In yesterday’s Philadelphia Daily News, education reporter Mensah Dean presents a history of the policy of “racial balance” among the teachers at schools in the School District of Philadelphia. This is a policy that requires the teaching staff of every school to reflect the over all racial balance in the district – i.e. if 35% of the teachers in the district are African American, then every school must have 35% of its staff comprised of African Americans. The policy was initiated in the late 1970’s and it was linked to federal money from the now defunct department of Health, Education and Welfare. And while the policy was on the books in school district and even in the PFT contract, it was not uniformly enforced. In 1978, then Secretary of HEW threatened to withhold federal funds from the district unless it complied to the racial balance requirement.
In February of 1979, over 2000 teachers were force transferred. It was the largest mid-year upheaval in the district’s history and I am among those teachers.
At the time I was a 5th year teacher at Harding Junior High School, a fairly large junior high school in a white working class community. I was told that there were “too many” white teachers there and I would have to get reassigned.
The scene at reassignment was like nothing I have ever seen in my life. Two thousand teachers, black and white and all pretty young ( remember — the seniority rules remained intact — it was the least senior white teachers and the least senior black teachers being transferred.) I took a seat next to a young man name Antoine ( I can’t remember his last name but he was very instrumental in my life because of the ensuing exchange.) We had all been handed papers with the vacancies listed and next to each vacancy was either “C” or “N” for Caucasian or Negro. ( I am sure some of you are wondering about Latino teachers or Asian ones or even those who were bi-racial — the federal policy was not concerned with them — only that the number of black teachers at each school reflect the ratio of the district.)
Antoine and I were pouring over the list, when he turned to me and said, “Take Gratz.” I just looked at him incredulously. Gratz was a large comprehensive high school in the heart of the African American community. It was the first school in the district to have an all-black student population and in the late 60s and early 70s it was a powerhouse of black pride — with courses in Black History and Swahili. Antoine had taught there for five years — we had the same seniority date. “But I’ve only taught junior high,” I said barely hiding my real fear. And he said, “Just treat the students with respect and they’ll respect you.” Within seconds of that exchange, my name was called and I barely whispered “Gratz” when they asked for my selection. “Cross off Gratz,” the district official yelled to the room of remaining teachers and with that, I was transferred to a school where I would stay for 19 years, make many many close friends with staff and students alike, found a school within a school that would be very successful, bring a playwriting program to the school which enabled the students to write award winning plays ( three had their work produced off-Broadway!) and co-teach a graduate seminar, on site for other teachers in the building.
The questions raised by Dean’s article which he entitles “The vanishing black teacher” are very compelling. How does this policy of racial balance impact black teachers? Why is the district more concerned about racial balance rather than raising the total number of African American teachers in the district as a whole? And Dean does a good job of talking about the history from 30 years ago, he doesn’t cover the earlier history of racist policies that prevented black teachers from being hired in the first place or later policies that kept black teachers out of coveted positions in the high schools and relegated them to junior high. In many ways, the policy of 1978 was regressive for black teachers. If it was a struggle for black teachers to attain positions in high schools then the total number in the district and hence the percentage would be low. A policy that froze number and used it as the guide for the 1979 transfers took black teachers out of high schools and placed them back in junior highs and set as its goal
So for instance if in 1978, black teacher made up 35 percent of junior high school teachers but only 20 percent of high school teachers ( due to the racist hiring policies) then freezing the number of black high school teachers at the present 20% made it virtually impossible for more black teachers to move to high schools. In fact, among the secondary teachers caught up in the mass transfers, it was likely that a young white teacher would be moved from a junior high to a high school and a young black teacher would be moved to a junior high — as was the case with Antoine and me… be basically changed places — when his name was called he chose Harding. So when Dean and others in his article question the efficacy of a play in 2008 that made sense in 1978, I question whether the plan made sense even then.
Dean interviews students at Germantown High School where the majority of the teachers are white ( and according to the policy — that will always be the case) and the students lament the lack of black teachers and long for teachers who can better relate. The also state that black teachers will push students harder because they know what is needed for them to succeed.
I posted the article on my facebook page yesterday and within minutes, one of my former students write a comment stating how in her experience the white teachers pushed her just as hard if not harder than the black teachers and went on to talk about how much she learned in my class.
Looking back on my career, I am personally grateful for the transfer. I spent the most generative and interesting years of my life as a teacher at Simon Gratz High School. The lessons that I learned about race, power, history, culture I’m not sure I would have learned ( nor cared to learn? nor know I needed to learn? had I not been a teacher at Gratz. Once, one of my students asked me in class, “Do you think that you’d be the same if you spent you life teaching in the suburbs?” And of course I knew the answer. I’d like to think that I would have developed a sense of equity and fairness that was informed by the injustices of the past. I’d like to think that I would have been able to see the impact of school funding on young people’s life chances. I’d like to think that I would have come to understand that there is no monolithic “black community” in which all the individuals share beliefs. But I don’t know for sure and I never will.
At my retirement party, former student and author and principal Salome Thomas-El talked about how his encounter with me as his teacher in 1980 — just one year after I had been force transferred to Gratz, enabled him to have a relationship with a white person — one that in his words, cared about him, pushed him to reach higher and supported him as a person — had a profound effect on his life. Another question arises — would I have chosen to teach at Gratz had I not been forced there? That I don’t know either, though I imagine that my fears would have kept me away.
Here is the link to the Daily News Story.
What do you think about this issue? Has your life been affected by this policy? Is racial balance the same as racial equity? Post your responses here.