This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Notebook launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first publication earlier this year. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.
This piece is from the Fall 2002 print edition:
by Shauna Brown
When the Philadelphia school board adopted the “Multiracial-Multicultural-Gender Education” policy known as Policy 102 on January 24, 1994, advocates of equity in education saw a glimmer of hope in a city and school system plagued by a long history of inequality and discrimination.
The policy appeared to be an opening to build an education system around the needs of children – a system that would address the social, economic and cultural realities that they confront as citizens of a society characterized by both diversity and inequality.
Many believed this to offer a powerful opportunity for school-community collaboration.
“I take this policy to be a promise from the Board of Education.” said Ellen Somekawa of Asian Americans United during a celebration of the policy. “The promise is that you will be devoting resources, energy, and vision to the process of making our schools truly equitable institutions. I hope to participate with you in the hard work that is coming.”
While much has happened over the past eight years, many are still waiting for the District to fulfill the policy’s stated commitment to educational equity for all: “Multiracial-Multicultural-Gender Education will be infused throughout all aspects of the educational process.”
A collaborative effort
Policy 102 developed as a result of a collaborative effort between the District and members of community organizations that had been “critical of the District for its lack of effort in these areas,” explained Joe Jacovino, who was co-chair of the Multicultural Education Working Group that developed the policy.
Under the leadership of Jacovino and Debbie Wei (both from the District’s curriculum office) and with the support of Rotan Lee and Floyd Alston, then School Board president and vice president, the group initially sought to share resources and better understand multicultural education initiatives in the District.
Policy 102 was the ultimate fruit of their labor, a document that Rita Adessa, executive director of the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force and a member of the Working Group, said “expressed exactly” the goals of the committee that created it. It also responded to court orders and legislative mandates calling for the District to more equitably distribute quality education resources throughout the city.
The committee’s hope, according to Adessa, was “to create a system of knowledge and pedagogy that was inclusive and reflective and representative not only in the curriculum, but in who the teachers were, what were they teaching, who trained them and how, who got the financial resources, and how did they apply them.”
Adessa added, “The thought was [to have] an equality of resources within a framework of a pedagogy that taught about equality and justice around race, gender, sexual orientation, and other issues.”
A powerful philosophy
The explicit commitment to Multiracial-Multicultural-Gender Education as “indispensable” to creating “a society that will ensure respect for all cultures, dignity for all communities and justice for all people” distinguished Policy 102 from many multicultural education policies of the time.
The fact of its existence has enabled and empowered educators at all levels throughout the system to try new approaches and take advantage of opportunities to increase their own multicultural knowledge and teaching skills.
At the District leadership level, Policy 102 has guided policy decisions regarding issues ranging from school funding to assessment to eligibility for summer programs.
“Because of Policy 102, we’ve been inspired to take a lot of culturally inclusive actions,” said Mary Ramirez, director of instruction at the School District.
Ramirez notes that the spirit of Policy 102 is also embedded in the District’s recent “Curriculum Renewal Plan,” with its particular emphasis on “Special Populations,” and in the “Multicultural Competencies” that were developed during work on content and performance standards under former Superintendent David Hornbeck’s administration.
Working with the limited resources available, the District has also provided support for educators to develop strategies to provide a more culturally balanced curriculum and to create classroom and school cultures that value knowledge of and respect for all people.
Initiatives supported by Policy 102 have included the All Means All Conferences hosted by the District; the annual Multicultural Content Institutes for teachers, led by curriculum specialists for African American, Latino and Asian American studies; increased attention to the multicultural resources available in school libraries; and grants to support and improve bilingual programs throughout the District.
The Freedom School program has worked with outside groups to integrate Latino and Asian cultural issues into the African American-focused curriculum provided by the Children’s Defense Fund.
Further, a district-wide training program to help make schools safer for gay and lesbian students and the formation of an “Ally Safe School Network” contributed to the emergence of gay-straight alliance groups in high schools across the District.
“We’ve tried to give people options,” Ramirez explained, “I think the accountability piece isn’t there to the level that it could be, but we are really encouraging people to put this work at the forefront of their efforts.”
A dream deferred?
While many people in the District are taking advantage of these opportunities, most agree that the systematic approach envisioned in Policy 102 never became a reality.
According to School Reform Commissioner Sandra Dungee Glenn, African and African American studies still have not become “an integrated, integral, mandatory component of the District’s curriculum from K to 12.”
Decrying the “miseducation of children,” Glenn remarked, “In a District that’s 65 percent African American, children still do not see themselves reflected in the curriculum.”
Jacovino commented, “There has been significant impact as a result of [Policy 102], in terms of increased professional development, increased awareness. Would I like to have seen it implemented in a more complete fashion? Absolutely. But, there have been a significant number of efforts with varying degrees of success in terms of implementation.”
As a consequence of uneven implementation, educators committed to the ideas of Policy 102 say they often feel unconnected and unsupported by the District.
“Teachers don’t even know that the policy exists unless they go through an in-service,” said Bruce Bowers, a veteran teacher, now at High Tech High Charter School, who has been active in teacher networks addressing issues of multicultural education (see In it together). “I don’t think it was ever on the front burner,” he added.
Many educational professionals and paraprofessionals do not have the knowledge, experience, or skills needed to engage in this work at the level that students need, and the District often struggles to provide resources to support these efforts on the classroom level.
Given the tremendous changes in District leadership since 1994, the future impact of Policy 102 is uncertain. The weight of responsibility for its implementation rests in the hands of individuals throughout the District.
Without leadership willing to make this policy central to the District agenda, allocate sufficient financial, professional, and educational resources, and ensure accountability, the approach to multicultural education in the District more often reflects a common understanding of multicultural education as something to add on, rather than as a fundamental core principle.
In a recent interview, new District CEO Paul Vallas said that his first step for supporting multicultural education in schools will be to develop and provide teachers with “superior curriculum and instructional models.”
“We’ve got to make sure that when it comes to history, we’re teaching world history, not the history of Western civilization. We need to make sure that American history is truly the American experience. Basically, we’ve got to teach the truth,” he commented.
Renewing our commitment
Currently, much of the impetus for multicultural education has been coming from the community. Organizations such as Youth United for Change and ASPIRA have worked closely with school and central office staff on initiatives to increase knowledge about and respect for students’ cultures.
Policy 102’s strength lies in its inclusiveness and the fact that it represents collective thought, the power of a diverse group of people working together for children.
As Rita Adessa commented, “The Policy 102 group was not academics and business people. It was community organizations and internal staff.”
They were advocates of liberatory education and supporters of Philadelphia’s children who included equity and justice among the high standards for the education of all children, she explained.
Policy 102 is a District policy, but as a philosophy, it teaches a powerful lesson about the power of community-District collaboration and the need for continued, persistent community involvement.
“We are the only ones who can turn around our communities,” Debbie Wei reminded. “How much are you willing to do? Will you roll up your sleeves and work for the children?”