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Changing the odds

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

It hasn’t always been easy for this newspaper or anyone else to get data about the glaring racial inequities in the School District.

So it is a breakthrough to have Superintendent Arlene Ackerman publicizing statistics showing that students of color are over-represented in discipline schools and emotional support classes and under-represented in magnet schools and gifted programs. Focusing on these problems is an important first step in improving the odds of success for African American and Latino youth in Philadelphia schools.

We know a lot about what needs to be done to change the odds. There are successful local schools that we can learn from. But to implement what we know requires staying focused on the inequities and consistently asking whether actions and policies are going to narrow the so-called racial “achievement gap” – better described as an “opportunity gap.”

Progress will require working on many fronts at once. We know that schools with high-achieving African American and Latino students have strong, stable teaching staffs that effectively engage their students and also have opportunities to talk to each other. A supportive principal who can nurture these aspects and build a community of learners is a vital ingredient.

The societal issues that Philadelphia students are dealing with are enormous, and some of the problems in our city are indeed beyond the capacity of schools to address. But schools have to be prepared to deal with the personal lives and needs of their children and reach them as early as possible.

This makes it critically important to build strong bonds between schools and their surrounding communities. But the District has not prioritized developing the necessary team-building and shared decision-making skills. The diverse constituents of school communities need to learn to plan and work together, not only to raise test scores, but also to raise children who are knowledgeable and compassionate.

Perhaps the hardest barriers to overcome are the fears and prejudices that run through our racially divided society. Black and Latino children – boys in particular – are so often viewed as dangerous or even criminal. Schools cannot uphold high expectations and successfully serve communities of color when the school staff is afraid of the communities they serve. Reversing the decline in the number of African American teachers is a critical step, as is professional development that helps all teachers understand and resist the powerful forces of racism.

We have just lived through a protracted period where we were lacking any national commitment or vision of working for equality. It was as if we were swimming upstream. Though it does not solve the problems of educational inequality, the election of Barack Obama represents a new day. In this hopeful moment, all of us must seize any available opportunities to build momentum for true equity and improvement in our schools.

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