Philadelphia School District: We’ve Filled 99 Percent of Teacher Vacancies

Photo | It's Our City via Flickr / Creative Commons | Teacher Vacancies

Photo | It’s Our City via Flickr / Creative Commons

Philadelphia School District superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced Wednesday that the school district is on track to have all teacher vacancies filled by the start of the school year.

At a news conference at Roxborough High School today, Hite said 99 percent of teacher vacancies have been filled.

Read more »

Philly Organization Hopes to Recruit 1,000 Black Male Teachers by 2020


Members of The Fellowship pose with Pennsylvania secretary of education Pedro Rivera and State Senator Anthony Williams during a town hall they hosted with U.S. secretary of education John King in January.

A group of local teachers has put together a plan to increase recruitment of black men into the profession.

The Fellowship, a recently founded organization, has already received national attention for its work. Studies have shown that minority students’ performance in the classroom can be enhanced when their teacher is the same race as them. However, according to the organization, having diverse teachers can be beneficial to all students. It can challenge stereotypes that students may have and make them more tolerant.

The group’s motto, “2 percent is not enough,” refers to the fact that just two percent of teachers in America are black men, according to the Department of Education. Only seven percent of total teachers are black, and only eight percent are Latino, compared to 80 percent who are white. Additionally, 3/4 of educators are women nationally. Around five percent of educators are black women, which is also an incredibly small amount. All of this is despite the fact that black students make up nearly 15 percent of the nation’s student body. This means that students everywhere have very little chance of ever having a black man as their teacher. Read more »

Why Pa.’s New School Funding Formula Is Still Unfair and Unconstitutional

Photo by Christopher Futcher/iStock

Photo by Christopher Futcher/iStock

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from guest writer Michael Churchill. Churchill is a staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia.)

While politicians and advocates are celebrating the legislature’s passage last week of a student-based, fair formula for distributing new school funds, it is important to understand this reality: Our school funding system is as unconstitutional today as it was last week. Read more »

Op-Ed: Bernie Sanders Is Wrong About the Soda Tax

Randi Weingarten Bernie Sanders

L: Randi Weingarten (Damian Dovarganes/AP) R: Sen. Bernie Sanders (Matt Rourke/AP)

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from guest writer Randi Weingarten, written in response to an op-ed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and a member of a coalition of labor unions and civic groups supporting the mayor’s soda tax proposal.)

Philadelphia’s students deserve a fair shot to succeed, and Mayor Jim Kenney has a plan to significantly boost funding for critical programs.

The mayor is proposing a significant increase in pre-kindergarten, to provide 25,000 kids a chance to get their education started early. And he’s proposing to expand community schools that provide critical services like health care and counseling to students who often can’t access the support they need to thrive.

You’ve probably heard the corporate spin, but here’s the truth about Mayor Kenney’s soda tax proposal: It would tax corporate profits — not consumers — and generate $400 million to fund programs to give Philadelphia’s children safe communities and a quality public education. Read more »

A.C. Teacher Intervenes in Fight, Gets Fired

Atlantic City beach and boardwalk at twilight

Photo | Dan McQuade

An Atlantic City teacher has been fired, accused of using excessive force after intervening in a fight between sixth graders.

The Press of Atlantic City reports Phillip Eisenstein is appealing his firing. The incident took place in October; Eisenstein said that he grabbed the instigator of the fight under the arms and took him to the office at New York School.

“I’d already broken them up two or three times and had them sitting on the bleachers,” he told the paper. “But when they were lining up to leave, the bigger student went after the other one again and had him cornered. I did what I had to do to protect the other student.” Read more »

Penn Prof: “Don’t Grade Schools on Grit”

Angela Duckworth |

Angela Duckworth |

There’s probably no person in America who has done more to popularize the idea of “grit” as an essential component of a child’s success than Penn’s Angela Duckworth — she even won a MacArthur “Genius” grant for her work a couple of years back.

Now, though, she’s worried that her work is being misused — and she’s speaking out.

In Sunday’s New York Times, she writes that measures of grit and character are increasingly being tested in the nation’s public schools — and, in turn, being used to judge the progress of teachers leading those students. That’s not right, she says.

“A 2011 meta-analysis of more than 200 school-based programs found that teaching social and emotional skills can improve behavior and raise academic achievement, strong evidence that school is an important arena for the development of character,” Duckworth writes.

“But we’re nowhere near ready — and perhaps never will be — to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools. We shouldn’t be rewarding or punishing schools for how students perform on these measures.” Read more »

A Class of Their Own: African-American Homeschoolers in Philadelphia

Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins guides daughter Amaya and son Anwar through a science lesson. | Photograph by Scott Lewis

Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins guides daughter Amaya and son Anwar through a science lesson. | Photograph by Scott Lewis

Ama Mazama, slight in stature and wearing a tightly fastened Ruth Bader Ginsberg ponytail, is revving up an Epson projector on a cold and rainy December morning. The head of graduate African-American studies at Temple University, Mazama — a self-chosen name that translates to “tender and violent love” — is both gentle and commanding at the head of a class. When she’s listening to you, the 48-year-old mother of three squints ever so slightly, as if not quite hearing you or not quite trusting your line of reason. But she politely guides you, in her French-Caribbean accent, to a logical answer nonetheless.

Mazama teaches a lesson on cognitive psychology in a classroom that looks ill-equipped for the task: devoid of whiteboards and desks, outfitted with drums and a piano. There’s commotion from a dog in the nearby kitchen. Only two pupils are present. The four of us are cloistered in the “music room” within Mazama’s three-story stone home in Germantown.

As she introduces today’s discussion topic — spiritual intelligence — I can’t help but think it’s a little heavy for her 10-year-old son, Kiamuya, and 13-year-old daughter, Tamu. Minutes later, the three are not only discussing an array of metaphysical ideas; they’re doing so bilingually, alternating “okay” with “d’accord.” Mazama’s kids scribble in their notebooks and exchange occasional giggles, the way children in the back of a traditional classroom would. But their curriculum is far from traditional, even by homeschooling standards.

Mazama is known nationally as an Afrocentrist scholar and linguist, a translator of Marcus Garvey, and, increasingly, one of the most prominent voices of an emerging segment of alternative education: black homeschooling. According to survey data by the National Center for Education Statistics, the overall homeschooling population has doubled from 850,000 in 1999 to more than 1.7 million in 2012 — including, say Mazama and other researchers, an unheralded group of African-Americans. When Mazama started teaching her oldest boy 13 years ago, she says, there was nothing by way of research on the topic. The assumption was that the motivations of homeschooling black Americans were no different from those of the two archetypal camps that were doing so: religious fundamentalists and crunchy-granola progressives.

“People assumed they were doing it for the same reason as white parents,” Mazama says. But once she started interviewing parents in seven regions across the country, she found otherwise. Black parents were nearly as likely to cite racism (24 percent) as their primary motivation as they were to blame the low quality of education in brick-and-mortar schools (25 percent). When Mazama dug deeper, interviewing parents one-on-one, she reached a more damning conclusion: “Racism was interwoven into every reason why they disengaged.”

By racism, she means not only bigoted name-calling, but the full gamut of marginalization within schools: the dearth of black teachers; the over-representation of blacks in special education and disciplinary actions; their under-representation in honor tracks; the Eurocentricity of curricula; the 15-point gap in high-school graduation rates between blacks and whites. But the data, however important, wasn’t as devastating as what Mazama heard. As much as parents want to believe in American education as the great equalizer, its infrastructure remains skewed for some to succeed and others to fail — or, at best, simply to get by.

“It’s not necessarily that they stopped believing in quote-unquote the American Dream,” says Mazama. “It’s rather that because of the way things are set up now, their children don’t have enough of a chance to participate in that.”

SINCE 1993, WHEN homeschooling was legalized in all 50 states, the most vigorous lobbying force in everything from blocking state mandatory-testing laws to providing federal aid for college-bound homeschoolers has been the Home School Legal Defense Association. The nonprofit is a self-described “Christian organization” whose membership accounts for about 15 percent of homeschooling families. But the national visibility of the HSLDA — and its outsized presence in statehouses and the press — has fed a popular stereotype about which kids are being homeschooled: namely, those rocking Bible-camp t-shirts, or, if you’re a fan of tabloids, scandal-damaged pseudo-celebs like Josh Duggar. That image has endured even though an emphasis on religious and moral instruction has been declining as the primary motivating factor of homeschooling parents in recent years.

It’s estimated that more than three percent of the school-age population, or about two million American kids, are currently homeschooled. (Thanks to myriad challenges, precise demographic data on homeschoolers both here and across the country are hard to come by; the NCES plans to release specific figures early this year.) Today, 10 percent of all homeschoolers are black, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Mazama’s research suggests many of the families of those children share a unique dissatisfaction with traditional education. What she’s found is playing out in our local courtrooms: Call it “diversity on the suspension roll but not the honor roll.” This past November, a group of parents filed a complaint against the Upper Dublin School District alleging that black students account for 45 percent of district suspensions though they make up just seven percent of the student body, and that blacks are systemically excluded from upper-level courses and gifted programs. A similar charge was leveled at the Lower Merion School District in a 2007 federal lawsuit claiming black students had been placed in special ed despite middle-of-the-pack test scores. Though that suit was dismissed by a district judge who wasn’t convinced racial bias could explain the numbers, enrollment of black students in Lower Merion’s honors and AP courses has since doubled, and the racial gap in special education has narrowed.

With double standards in schools ranging from cash-strapped inner-city institutions to those in posh suburban districts, Mazama found that black parents didn’t know where to turn to educate their kids. One increasingly popular option is to bypass the schools entirely. When Nicole Madison pulled her oldest daughter, Noelle, out of first grade at a Catholic school in Chestnut Hill, it was the sit-up-straight-and-stand-in-line pedagogy that gave her pause more than any sense her daughter was mistreated because she was black. But the more Madison talked to other parents who’d kept their kids in school, the more she heard “horror stories,” as she describes them: anecdotes about the disparity of resources, how black students fare far worse than whites on standardized tests, how one friend told Madison that her sixth-grader went to court for making terroristic threats because he used the word “kill” on the playground.

“I think the perception is that when you look at a 10-year-old African-American boy and a 10-year-old Caucasian boy, the African-American boy is more likely to act out on purpose, as opposed to just being a kid,” she says.

That’s not to say some black students aren’t misbehaving, or to discount environmental factors inside the home that could be at fault. But when they are disproportionately punished as far back as pre-K, by the time they reach high school they may be branded as problem kids — in turn, making them more likely to act out. The statistics from Upper Dublin and Lower Merion reflect disparities nationwide: Black public-school students are three times more likely to be suspended than whites and account for 31 percent of school-related arrests — feeding the so-called school-to-prison pipeline — despite making up just 16 percent of the K-through-12 student body. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy with residual effects.

Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins, a first-year homeschooler in Burlington County, saw how her son, the only African-American child in his private-school grade, was viewed through that prism despite being a standout student. “He brought a science project in and they were like, ‘Whoaaaaa, he did so well, oh my God.’ And I’m thinking, it’s a good science project, but why are you amazed?” she says. “I felt he was not expected to do as well as everybody else.” After she pulled her nine- and 11-year-olds out of school last summer, Muhammad-
Diggins says, she felt the need to undo all the damage wrought by that marginalization: “We spent the last month just kind of trying to rebuild their self-esteem and doing more exploratory learning.”

How to insulate black children from a potentially toxic school culture is a theme throughout Mazama’s research. For this, she coined the term “racial protectionism,” which she defined in a paper for the Journal of Black Studies:

Racial protectionists shared the view that schools, public or private, could not, given the racist nature of American society, be emotionally safe for Black children. Racism was talked about as an inevitable fact of American life and schools as a place where Black children were bound to experience dire racial oppression and hostility in the form of the suppression of African American cultural identity and imposition of Whiteness as the ideal norm. …

In her homeschooling, Mazama moves to circumvent that “imposition of whiteness.” Aside from a novel each by John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway (she has a soft spot for those stories), her children read no white authors; during the lesson on spiritual intelligence, all the examples in Mazama’s PowerPoint were African-American or Native American. “I made a point of not teaching anything from white history, white literature, white nothing,” she says.

Though the concept of racial protectionism harks back to Marcus Garvey and the Nation of Islam, don’t confuse black homeschooling with a modern-day separatist movement. Mazama’s approach is exceptional. I spoke to 10 other homeschooling parents, and most take part in multicultural homeschooling groups; none have strong feelings about Afrocentrism. What they do share is a desire to teach black history without relegating it to a single month.

“It’s going to be hard for you to sit in a traditional classroom and find resources and topics that address what’s going on with black people unless it’s February,” says Andrea Thorpe, a Burlington County mother, expressing a universal sentiment among the black parents I interviewed. Thorpe runs a Facebook group for African-American homeschooling moms that has grown from 15 to 1,600 people over the past 18 months. One function of the group is to serve as a forum for swapping notes on black-related historical sites to visit on field trips, books with strong black characters, and how to teach current events related to race. “I had no idea there were that many black families homeschooling,” Thorpe notes, “so it’s nice to know that you’re not by yourself.”

But is the attempt to remove institutional racism from a child’s experience a form of sheltering? After all, racial tensions are all over the news; prejudice and discrimination await after the kids end their homeschooling. Nicole Madison, who now lives in Plymouth Meeting, insists it’s quite the opposite: Her daughter wouldn’t have been as well prepared for facing racism in college without homeschooling. “I think because she had such a firm foundation, knew who she was already, it didn’t hurt her the same way it might’ve hurt her if she’d grown up feeling that systematic racism her entire life.”

HOMESCHOOLERS LIKE RYAN JOBSON, a freckled, African-American freshman at Swarthmore College, are helping to dispel the broader stereotype. He’s your classic overachiever: He started fixing computers when he was seven and ran a business at 12. Despite never having taken a standardized test, he placed in the 98th percentile on his ACT science exam. “When I meet somebody, I usually say, ‘Hi, I’m Ryan, the homeschool kid,’” he says, with a smile highlighting his dimples. Jobson’s introduction is one part sly strategy to make an impression and one part a polite way of saying, This is who I am, get over it. Having been homeschooled is as much a part of his identity as his decisions to enroll in a black-studies course and to double-major in engineering and computer science. He proudly wears it all on his sleeve.

Jobson grew up in wealthy suburbs and with ample resources, much like your prototypical homeschooler. Thanks to the logistical and financial challenges of teaching your own children, homeschooling parents tend to be married, higher-educated and higher-income. But for some, like Nicole Madison, the challenges of homeschooling are enormous. Following a divorce, Madison faced the daunting task of educating three—soon to be five—kids alone. She got a late-night copywriting job and functioned on four hours of sleep for a time.

In Philadelphia, though, there’s a movement to make it easier to opt out of standard education. Enter Natural Creativity, a homeschooling center in Germantown. “We need a place for working parents where children can go and be a part of a community of other families and get support for the transition out of school,” says Diane Cornman-Levy, the center’s executive director.

Two years ago, Cornman-Levy forged the idea for the center with Peter Bergson, the co-founder of Open Connections, a 40-year-old “progressive education” campus located on a 28-acre farm in Delaware County — something like a cross between a Montessori school and a commune. Educators are mere facilitators, while kids are left in the driver’s seat of the curriculum, suggesting what the group programming should be and what individual projects they’ll pursue. One mother who sent her kids there told me her kids were using power tools — safely — by the third grade.

The city spinoff opened in a temporary location — the First United Methodist Church of Germantown — in January, with plans for a permanent home soon. Costs per family are based on parents’ ability to pay, to allow for more socioeconomic diversity. All signs point to greater racial diversity, too: About half of the two dozens kids enrolled in the program so far are black. That doesn’t surprise Cornman-Levy. “When I talk to families about Natural Creativity, I connect to African-Americans faster than to any group,” she says. “They get it — I don’t have to sell the fact that school is doing these things not in the best interest of their child.”

When I ask Mazama what she’s heard about a homeschooling center opening up less than a mile from her home, I get one of her gentle, skeptical stares. We’re standing in her foyer, the sound of rain pattering outside. She knows nothing about Natural Creativity — a response suggesting that homeschooling is growing too fast for even a researcher to keep up.

A racially integrated homeschool experiment like Natural Creativity is another means to expand the growing share of black self-educators, so Mazama is all for it. She points out that Maryland’s Prince George’s County, the bastion of black upper-middle-class life in America, has a booming black homeschooling population. Mazama doesn’t think it’s a coincidence. “These are black people who see that there’s definitely a problem and they decide to do something about it, to remove themselves physically from that environment,” she says.

With racial inequality seemingly at every turn of their children’s lives, black parents view homeschooling as an opportunity to claim authority over at least one area: education. Consider it a new twist on the old African-American proverb “Each one teach one.” Ever the iconoclast, Mazama sees the potential for this movement to ripple out through society: “There was this woman I spoke to who always would say this: ‘If all those black men in prison had been homeschooled, they would not have ended up there.’”

Published as “A Class of Their Own” in the February 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Kids Are Mummifying Chickens at Main Line School

Students making chicken mummies. (Photo via Facebook)

Students making chicken mummies. (Photo via Facebook)

It will cost you $21,000 to send your fifth grader to the Haverford Friends School, but when you take into consideration the fact that she’ll be mummifying chickens, it seems a whole lot less outrageous. Read more »

5 Takeaways From Kenney’s Chamber of Commerce Speech

Photo Credit | Matt Rourke, AP

Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

In his first few weeks as mayor, Jim Kenney didn’t announce many new or surprising initiatives. On Inauguration Day, City Council Darrell Clarke unveiled more ambitious plans than Kenney did; just last week, it was Clarke — not Kenney — who rolled out a massive jobs plan in the mayor’s reception room.

During his speech at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s annual mayoral luncheon on Wednesday, Kenney had an opportunity to change that. Past mayors have used the event to reveal some of the ideas up their sleeves. In fact, a spokeswoman for Kenney said last month that he didn’t provide more specifics on Inauguration Day because he planned to do so at two other events: the chamber talk and his budget address.

So did Kenney follow through? Here are five takeaways from his speech to the Chamber of Commerce: Read more »

Philly Adding Bachelor’s Degrees at Second-Highest Rate in U.S.

Data courtesy of JLL.

Data courtesy of JLL.

Philadelphia’s population is much more educated than it was just four years ago — but it’s still got plenty of room for improvement compared to other big cities.

Philly added 48,155 people with bachelor’s degrees between 2010 and 2014 — an increase that was second only to San Diego in a study of the 10 largest U.S. cities by JLL, a professional services and investment management company specializing in real estate. Read more »

« Older Posts  |  Newer Posts »