Part Three of an Ongoing Series
The likelihood of long periods of unemployment, limited opportunities for occupational advancement or an annual income that is insufficient to support a family poses a grim economic future for more than a million U.S. students who enter ninth grade each fall but fail to graduate with their peers four years later.
For the 210,432 students enrolled in public and charter schools in the School District of Philadelphia, risk factors such as low attendance, poor behavior and failing math and English grades are used to identify students likely to drop out as early as the sixth grade.
Issues surrounding student retention in the city’s public high schools have received public attention ever since 1955, only a year after the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional due to unequal educational opportunities for the nation’s black students.
Longtime community activist Dr. Walter Palmer was among the thousands of men, women and children who staged the first student protest against the Philadelphia Board of Education on Nov. 17, 1967. The protest also initiated the largest walkout in the history of the Philadelphia’s public school system among high school students.
Forty years later, the protest is renowned as the beginning of a contiguous reclamation movement in the eighth largest and oldest urban school district in the United States.
“There are at least a hundred kinds of social, environmental and economic barriers to the city’s children’s learning that have never been addressed,” Palmer said. “It’s not just lead poisoning. It’s asthma, diabetes, obesity, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, hunger, nutrition, child abuse, prisons, drugs, alcohol, poor housing. All these things factor into the lives of these children. Those are the things we fought for then and they’re the things we fight for now.”
Palmer, also a professor in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, advocated for the implementation of black history in the school district as well as a student bill of rights throughout the 1960s during the civil rights movement.
“You still have racism, even though the majority of the student population is of African descent. You still have a significant number of people who are non-African Americans who run the unions, the teachers, the training and they are in charge,” Palmer said. “You have some blacks here and there, but for the most part they suffer from the illusion of inclusion and have not worked around the central interest of these children.”
North Philadelphia native and former Philadelphia public school teacher Jacqueline Wiggins personally experienced issues surrounding urban education during her elementary and secondary years as an inner-city student at Saint Elizabeth Rectory and John W. Hallahan Catholic Girl’s High School.
“In today’s world, you don’t know who the teacher is and what background they have with respect to the culture of African-American people or the socioeconomic issues, and yet, these folks are placed in the classroom,” Wiggins said.
According to the School District of Philadelphia, approximately 65 percent of the students enrolled in the public and charter school district are black.
“When it comes to teaching, there are certain things that have to be in place. You have to come with content of your subject matter if it’s K-12 and classroom management strategies. You also have to come with sensitivity in cultural awareness of who it is you’re teaching. My sense is that these are things that are still problematic in the school district,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins said the growth of neighborhood gangs also contributes to the dilapidation of inner-city schools.
With goals of becoming a computer engineer, 11th grader Tyrone Walton has witnessed the effects of violence on his peers at Strawberry Mansion High School.
“Some people are too scared to walk to school and sometimes they miss a whole week out of school because of gun violence,” Walton said.
According to the district’s Region 2 Central City most recent demographics, 83.5 percent out of the school’s 701 enrolled students attended school in the 2006-2007 school year.
Dominic Johnson, also a junior at the school, said the lax environment in his classes does not provide him with a quality education. Johnson has already received a full scholarship to Temple from GEARUP – Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, a program that was created to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education.
“I think the teachers need to improve in their teaching and their discipline. Some of these students come to class, joke around and do not really learn anything. But I’m a junior, and the years I’ve been in high school, I have to say I’ve learned a minimum of stuff. I’m not on the level I should be on academically,” Johnson said.
In 2006, the school’s percentage of 11th graders scoring advanced on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment in math was 15.2 percent. Approximately 38 percent of the students scored proficient in the subject, but the majority of students were ranked as scoring below basic at 46 percent. The highest ranking occurred in 2001, with 91 percent of the students scoring below basic in math.
As founder and president of the Board for the Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, Palmer has crafted the variations of local neighborhoods, race and the city’s socioeconomic issues into a curriculum for the school’s students.
Each month, the teachers instruct students from pre-school to high school to use reading, writing, and math in solving problems associated with racism, poverty, and crime.
Palmer said the lack of direction, guide posts and the fact that these children are so wounded are major
“By the time a child is 10 years old, it is all about survival. Reading, writing, math and science have not been demonstrated to him or her to prove that they would solve their problems. They’ve been hollered at, screamed at, cursed at, beaten on and chastised and that is very unfortunate,” he said.
In fact, due to the large numbers of young people lacking in basic academic credentials, the economic and civic health of Philadelphia is no longer stable.
“The reason I think we do drug dealing on the corners is because jobs are not really hiring young black males, so what way can we get money? Money is not everything, but we need it to survive and that affects our learning,” Johnson said.
Growing up in North Philadelphia, senior social work major Andrea Butler, 42, was never told about going to college.
“Our foundation was church, not seeking a higher education. Though education was stressed in terms of receiving a diploma, but any connections to an institution like Temple, there was none,” Butler said.
Butler encourages Temple students to be aware of the conditions many inner-city students experience due to communities’ poor economic standards.
“What I see is a lot of middle class suburbanites who are oblivious to cultural awareness,” she said. “When they come to the university they don’t realize that they are in a community that has social and economic issues.”
Brittany Diggs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.