This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
UPDATED 6/2 with letter from Hite to staff and statement from Board of Education
NEW UPDATE with comment from president of principals’ union
As Philadelphia remains convulsed in protest after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, Superintendent William Hite joined Mayor Kenney and other city officials Monday to say that “our school communities are in mourning right now” and that educators stand ready to help students in any way they can.
He also said that it may be time for “difficult conversations” in schools, apparently referring to systemic racism and inequity that many Philadelphia public school students live with.
“It goes without saying that this has been an extremely painful week, and a challenging few months for us all. As an African American man, a grandfather, a father, I understand the hopelessness that individuals acted upon this weekend,” Hite said in a brief statement. “And I’m aware of the trauma children may experience when they see reports of a black or brown person whose life seems to have little or no value. And I understand that fear may come with seeing neighborhoods they know and love destroyed.”
Noting that teachers and students are now only communicating online due to school closures as a result of the pandemic, Hite said it was really important for educators to “create the opportunity for [students] to connect, and to respond, and to share their feelings with adults. We want to be very intentional about our staffs providing safe spaces for children, even if it’s virtual.”
And he added: “We know full well that by ignoring this matter, we will not make it go away. Perhaps shying away from these very difficult conversations has been a part of the problem all along. The actions that we’ve seen over the last few days are actions by individuals who are among our most vulnerable. It is our intention to do what we’ve always done, serve our students, empower them with information and resources that will prepare them to become citizens.”
UPDATE In a letter to school staff sent Monday, Hite reinforced his message, urging “every School District employee to continue talking with one another and having real conversations about institutional racism, social injustice, and all the ways we are alike as human beings. Only by continuing to have honest conversations about these issues can we move forward as a school district, a city and a country.”
The Board of Education also issued a statement Tuesday morning on social media postponing a public hearing that had been scheduled for Thursday. The board is required by the City Charter to hold two general public hearings annually.
While also calling for “difficult conversations,” the board said that the “trauma our students, teachers, families and staff are experiencing makes a scheduled hearing inappropriate at this time.”
“At this point in history, we find ourselves wondering how we begin to shift centuries of racism, discrimination and prejudice,” the statement said. “And how we can use the anger, frustration and collective resolve as fuel for change.”
Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA) added her voice to the calls for schools to be forthright about racism.
“We will continue to stamp out racism, by first, acknowledging its existence, by educating ourselves, our colleagues, and our students on the devastating impact of racism, and by implementing and teaching using culturally responsive resources,” she wrote. “It is imperative that we understand that right now students that we teach and adults that we claim as friends, colleagues, and co-workers are and have been experiencing trauma that has affected them to their very core and may never breathe a word for fear of being ostracized in the workplace by their peers.”
The superintendent reminded students and families that the District has set up the Philly HopeLine for those who need support for their emotional health and urged young people to “please, please” stay safe and adhere to social distancing guidelines as well as obeying curfews designed to curb the unrest.
Hite had been implicitly criticized over the weekend by Board of Education member Mallory Fix Lopez, who wanted District leaders to be more forthright in providing guidance for teachers to deal with the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of police around the country.
On Monday, Fix Lopez, who is white, said she owed Hite an apology and suggested she had been insensitive to his personal pain as an African American person. She said her original tweet had received pushback, which “helped me understand.”
After talking w @TamirDHarper I realized my previous tweet saw Superintendent before Black. I also realized that was a privileged view and understand the hurt I caused @SDPHite and others. I appreciate the push back to help me come to this understanding. We need dialogue— Mallory Fix Lopez (@FixMallory) June 1, 2020
She agreed with Hite on the need to be more open about these issues.
“I appreciate Dr. Hite’s guidance and support and apologize for any pain I have caused. I think this serves as an example for me why we need to discuss race more explicitly and make sure our talk as a board turns into action. Dialogue is needed for progress.”
Philly HopeLine, staffed by trained therapists, is available by calling or texting 833-745-4674. The HopeLine is available from noon to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and on weekends from noon to 4 p.m.