This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In the waning days of the school year, a group of students at Strong Vincent High School in the city of Erie sat around a large wooden table in the library, discussing how they feel their school is perceived out in the suburbs.
Nathan Stevens, a White junior, was one of the first to chime in.
"We’re a city school, and the surrounding districts are higher income and they always think that they’re better than us," he said. "That’s just how it works around here."
Whitney Henderson, a Black sophomore, spoke next.
"Everybody thinks it’s a ghetto school, or that the people that go here are dumb, or bad," she said.
Based on what?
"Stereotypes," said Henderson.
This conversation has become especially pertinent.
In the face of systemically inequitable state funding, the superintendent of Erie Public Schools has proposed shutting down all city high schools and busing students to the better-resourced suburban districts.
Superintendent Jay Badams has floated this idea as a way to ensure that the kids get a fair education in the midst of chronic budget shortfalls.
Between the lines, this would amount to a major race and class integration effort.
"This is the sixth consecutive year of cutting budgets," Badams said. "If we have to cut things like sports, art, music, [then] we’re taking away from students who already have fewer opportunities than their peers in school districts here in Erie County."
In Part One of this series, Keystone Crossroads analyzed the policies and trends that led to Erie’s fiscal plight.
In theory, if Erie followed through with the closure plan, the district would forward the money it spends on each high schooler to that student’s new district.
So the monetary savings would not be very significant.
"For us, this is as much about equity than it is about finances," said Badams.
But the proposal has made waves, especially in the nearby school districts, which include Millcreek, Harbor Creek, Iroquois, Fairview and General McLane.
And the racial and socioeconomic math is hard to ignore.
Erie is by far the poorest district in the county, with a median household income of about $33,000.
Minority students make up 57 percent of the Erie public schools population. No other district in Erie County exceeds 12 percent.
The students in Erie can feel this dynamic as well as anyone.