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Will the South Philly settlement lead to safer, culturally responsive schools?

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

By Katherine Saviskas

The legal settlement with state and federal agencies in favor of South Philly High School Asian students who were bullied and harassed marks a historic step toward creating safe schools for students of all races, cultures, and languages.

But what exactly makes a school safe? Is it the number of guards? The presence of metal detectors?

Pedro Noguera, New York University professor and the federally mandated consultant heading up the implementation of the settlement, says no.

“Safety is not about security,” explained Noguera at the District’s final Parent University lecture last week, “Safety is a product of relationships, trust, understanding, a sense of knowing each other. If you think about a place where you feel safe, it’s because you say, this is a place where I trust the people around me.”

"Culturally responsive" schools, he said in an interview, understand who students are, where they are coming from, and what their needs are. At South Philly High, "our goal is not just to look at race relations and diversity issues in a vacuum but to look at them within the broader context of how the school functions in meeting students’ needs.”

This goes beyond just preventing conflict but creating a place "where all students feel welcome, feel supported, where their academic needs are being met. When a school can do those things, you don’t generally get conflict,” Noguera said.

The settlement primarily addresses policies and practices to prevent bullying and discrimination in student interactions. But it also creates new standards for training of teachers, administrators, and campus police.

“There’s a need to make sure that everyone is aware of how to respond when there are incidents of bullying, particularly when they are racial in nature,” Noguera said. “It’s very, very important that all students feel safe and feel assured that if an incident does occur, that it’ll be taken seriously and handled appropriately.”

But he added that simply learning how to better respond to incidents “is not good enough for creating a positive learning environment.”

In the past two years, the District has taken new steps toward incorporating “cultural competency” in the new teacher induction program, optional professional development, and end-of-the-year formal observations. The settlement, however, calls for further steps.

Most adults in the building – administrators, teachers, aides, deans, bilingual counseing assistants, guidance counselors, and school police – will undergo “multicultural awareness and diversity training."

The goal is to help the adults demonstrate the kind of awareness and understanding they expect from the students, not just train them to prevent student-on-student harassment and violence.

The federal and state investigations concluded that District personnel remained “deliberately indifferent" to pervasive student-on-student harassment. To change this, principals, teachers, and school staff – up to and including top administrators – must do the difficult work of honestly confronting their own conscious or unconscious biases, behaviors, expectations, and attitudes.

Brown University researchers at the Education Alliance list over 60 attitudes, beliefs, and practices that culturally competent educators hold about their students and themselves, including:

  • teachers have a willingness to listen to others and accept that everyone’s experiences are real and their perspectives valid,
  • teachers have a willingness to examine their own values and behaviors,
  • teachers have the ability to discuss difficult issues and tolerate disagreement, and
  • teachers develop an awareness of their own culture, the school’s culture, students’ culture, the dominant culture in the U.S., and the culture of the curriculum.

Hye-Won Gehring, a 9th grade world history teacher at Kensington Urban Education Academy and member of Philadelphia’s Teacher Action Group, said that teachers need to use “curriculum that students can relate to, rather than detached, meaningless facts."

“Rather than teaching from a Eurocentric textbook taught primarily from the perspective of White people in power, I teach [world history] from the eyes of young people from different countries around the world,” said Gehring.

Culturally responsive curriculum serves the purpose of showing students how their own lives are connected to the material they study in school, she said. But Gehring is not encouraged by the District’s approach to issues of cultural competency.

"Our district is failing in preparing teachers to facilitate conversations on race and teach lessons that are culturally relevant,” she said. “With the pressures from the state to pull up test scores, making time for such discussions has been extremely difficult. There is little space for creativity and collaboration within a community."

However, changes required by the settlement may create an opportunity to help people understand what cultural responsiveness is and work to create it at South Philly.

“They’re in a good place because they have a principal who really is committed to this,” said Noguera.

The principal, Otis Hackney, said that teachers talk about this during common planning times, and an advisory committee works to make sure that they implement culturally sensitive practices in their classrooms.

The settlement also requires student committees to discuss and address harassment based on race, ethnicity, color, and national origin

Noguera said that as implementation of the agreement goes forward, it is important that student and staff see themselves as part of the process. “We want to ensure that the staff and students know that we listen to them and that we’re going to work with them to change that school,” he said.

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