In his 1899 The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, W.E.B. Dubois reminds us that, by 1881, Philadelphia schools were legally desegregated. Legally, anyway. 

At the time, the old seventh ward that DuBois studied, which stretched from Schuylkill to 7th Street, was the home of a segregated neighborhood of tenement houses in which African Americans resided. This part of town proved to be a quintessential example of the systemic racism of that time, separating whites from blacks in almost every way, including education. 

The area, which is now known as Rittenhouse and Fitler Squares, is no longer the segregated area it once was. And over the decades, the hard-and-fast distinction between education as a black Philadelphian and a white Philadelphia have been reformed away. This progress begs the question: is the ongoing systemic racism alleged by some in the Philadelphia school system really the thing that holds back many Black residents from thriving? 

With the question in mind, one should also think about the game of sly distractions the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) attempts to employ when asked about its successes or failures.

Right-to-Know (RTK) requests filed by B+L earlier this year, for example, asked about “the number or percentage of students” in the SDP “that have failed at least one course in a grading period at the secondary level.” Though the SDP eventually fulfilled the request after an appeal was made to the state Office of Open Records, they initially rejected the requests, claiming the data is not tracked. When B+L reported on this denial, the district’s response was to inferre that B+L was feeding racial stereotypes for deigning to ask and report about student performance statistics.

Regarding their initial reason for denial, it is extremely difficult to fathom, given that the district-wide student information system (SIS) computer program, Infinite Campus, keeps track of grades for all enrolled students in the city. 

The issue is not that the information is not tracked; the issue is that no report has been generated.

And the unwillingness to create such a simple report indicates that certain parties within the district – and I am not yet sure which ones – wish to obfuscate the truth rather than shed sunlight on the situation for the good of the students.

Sadly, before satisfying the request, the SDP assumed racial animus. The District asserted that any claim that the SDP “does not track information just because said information, which is not public, was not shared with your outlet is irresponsible and feeds negative stereotypes that are often attributed to urban school districts with large numbers of students of color.” 

Not public?Not according to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, nor according to at least 16 other Pennsylvanian school districts that have released the very information in question.

An April 2021 article in The Morning Call illustrates the difficulty I have with the charge made by the district.  It showed that many  districts with a significantly higher percentage of white students shared their Covid-19 related numbers.

Wilson School district, which is 76% white, reported a year-on-year 250% increase in students failing two or more subjects between 2019 and 2020. The Whitehall Coplay School District, which is 71% white, witnessed a shocking increase of about 400% for the same category of students over the same period. 

So, why didn’t the SDP honor the request without the assertions of racially motivation? History? The shadow of folks like Mayor Rizzo? Perhaps.

But beyond looking at the law fairly and tossing aside unfounded racial accusations, what about being honest with parents? Many have been disconnected or overwhelmed over the last year. Do they not deserve to know how the district is performing? And is there something the SDP can do to collaborate better with other City services to empower parents and keep them better informed? 

Sure, racism is real. But, in this case, there are clearly other questions that need addressing.

It does not take a PhD to figure out that struggling students need more educational help  than what was provided during the pandemic. I am fully aware that most teachers worked as best they could to aid students in the learning process given the difficult circumstances. Hats off to those teachers! But honesty and transparency about how students performed despite all that hard work should not be brushed off as trafficking in stereotypes.

DuBois claimed in his study that African American parents had, in his day, not “fully grasped their great school advantages in the city by keeping their younger children regularly in school,” a decision from which “much harm has sprung.” I think that, some 120 years later, most African-American parents now realize how imperative keeping their children actively engaged in school is. But this ordeal makes me wonder whether or not the education system is as interested in being honestly engaged with parents. 

You be the judge.

Christopher Brooks is a Professor of History at East Stroudsburg University

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