Last week the DelCo Times had an article about a roundtable discussion on racism in schools hosted by state Sen. Tim Kearney. The article quotes Colin Woodland of Strath Haven high school about the recent Black Lives Matter Day.
“It felt like they were scared of controversy,” Woodland said. “They were scared of the controversy of the conflict that would arise. I feel like so much change is swept under the rug because people are afraid to get uncomfortable. You can’t be afraid how received it will be. You have to know that this is an important issue and it needs to be solved right now and you need to put your all into it.”
This aligns with what I’ve heard elsewhere from parents in the district – the experience was uneven for students. Some teachers, like my son’s, did a great job working with the Black Lives Matter material while in other classrooms it was more of a formality. At the high school it seems that “Black Lives Matter Day” was in reality one class period. Its clear that a fair number of teachers in the district are not ready to engage with this work yet, which isn’t surprising given the teachers reflect America itself.
Looking back at historical data on race in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, the current administration has not made enough progress. In the last year of data available, disciplinary actions still fall disproportionally on students of color. Anecdotally from what I’ve heard and seen, most of the GIEPs (Gifted Individual Education Plans) in the district are for white and Asian students, suggesting a fundamental problem in how students are evaluated for advanced instruction. There remain few teachers of color. I do not believe my son had a single one in his time at NPE – even for specials. And we regularly hear from students of color in the district about their experiences.
Combating racism in schools faces multiple challenges in Delaware County. The county is divided into small districts with wide inequalities within short distances. The mostly white Wallingford-Swarthmore District lies adjacent to the mostly black and insolvent Chester-Upland District. Several decades ago there were vicious fights over Swarthmore accepting the working-class Garden City and black South Media communities into their schools, can you imagine if it was suggested the districts need to further merge today? The state’s funding formula for schools also further exacerbates the inequalities between districts rather than ameliorating them.
There have been efforts to recruit people of color to the school board with little success. Given the difficulties faced by people of color, its unsurprising that few can also take on another large, uncompensated job. Recruiting any candidates from the Garden City area also proves challenging as few working class people can do so much uncompensated work. The school board is, and will remain regardless of this year’s election’s outcome, dominated by wealthier, white parents. There is only 1 school board member from the Garden City area and none from South Media.
Another challenge is that the school district has few partners in the community. The all-white township board largely avoids issues of race (although they did remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the park in South Media last year). Swarthmore’s board by comparison has created a human relations commission and hosted a number of events I’ve seen over the last year like Indigenous Peoples Day. The school district has some kind of relationship with the local Media-area NAACP, but I’m not clear how extensive that is. The district also has a DEI (Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion) committee including members of the community, but its only starting to get to work. Issues of race in the classroom can not be solved without also addressing the underlying racism in the community.
A new school superintendent will be announced imminently. They have a difficult task ahead of them, changing not just the schools, but breaking down barriers and creating a more inclusive community. As Sen. Kearney said at the end,
After thanking the students for their bravery and attendance, Kearney said an hour is not enough to address all of these issues.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us and we all want to create communities that are more fair and more just,” the senator said. “We can do that by listening to people and really listening to you, the students.”