of the things the community’s worried about: when we get new schools, gentrification is going to happen – all the White people will go into West and all the Black people are going to go into Sayre.

Marcella: Yeah, that’s what they said to us. They said they didn’t want the school built over there because they didn’t want “those kids” walking through their neighborhood, messing up their flowers, and their dogs.

Ben: Let’s be clear. Our ‘enemy’ isn’t an individual or a group of individuals, it’s the system which prevents young people from having a voice in the schools that they’re in, and that system needs to change regardless of who the individuals in that system are…. It’s the system that’s bad. It’s not like Paul Vallas or anything else.

What’s next for your organizations?

Saeda: I think that we should be able to be a part of choosing the new CEO.

Ben: I think it’s really important that people who are working on education reform start to build alliances with people who are working on other issues and really start to see it as all being connected and part of one larger movement.

Saeda: I think YUC and PSU should start working together more. And I really think we need to continue building the campaign towards small schools equity at Kensington and Olney.

Notebook interns Sarah Mills and Maya Guti

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