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Principal Siouda Douglas (center) talks with teacher Carol Graham (left) and parent Lia Pallante at A.S. Jenks Elementary School.

South Philly school with all-white faculty celebrates diversity of students

A.S. Jenks Elementary has embraced the changes in its neighborhood.

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

While working on this teacher diversity series, we visited one of the schools in the city that has an all-white faculty, A.S. Jenks in South Philadelphia.

What we found was a school that, in many ways, is a model of diversity.

Its principal, Siouda Douglas, is black, and its students come from all over the world. The teachers, nearly all of them native white South Philadelphians, celebrate the new cultures that their students bring to the school.

Douglas says it is absolutely important to have diversity among teachers, although she has nothing but praise for her current staff.

She would like to have more teachers of color, but few apply, she said. Once, when she had an African American applicant, she found that the person had intended to apply to J.S. Jenks in Chestnut Hill instead.

That was two years ago. Because vacancies come up at A.S. Jenks so rarely, the South Philly word-of-mouth network quickly got busy. After reviewing the applicant pool, she and her leadership team hired two women from the neighborhood. Both are Italian Americans who graduated from Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP) and were looking to join the District after stints at charter schools.

Douglas said they are “wonderful teachers.”

At 13th and Porter, A.S. Jenks sits in the middle of a neighborhood that has seen waves of immigration for generations. Once dominated by Italians and Irish, students’ families today come from Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, China, Indonesia, Albania, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Vietnam. The student body, kindergarten through 5th grade, is now 45 percent white, 33 percent Asian, 10 percent Hispanic, 7 percent multiracial, and 4 percent black.

As for teachers, she said, “People don’t leave unless they are retiring.”

One of those is Carol (nee Cascio) Graham, whose mother, sister, and both children graduated from Jenks. She walks to work every day.

“I’ve been teaching here 14 years,” she said. “This is so much a neighborhood school. And it has embraced the changes in the neighborhood.”

Children learn how to say hello in each others’ languages, and they have weeklong cultural celebrations.

“I’ve seen it evolve from not just an Italian festival, but Hispanic American Day – we might do tacos that day,” Graham said. “Parents came in and taught us about Chinese New Year. In May last year, we had an Arab Month celebration, and parents held an assembly and taught different lessons.”

Sharing food can bring students together, with couscous day and salsa day. The teachers built math, science, and reading lessons around the making of salsa.

“Our kids are just nice and accepting of one another, not just culture, but disability,” said Graham. “It comes from the principal to staff and trickles down to the students.”

On the day before Thanksgiving, Jenks celebrated International Day. Parents came with signature dishes, lined them up on tables in the hallway, and the students and teachers had a feast.

Graham has learned that although the cultures are all different, they have much in common. The Algerian parents “put out quite a spread, just like my Italian family would,” she said.

When Douglas arrived at Jenks 11 years ago, the school had four African American teachers, largely due to the consent decree requiring racial balance among all faculties. Those teachers have since retired, although one regularly comes back as a substitute and another comes once a month to read to students.

Douglas, who knows each of her 300 students by name, has worked hard on outreach. She once worked at a charter school where most of the students were black and Hispanic. She was the only African American teacher in the high school, and “there were no Latino teachers of a major subject.” She found this disconcerting. “Students do need to see adults like them. It breaks down the discomfort a child might have,” she said.

As principal of A.S Jenks, she has worked hard at making sure all cultures are respected.

Many of the Arab parents are from Algeria. They came, she said, “with their guard up. Last year, I started meeting with parents of different cultures and asking, ‘What do you want from us?’”

Basically, she discovered, “they feared we wouldn’t be accepting.” For instance, they worried that a Christmas concert would exclude their children and their traditions.

She explained that it was a winter concert and never about Christmas. She asked them for a list of songs.

“The vocal music teacher was new to the school, and I told her that the songs have to represent everybody’s culture,” Douglas said.

The concert was a success. “The Arab parents embraced me,” she said. “I had 20 Christmas presents from them, even though they don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Douglas said that it is understandable that not many African American teachers would apply to Jenks. For one thing, teachers like to work close to where they live. She also notes that only 4 percent of the students at Jenks are African American, and “a lot of African American teachers want to work with African American students.”

That a black principal would lead a school with so few black students is emblematic of the situation in Philadelphia, where more than half the principals are African American, a percentage that far exceeds the national figure of around 10 percent.

Douglas grew up in West Philadelphia and went through Catholic elementary schools before attending Girls’ High. But after her father died and she started feeling disconnected, she transferred for 11th and 12th grade to West Philadelphia High, from which she graduated. She went from there to Temple, then Arcadia for a master’s in education and the University of Pennsylvania for her administrators’ certification. She is now pursuing her doctorate at Drexel.

“I absolutely think it matters that students have teachers who look like them,” she said. When the latest vacancies occurred, “the staff talked about wanting to hire an Asian teacher.” The school has considered starting a Mandarin immersion program, but finding a Chinese teacher, getting parents’ buy-in, and getting official approval for such a program is a complex process.

One of the new teachers hired two years ago is Jennifer Rossoni. On the morning of International Day, her students made presentations on their countries. Then she led her students to get their food from the hallway tables, and they went back to their classroom. While eating, they watched films celebrating local cultures. They saw the fluidity of Indonesian plate dancers, followed by the crisp form of Irish step dancers.

“I have students in my class from Algeria, Albania, Indonesia, Mexico, and China, and of course Italy and Ireland,” she said. “They’re from every continent. So many of my kids are bilingual, even trilingual.”

She pointed out a boy from Mexico who speaks his family’s indigenous language as well as Spanish and English. Another boy from Algeria speaks Berber, English, and French.

“We make an effort to celebrate and honor the diversity of our students,” said Rossoni. “It’s part of our mission. It’s a blessing for me to be here.”