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History shapes the work of superintendent and SRC chair

Through their schooling, Ackerman and Dungee Glenn got a vivid picture of educational inequity.

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

Sandra Dungee Glenn remembers vividly the moment she first became aware of educational inequities.

She was in fourth grade, attending a creative writing class at the University of Pennsylvania with some of the brightest students from all over the city, White and Black, well-off and poor. She was in a group with a White girl from the Northeast who talked about her school’s cafeteria, gym, auditorium, and a science lab with rabbits and turtles.

Dungee Glenn’s school, all-Black Barry Elementary in West Philadelphia, had none of those things.

The nine-year-old was wide-eyed. “I thought, ‘Wow, they have schools like that?’” recalled the 51-year-old School Reform Commission chairwoman.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, 61, has stark memories of her own – different place, different time, pretty much the same story.

Her St. Louis elementary school was segregated, and she had to walk past the local chapter of the KKK to get there. Missouri’s idea of integration after Brown v. Board of Education was to bus both students and teachers from her school to a White one nearby and put them all together in an isolated wing of the building. The teachers didn’t go to faculty meetings, and the students never sat in class with their White schoolmates.

When Ackerman’s family moved to a suburb and she was one of 50 Black students in the mostly White high school, she, like Dungee Glenn, remembers her reaction at discovering what was there: a cornucopia of college-prep courses, work-study programs, new books that weren’t hand-me-downs, and the latest technical equipment.

“I never will forget the shock that I had when I walked in that school and saw all of these resources for students that weren’t present in my other school,” Ackerman recalled.

These experiences are why neither of these women think of racial disparities in test scores and other academic measures as an “achievement” gap so much as an “opportunity” gap. And they go a long way in explaining why both are determined to tackle the inequalities in educational outcomes among students of different races that persist in Philadelphia.

Three months after becoming superintendent, Ackerman had her staff present the SRC with a powerful statistical portrait on the “achievement gap” confronting African American and Latino students.

Dungee Glenn, for her part, has pressed the commission to look at racial equity issues since she was appointed in 2002.

In some ways, Dungee Glenn said, Philadelphia is still not that different from how it was when she went to school.

“What we [she and her schoolmates] had available to us to develop us was vastly different, and that’s the problem that I still see today,” she said. “We have children all over this city who bring great capacity to learn, the great innate intelligence to learn, but what they often lack is the opportunity to develop those talents and intelligence because of the environment where they are.”

Dungee Glenn was born in Philadelphia to middle-class parents who modeled the power that learning could provide. Her father operated a pharmacy, and her mother was an elementary school teacher. In Dungee Glenn’s mind, there was no question that she could achieve, and she did.

She was accepted to Masterman, but opted instead to go to Conwell Middle School in Kensington, which was being developed as an academic magnet for purposes of desegregation. “Since several of my friends had been accepted to Conwell, I talked my parents into letting me go there,” Dungee Glenn said.

She was one of about six African American students from her neighborhood who traveled 40 minutes via the El to Kensington, then a virtually all- White neighborhood. The trip was not always uneventful. Occasionally she and her friends needed a police escort from the El stop to the school door to navigate through the hostility.

When Dungee Glenn entered highly selective Girls High, she was challenged on another front – this time to convince some staff that she could handle the rigors of an advanced curriculum. She struggled to fill her roster with AP courses, but ended up with only one.

“I wondered if that was a White child who had the same grades, would she have been given higher expectations, pushed harder, and given different opportunities,” said Dungee Glenn, who graduated from Girls summa cum laude in 1975 and later from Penn State University.

Reflecting on her own school experiences, Ackerman said, “The fact that I went to segregated schools probably helped shape for me this notion of addressing equality and equity.”

Like Dungee Glenn, Ackerman was born to middle-class parents who valued education. Her father was a preacher and her mother became a teacher.

On Saturdays the family walked a mile to the library so that the children could read.

And when staff in that mostly White high school tried to dissuade Ackerman from taking college prep courses during her two years there, her parents fought to get her in.

“My parents never talked about us not going to college,” said Ackerman, who holds a B.A. in Elementary Education, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate from Harvard.

“But they also used to say, ‘You’re going to have to work twice as hard to get half as far,’” she said.

While Ackerman and Dungee Glenn are proof that students can achieve despite obstacles, both are focused on the inequalities that persist.

“People have made choices about which schools, neighborhoods, communities, and children have greater value than others,” said Dungee Glenn. “We can’t continue to allow that to happen.”

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