Racial achievement gap affecting Chester County schools, report says03/31/2021 10:39AM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Of the 363,500 students who attend public school in the 61 school districts in the four suburban counties south of Philadelphia, 23 percent are Black or Hispanic.
According to a recently released report, most of this population -- if not all – continues to be the victims of an unfair educational system that perpetuates discriminatory policies, indifference and racial bias, the results of which are having a crippling effect on minority students in Chester, Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery counties.
At an online presentation on March 25, Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) shared the specifics and findings of its “No More Dreams Deferred: Building an Education System That Works for Black and Hispanic Students,” that provided in-depth evidence that the public school education of Black and Hispanic students in southeastern Pennsylvania has reached a crisis point.
The report was introduced by PCCY Executive Director Donna Cooper, and featured commentary by school administrators and educational specialists in the region.
“Many people in America have had a conversation for years about why Black and Hispanic students have typically not performed on parallel with their White peers, and in addition they have mostly seen that as a challenge of urban school districts,” Cooper said. “Today, the data that we are releasing really shows that the conditions in school districts, whether they are urban or suburban, are what are causing Black and Hispanic students to not be able to hit the same achievement rates as their White peers.”
State ranks near bottom in
narrowing student racial disparity
The key factors contributing to the widening gap, the PCCY report said, are disproportion and a lack of opportunities. While these suburban school districts are becoming more and more diverse, their educational paradigms have not kept up with the changing face of their student demographic. The results of the study said that while Pennsylvania ranks 15th in the nation in providing overall access to educational opportunities for students, it ranks 47th in the country in gaps both between White and Black students and White and Hispanic students because the disparity between opportunities for White and Black and Hispanic students is so large.
Academically, the problem is a glaring one, and it is being seen in nearly every classroom in all four counties. The report showed that the achievement gap among the suburban districts in reading is 16 percentage points higher for White students than Hispanic students, and 22 points higher than Black students.
In 92 percent of the suburban districts, fewer Black and Hispanic students are enrolled in AP classes than one would expect given the proportion of minority students in each county, and fewer Black and Hispanic students are being given access to career and technical education programs. As a consequence, minority students in these counties are in a constant uphill climb to achieve outcomes that are comparable to their White peers and failing, due to a system that too often focuses on their performance as an indicator of their ability, rather than as part of a system that should be doing more to inspire and teach.
‘With less funding comes less resources’
The systemic disparities don’t end at the classroom.
The report found that most Black and Hispanic students are likely to live in working and lower income families, reside in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of students of color, and attend economically and racially segregated schools. There, they become victims of school systems that are chronically underfunded or are not allocated equitably among schools.
“With less funding comes less resources,” said Tomea Sippio-Smith, PCCY’s K12 Education Policy Director. “Even before the pandemic struck, in the Philadelphia suburbs, at least 13,000 Black and Hispanic students lacked digital access, putting them at a great disadvantage.
“We know that when students have access to funding and adequate resources, they do better. When we look at the school districts that have more money to spend on students, we see that the [reading and math] scores improve.”
Another major discrepancy between White students and students of color is found in the area of discipline. It is inequitable and arbitrary, the report claimed; minorities are far more likely to be harshly disciplined in school than their White peers, and Black students are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or referred to law enforcement than White students.
Throughout the four counties, Black students lose 95 days of instruction due to suspensions compared to 15 days for their White peers. Further, despite the fact that Black students make up about 13 percent of the population in these districts, they received nearly half of the 13,347 out-of-school suspensions recorded in the four counties.
For instance, in Delaware County, 68 percent of suspensions were for Black students – almost 2.5 times the expected rate given that they comprise only 28 percent of the student population.
In Chester County, Black students fared significantly worse. Although they make up only six percent of the student population, they account for 32 percent of suspensions, and are more than five times more likely than their White peers to receive out-of-school suspensions.
Four key strategies toward racial equity
To effectively build an education system that works for Black and Hispanic students, schools and districts, the report called upon state leaders to adopt a system that embraces four key strategies:
1) Create an accountability system at the state level that measures progress on equity
2) Implement proven and effective processes that improve school climate to close racial disparity gaps
3) Require schools to demonstrate equitable access to high quality academic options; and
4) Ensure that schools serving Black and Hispanic students are adequately funded, and that funding follows student need
The recommendations provided by PCCY are an across-the-board examination of current policies, Sippio-Smith said.
“Our proposal is to reform school climate policies so that young people can go to school and focus on achievement, and that means that there are school counselors available for them,” she said. “If there are inequities in suspensions and law enforcement gaps, to not only address them but implement research-based programs to address student behavior and discipline.
“Additionally, have teachers and administrators attend implicit bias and racism training. Moreover, change the rules of the school officers. Retrain them so that they are actually providing support instead of discipline.
“Ensure that [minority] students are not only acknowledged for their performance, but steered to attend high-quality and high-rigor courses. We know that kids of color are under-enrolled in these courses, and we want to make sure that school officials recognize them early and put them on the path to high-quality coursework and opportunities.”
One of the best ways to get the report’s initiatives off the page and into the schools is to acknowledge that parents, community members and groups all have shared and common goals, Sippio-Smith added.
“We’ve had conversations across the region with a number of parents and students who have shared stories with us, but just did not have the data to support the experiences they had,” she said. “With the school districts, what we have found is that there is alignment in what school districts are willing to do and what parents and community members want.
“One of the first steps we can take to get it from dream to reality is to build those partnerships and not let everyone exist in a silo.”
The largest impact on leveling the educational playing field for minority students may soon be coming from Pennsylvania itself. On Feb. 4, Gov. Tom Wolf introduced a proposal that would make a $1.3 billion investment in public schools and create fairness in education funding, while at the same time cut taxes for working families and businesses.
“Growing districts in urban, suburban and rural communities will finally get their fair share and shrinking districts are protected,” said Gov. Wolf, “because no matter where you live, every student deserves an opportunity to succeed. That’s what parents want for their children, and what Pennsylvania needs for our future.”
“That funding goes out to school districts with the highest share of children in poverty, and sadly that aligns in the Philadelphia suburbs with the highest share of Black and Hispanic students,” Cooper said. “If that budget is enacted, it would begin to remedy the financial barriers to Black and Hispanic achievement.”
If there is another side of the struggle to close the large gap in educational equality in these schools, it is to explore the tough question of whether the origin of this radical divide is found in overt racism, or if it is simply the entrenched inability of educators to acknowledge that the problem exists.
“There is a part of me that believes that it is a little bit of both,” said Tomás Hanna, superintendent of the Coatesville Area School District. “There is a new phenomenon coming into our districts that requires a new set of skills that are needed by our educators that have been missing for years, which have failed to address the issues. That said, I don’t think that gives any of us a pass. I think we’ve seen this over many years.”
Hanna said that the deep dive into racial healing and closing the educational gap is “messy work.”
“When you start to engage in this work, you are going to press some buttons,” he said. “The courage that this work takes and to do well -- and to make it so that it’s not about pointing fingers -- has to do with creating safe spaces. It is being given the opportunity not to be judged and vilified, but to bring ourselves and who we are to the work, so that we can begin to engage in a deep conversation.”
Hanna said the Coatesville district has partnered with the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium and with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office to empower leaders at all of its schools to lead monthly conversations about equity with community members.
Part of the district’s engagement to change its culture has been rewriting its educational curriculum, Hanna said.
“That’s being done by teachers within the district,” he said. “We have identified an equity coordinator who will be supporting the work of our curriculum writers to be sure that we’re looking closely that what we’re creating, to ensure that it is culturally responsive curriculum for our students.”
Founded in 1980, PCCY seeks to improve the lives of children by ensuring that they have the basic building blocks they need for success, including a quality education beginning in the infant-toddler years, reliable health care, and a dependable support network.
To learn more about Public Citizens for Children and Youth and to read “No More Dreams Deferred: Building an Education System That Works for Black and Hispanic Students,” visit www.pccy.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].