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South Philly starts year with high hopes for change

Approaching the anniversary of the infamous attacks, students talk about moving forward.

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

Duong Nghe Ly wonders whether he and other Asian students will continue to face violence at South Philadelphia High School.

Ten months after a group of mostly African American students attacked Asians on and off the Broad Street campus, students are returning to a new school year, with a new principal and hopes for improved school climate.

When asked about new Principal Otis Hackney, Ly, an 18-year-old who is from Vietnam and has become a student activist, said, “I’m very optimistic.

“He seems like a very good listener, he really works with the students, [and] always says, ‘What do you think could improve?’”

Hackney, former principal at Springfield Township High School, replaces LaGreta Brown following persistent controversy over how Brown and the District responded to the attacks. Hackney took over this summer.

Brown resigned in May after it became known that her principal credentials were not up to date. An interim principal finished out the last school year at the school, which is also called Southern.

In the days following the December 3 incident, advocates charged that the District was slow to respond. Brown and school officials initially brushed off the violence as gang-related and placed blame on Asian students.

A report issued by Judge James Giles largely absolved the District of responsibility and failed to look into the long history of violence and tensions at the school, further inciting Asian advocates to push for big changes.

They filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Justice, which has found merit in its allegations. This likely means that any reforms will be subject to federal oversight.

Hackney, who was assistant principal at Southern four years ago, says the strategy is to transform Southern into a school where the rich diversity of its student body is honored and valued rather than a source of conflict.

The goal is to “turn around” what happened last year and “make South Philadelphia a model for a diverse school, almost an international school,” he said.

Dyana Bates, 14, said that Hackney seemed like a good fit.

“He does his job, makes sure people get to class,” she said.

One morning during the second week of school, Hackney walked into the central office with a calm but alert presence, greeting students and staff with authoritative familiarity.

Students hurrying to make the 8 a.m. bell on this morning weren’t sure what to expect in the new school year.

“I don’t know yet,” said student Myesha Hampton.

“I think there will be a lot of conflicts and stuff because people can’t keep their mouths shut [but] I think it will improve a little bit.”

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman told students at an orientation assembly to put last year behind them.

“Every new school year is a fresh start,” she said. She urged the freshmen to set an example.

“We’ve implemented hard changes,” Ackerman stressed.

In addition to bringing on a new principal, the District has installed over 100 cameras, which advocates and students welcome, but don’t consider a solution to preventing violence at the school, Ly said.

Ly said that tensions, mistrust, and a lack of understanding still hinder relations between Black and Asian students. According to Ly, a lot of anger is fueled by the perception that Asian students are receiving preferential treatment.

Southern has also opened a Newcomer Learning Academy, a new classroom for recently arrived immigrant students who may have had breaks in their schooling. Southern’s academy is run by Cheri Michean with another teacher. Students in Michean’s class have recently arrived from Burma, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Greece, Mali and Ethiopia.

The District opened up two other such centers at Edison and Rush High Schools.

To expand the school’s commitment to diversity, Hackney has reached out to families and the wider community, some of whom may feel shut outside the schoolhouse doors. He plans to open a parents’ lounge so that families, especially immigrant families, feel welcome.

Hackney said that improving school climate by establishing a culture of safety, punctuality, and respect is just a first step, a prelude to improving academics. He pledges more collaboration with teachers.

“We can do all the great things in the hallway, but if that classroom piece isn’t there, you can lose the momentum,” he said.

“It’s not a totally broken situation. But there’s a lot of work to be done” to improve the school environment, he said, including things that “may have been in the institution so long, people may not even notice it.”

He wants to bring in programs that cultivate interaction between different students at Southern. The Asian Arts Initiative will soon be offering afterschool art classes, and Philadelphia Student Union has been invited to start a chapter. The District also hired a new Asian American assistant principal, Kimlime Chek-Taylor, and the Main Line Chinese Cultural Center is organizing diversity trainings for teachers.

Plus, the school has begun offering Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language.

Helen Gym of Asian Americans United calls Hackney “compassionate, thoughtful, and engaged in dialogue that leads to action.” But she says she’s still not sure that Ackerman’s office “understands the role of community dialogue.”

For students like 16-year old Bach Tong, the District’s efforts to improve climate have come too late. After the last school year, he decided to transfer to Science Leadership Academy, where he is now beginning his junior year.

“It’s the right place for me, both environmentally and academically,” he said.

“I needed something to prepare me for college, and a place that welcomes me. It’s really hard to do that at South Philly High even with the new administration, so I transferred.”

Hackney has a tough balance to strike, addressing real problems that culminated in last year’s violence while making sure students do not feel stigmatized. He said that some African American students might feel resentful about getting lumped in with those who were involved in the incidents. Yet he hopes the violence can be a learning experience for all.

At lunch, a student called out to Hackney, “Do you like it here?” A group of students stopped eating to hear his answer.

“What do you think?” Hackney fired back.

“Don’t you see me outside in the morning? I love it here.”

The student carefully considered his new principal’s words.

“There are people who pretend to care but don’t, and people who care but pretend not to.”

Hackney smiled, then said, “Well, we’ve got to fix that.”

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