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What’s next for South Philly High?

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

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s almost impossible to believe that a story that first comes to public light with 30 kids getting beaten up in school can get worse over time, but in fact, that’s exactly what’s happened with the on-going fiasco at South Philadelphia High School.

Last week, South Philly High Principal LaGreta Brown abruptly resigned hours before a teacher vote of no-confidence and amid the finding that her Pennsylvania principal certification was inactive. The latter technicality capped a disastrous tenure for Brown.

Under her leadership, a violent and troubled school spun completely out of control. Prior to the violence on Dec. 3, 2009, when 30 Asian immigrant students were beaten inside and outside of school throughout the day, Asian community advocates – who had been tracking anti-Asian/anti-immigrant violence at the school for over a year – had raised alarms bells about Brown’s stewardship. Among them:

  • Brown’s refusal to meet with community members about the school’s history,
  • complaints from individual students and families regarding Brown’s failure to respond to violent incidents against them, and
  • Brown’s alleged use of inflammatory language to describe services for immigrant students – referring to programs for English language learners as a “dynasty,” for example.

In the months since the December attacks, seeking to deflect responsibility, the District targeted Asian immigrant student victims as perpetrators of the violence against themselves, spread unfounded rumors about gangs and retaliation, and failed to investigate – or even acknowledge – on-going violence and harassment against Asian immigrant students.

Throughout this time, city officials and District leaders stood unwaveringly by Brown, and even publicly praised her.

As a long-time advocate for public schools, I am hurt to see our city and schools represented in this way. There’s nothing more valuable or integral to public school reform than quality leadership. Every school and every child in this city needs and deserves the best leaders we have to offer, and we should be able to recognize and celebrate that kind of leadership. When city and District officials defend a school leader who had failed her charge so significantly, who was seen as someone other districts didn’t want, and legally unqualified to boot – it not only hurts the District but our city as well.

Brown’s long-overdue departure – while necessary – is not sufficient. We welcome Otis Hackney III as South Philly’s newest leader, and we are encouraged by his reputation as a compassionate and competent school leader. We’re hopeful (as we have been for the past two years) that change will happen for this deeply troubled school.

At the same time, we have been in this position before. In September, SPHS will have its fifth principal in six years. The District’s responsibility for fixing the on-going violence at South Philly High could not be more relevant. Now more than ever, there needs to be a dialogue with a broad range of community groups, including the Asian community advocates who have been working with the District on the specifics of the anti-Asian/anti-immigrant harassment over the past two years. We have asked for many changes, which involve healing for the whole school community as well as the institution of basic policies and practices we hope would begin to address the racial tensions and misunderstanding at the school.

Unfortunately, the District has, for more than a month, not responded to repeated requests from Asian community advocates to meet about on-going harassment and violence at the school and to figure out the best solutions to the situation at South Philly High.

It would be naïve to think that LaGreta Brown’s departure will solve things at South Philly High. While she was a significant failure, Brown was hardly the only obstacle to progress at the school. It would also be grossly unfair to pass the reins to Mr. Hackney and expect him to fix the problems alone.

But in yesterday’s Inquirer, the District seems to evade its own responsibility:

[Superintendent Arlene Ackerman] said groups that opposed Brown’s leadership "now have an opportunity. The person they felt was the primary person responsible for all that has gone wrong in that school is gone."

In actuality, that’s not the case. Asian Americans United along with other groups have been working to address the problems at South Philly High School for more than 18 months – far beyond Brown’s tenure at the school – and we’ve met with the Regional Superintendent and other District officials, who have also failed to address the real problems at the school.

The biggest obstacle continues to be the District and its lack of engagement of communities who must be part of the solution to the problems at their schools, not in a way that pits one against the other but which brings multiple voices to the table.

Every child deserves to go to school in safety. On that all of us must agree. Finding solutions to ensure that happens remains our biggest challenge.

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