New leaders to address Black students’ ‘achievement gap’
Much of the news coming out of the Lower Merion School District lately has been about racially-tinged court fights, battles over special education and redistricting that usually leave a nasty taste in the mouths of those involved.
But earlier this month the LMSD came together and made history when it elected to serve on its school board — for the first time in its history, a pair of African Americans — Rev. Virginia Pollard and Dr. Robin Vann Lynch.
Both Pollard and Van Lynch will serve four-year terms. Pollard was appointed on an interim basis in Sept. 2010 when Linda Doucette-Ashman resigned.
“While we generally do not comment on election results, we certainly recognize and appreciate the significance of this milestone,” said LMSD spokesman Doug Young. “We look forward to working with our new and returning board members and wish them the very best in their service.”
Pollard, the wife of Zion Baptist Church of Ardmore Pastor James Pollard, has been a resident there since her husband took the church in 1970.
An associate minister at the church working on a graduate degree at Lutheran Theological Seminary, Pollard is ecstatic to be serving alongside her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sister.
“It’s indescribable,” Pollard, who has raised three children in the LMSD, said. “We have made history. Never before in the history of Lower Merion have we had two African Americans serving at the same time on the board. This is great.”
While Pollard has been in the district for years, Vann Lynch, an adjunct professor at Drexel — with a Ph.D. in educational policy and leadership — has been living with her husband and their three children in Lower Merion for the last six years.
“I bridge the gap between the old and the new,” Pollard explained. “I know people who have been living here and raising their children here for years. Robin brings that expertise. She specializes in teaching teachers how to teach. Together, we’ll address all the issues of the children in the district. We want to look at everything that is happening to all students, whether it is in classes where they are challenged or gifted, we want to make sure that the children are getting the very best from the school district.
The LMSD has had a bumpy history with African-American students, particularly in the area of special education. A recent suit against the district alleging that Lower Merion teachers intentionally assigned African-American students to special education classes at a disproportionate rate was recently thrown out.
The suit maintained that African-Americans, just 8 percent of the school district, made up more than 14 percent of the students in special education. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have not said whether or not they will appeal the ruling.
While acknowledging that her role is to advocate for all children in the 6,700-seat district, Van Lynch talks directly about closing the achievement gap between African Americans and whites.
“There are lots of students that are getting caught in the achievement gap,” Vann Lynch said. “For me, it’s important that we start asking the right questions. We need to find out why African-American students are over-represented in special education classes and underrepresented in the advanced and honors classes.”
Needless to say, African-Americans in Lower Merion are optimistic and hopeful both Pollard and Vann Lynch in place.
Loraine Carter is president of Concerned Black Parents, a mostly African-American group of parents that advocates for better educational opportunities for minority students in the LMSD.
“There are an awful lot of things going on in this community about race,” Carter said. “With two African Americans on the board, we’re setting a precedent. But this is definitely a step in the right direction as far as addressing some of the issues that African Americans have had for years. They are not a cure-all, but they are definitely a step in the right direction.
Historic burial site needs money, restoration, care
Mount Moriah Cemetery, lately a public eyesore and testament to urban decay that sprawls across Southwest Philadelphia and Yeadon, is going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
“It’s dead,” state Rep. Ron Waters said of the cemetery, which has been in a state of disarray for decades. “I know that’s not exactly what you want to say about a cemetery but that’s where things are here.”
The House Democratic Policy Committee examined the impact regulations are having on cemetery maintenance at a public hearing at Drexel University last month. Specifically at issue was the condition of Mount Mariah Cemetery, which is in Waters’ district. Waters, who requested and co-chaired the hearing, said the historic cemetery can serve as a case study of whether cemetery regulations can be improved.
“Examples of community treasures that are not being adequately preserved like Mount Moriah Cemetery exist all over the state,” said Committee Chairman Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster. It’s important to determine who is responsible for maintaining these unique facilities to ensure they are available for generations to come.”
Mt. Moriah, which sits on 380 acres, was incorporated in 1855. The cemetery closed unexpectedly in March 2011 with no notice to the city, the borough of Yeadon or the state. Since its founding, the cemetery had been operated by the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association. However, the last board member died in 2004, and there is no one authorized to act on its behalf.
The balances in the bank accounts owned by the association have approximately $10,000 in them, not nearly enough to restore the cemetery or even maintain it.
“Right now, we are going to explore what it will take to get it where it should be as one of the largest cemeteries in the nation,” Waters said. “We are getting other ideas from people that have properly run cemeteries, and we’re looking for people who can properly manage it and keep it in line with regulations that govern it.”
In short, they don’t know what they are going to do with it, nor do they know where the money is coming from. It cannot be taken over by municipal authority because this only happens with infrastructure. Bankruptcy is not an option, because state law prohibits involuntary bankruptcies for non-profits.
The city says it could conduct an involuntary liquidation of the property.
“This has all happened over the last three decades,” Waters said sadly. “The people in the neighborhood say that it has been going down for 30 years. It took a long time for it to get this way; it’s going to take a long time for it to be rectified.”
Like a fumble in football, a mulligan in golf and, depending on the depth or persuasion of your religious convictions, a wayward soul finding salvation, the Million Man March is also looking for a second chance.
“We stand in violation of the pledge that we made in D.C. that day,” Minister Rodney Muhammad, head of Muhammad’s Mosque No. 12, said. “That pledge represents a code of conduct and because it was violated on every point, our communities continue to suffer. Our failure to stand by our pledge has allowed disunity to creep into our communities, making them worse off than they were in 1995.”
Muhammad made this statement Tuesday as a member of The Greater Philadelphia Local Organizing Committee for the 16th Anniversary of the Million Man March at a press conference at 1199C AFSCME District Council headquarters on 13th and Locust streets.
The commemorative event will take place the weekend of Friday, Oct. 7, and will conclude on Sunday at the Philadelphia Convention Center with an address by Minister Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam.
Farrakhan organized the Million Man March on the National Mall in Washington on Oct. 16, 1995. On that day, it is estimated that upwards of 1 million Black men showed up in Washington for what was to be a day of atonement. According to the Philadelphia organizing committee, more than 200,000 men from the Greater Philadelphia region attended the march.
Under a brilliant autumn sun, the march closed with the gathered men taking a pledge to “take responsibility for their lives and families, and commit to stopping the scourges of drugs, violence and unemployment.”
Many have wondered in the time since the march what has happened to the momentum that was instilled in the men who attended. Muhammad and the members of the local organizing committee have also asked that question.
“Back in 1995, Minister Louis Farrakhan was the general, and he gave marching instructions to us as soldiers,” said attorney Michael Coard, executive vice-chairman and general council of the Millions More Movement. “Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding, I guess, down the chain of command. What the general ordered didn’t necessarily happen. It’s no fault of the general; it’s the fault of soldiers like me and others.”
While atonement for past transgressions will be part of the weekend, the main focuses of the weekend will be hunger, youth violence and political accountability. Attendees at the closing address will be asked to bring at least one non-perishable food item. There will be numerous events that weekend preceding Farrakhan’s address, including a youth leadership meeting on Saturday for emerging leaders in the community, some of whom may be too young to remember the Million Man March.
Of cities with more than 1 million in population, Philadelphia has the highest percentage of people living in poverty. Philadelphia’s First Congressional District, which includes Kensington, parts of North and South Philadelphia and Chester, has the second-highest percentage of impoverished families in the United States.
“The poor, and especially people of color, are under attack by forces that have been demonstrating their anger about the election of an African-American president in the U.S.,” said Joe Certaine, former managing director of the city and a member of the committee. “They have seized the momentum by pandering to those who relish our economic, social, cultural and political demise. Without an aggressive grass-roots mobilization we cannot even hope to fight back.”
Successful music mogul and entrepreneur Kenny Gamble, chairman of the Millions More Movement, emphasized that he wants people of all colors to be involved in the events of the weekend. On Tuesday, Gamble pointed out that the problems plaguing the Black community have deep roots that are intertwined in Black culture that go as far back as slavery.
He does not consider the Million Man March a failure, but he recognizes that 16 years after the march there is still plenty of work to be done.
“It’s going to take an awakening in our culture to make sure that the men in the community don’t do the same thing that their fathers did to them,” said Gamble, alluding to the high number of female-run households in the Black community. “You have to be responsible for your children. The destiny of our community is in building families. That is the most important unit to building a great society. So men and women have to work together.”
Gamble said that the commemorative weekend will focus more on the emancipation of the mind and not the problems born out of racism.
“You have no control over that,” Gamble said. “I’d rather deal with the things that I can control than the things I can’t. You do the right things for your community and your family and you will have control of them. I don’t care if you are Eskimo, Chinese, Russian or whatever — you can’t control that. But you can control your mind and your thinking. We haven’t done a very good job of that.”
Melodie Homer knows how hard her husband fought to save the lives of the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
"He's a military man. He's very brave. He would have done whatever he could do to not have that plane harm any more people,” she said.
Ten years removed from the tragic terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Homer, the widow of LeRoy W. Homer Jr., the African-American co-pilot who died along with 37 passengers when terrorists commandeered the cockpit of the San Francisco-bound 757 that ultimately crashed and burned in a field in Shanksville, is still picking up the pieces.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t cross my mind, and some days it’s not easy,” the Marlton, N.J., resident said recently. “He was a loving husband, a friend and a father. He was a good man and I want to keep his memory alive.”
Melodie has done her best to carry on the spirit of her husband, who served as a pilot in the Gulf War. She is a peaceful woman of Canadian origin. But she knows her husband’s place in history is a special one, especially as the nation prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the worst terror attack on American soil.
“Essentially, the battle against terrorism started in the cockpit of that plane,” Melodie Homer said. “It was a combination between passengers and the crew, but it started right there in the cockpit.”
For years it had been speculated that her husband and Captain Jason Dahl were killed very early in the flight by the four hijackers. But in 2002 the FBI shared with her tape of the communication between the air traffic control and cockpit that has led her to believe otherwise.
Homer is confident that the tapes make it clear that her husband was knocked unconscious and dragged from the cockpit in the initial struggle. Before the plane went down, she says, he had regained consciousness and was part of the final attack that forced the plane to abort its intended target, which was somewhere in Washington, D.C., and crash.
What she will never forget about those tapes is hearing her husband’s final words.
“He sent out the Mayday,” Homer said.
Homer will release a book this fall, “From Where I Stand,” – where she is expected to reveal much more about that tragic day.
Although she is Canadian, she has not been afraid to wade into America’s sullied political waters in the aftermath of 9/11. For instance, she opposed George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
“Why?” she said. “We were going after al-Qaida. They were the terrorists. They were not there.”
She was relieved when President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attack that also toppled the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, had been killed earlier this year. She joined Obama in New York a few short days after the madman was captured, but she still carried a heavy heart.
When she finally met Obama, he embraced her a long time and she said he wanted to hear what she had to say.
“I just told him about my husband — and he listened to everything I said,” Homer said.
She has not, however, made herself a tragic figure. In fact, she has transformed her personal tragedy of 9/11 into triumphant stories for others.
In 2002 she founded the Leroy W. Homer Jr. Foundation, which awards scholarships to aspiring pilots and helps them achieve their dreams.
The foundation has awarded money to more than a dozen pilots. A pilot’s license is expensive and can cost in excess of $10,000.
Visha Patel, a 17-year-old from Pomona, Calif., was the recipient of the 2011 scholarship, which was awarded at a fund-raising event and silent auction at the Laurel Creek Country Club in Moorestown, N.J., recently.
Patel was joined by four other recent recipients of the award, all of whom have backgrounds similar to Leroy Homer Jr.
“It is wonderful that she has done this,” Patel, who wants to become a commercial pilot, said. “It is such a selfless act. There are many people who would not think of others and their future after having experienced what she and her family went through. She is turning what is a terrible moment in her life into something very positive.”
It’s been a long time since politicians and educators in this city have found occasion to stand together smiling. However, this was exactly the case on Tuesday at the new West Philadelphia High School.
Mayor Michael Nutter, acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery and School Reform Commission boss Robert L. Archie — for the last two months major players in the soap opera-like ending to the tenure of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman — were all in attendance for the ribbon cutting at the brand new West Philadelphia High School to kick off the beginning of the 2011–2012 academic year for the School District.
The $66 million building, home to 800 students, is a glistening structure that stands in stark contrast to the old building — West Catholic High School for Boys — that once stood at 49th and Chestnut streets.
“Yes, there have been challenges, and yes, quite frankly, there has been drama. A little too much drama,” Nutter said. “But if you want drama, watch TNT!”
The old West Philadelphia High School building, located on Walnut Street between 47th and 48th streets, opened its doors in 1912 as the first high school in the city built west of the Schuylkill River. In 2003, it was targeted by then-superintendent Paul Vallas as one of 17 proposed new school buildings — part of a $1.5 billion construction initiative.
In the time since then, it seemed as if the school might never be built. West Philly became a fixture on the list of state schools deemed persistently violent. There has been almost complete staff turnover, and at one point the school went through three different principals in the span of a month.
However, on Tuesday all of these things were forgotten, replaced instead by celebratory smiles on the faces off all who entered the building. A DJ was on hand playing music, and in general it really didn’t feel anything like the traditional first day of school.
“This is what I’m talking about!” said a smiling Sen. Vincent Hughes, straining to be heard over music blaring from the speakers. “Here we are about getting an education. This is a fresh start. All the old stuff is over and it’s about moving forward.”
Local advocacy group calls for end to gender-specific transit passes
For some in Robin Markle’s organization, purchasing and using a SEPTA fare card is nothing short of a nightmare.
“For the people in our community, it can be terrible,” Markle, of West Philadelphia, said. “You have to deal with the emotional impact and the monetary impact that comes along with it.”
Markle was speaking for Philly Riders Against Gender Exclusion (RAGE), a grassroots “transgender and gender non-conforming” organization that wants SEPTA to do away with the male and female designations on transit passes in the city and its suburbs.
Markel and a small group of protestors showed up at SEPTA headquarters on Thursday to present General Manager Joe Casey with an application to join their movement. Members of RAGE say they have gathered 1,500 signatures — they are shooting for 3,000 — to have the designations removed.
“A lot of transgender and gender non-conforming people are harassed when they are taking SEPTA,” Markle said. “They might buy a pass that says they are one gender and they are in the process of taking hormones or having surgery. It’s not just like you wake up in the morning one day and look like the other gender. Some of the people will look ambiguous during the time when they are transforming.”
RAGE‘s position is that the gender stickers bring about discrimination to its members. They also contend that they face a threat to their safety — because of the stickers. The organization has pledged to report incidents of gender-based harassment; step in whenever they see gender-based harassment; to be a visible ally to SEPTA riders of all genders; and do everything in their power to end the gender sticker policy, which they maintain only exists in Philadelphia. Public transit agencies in New York, New Jersey, Washington and Los Angeles do not issue gender-specific passes.
While Casey did not come down to discuss the issue with the protestors, SEPTA representatives Kim Scott Heinle, assistant general manager of customer service and advocacy, and Richard Maloney, director of public affairs and marketing, met very amicably with the group.
SEPTA has maintained its policy of placing a gender designation on fare cards since 1981. However, they made it clear that this policy will soon be ending — they just couldn’t say specifically when.
“Our position has been pretty consistent since the issue was first brought up by these folks,” Heinle said. “It is a complicated issue, but it is one that needs to be addressed in a comprehensive and legal fashion. It’s a fare-related issue, so we have a very public process. The logical time for us to deal with this across the board is when the new payment technology brings us to the point where we need to go in and make some new fare adjustments. When the stickers are eliminated there is going to be some impact to revenue. That revenue impact has to be calculated by our finance people, and built into the new structure.”
SEPTA initiated placing gender identifiers on fare cards to prevent the illegal use of the card by multiple people of the same sex. In some European cities the card purchasers photo is electronically attached to the card. It is unknown if SEPTA will consider this, but it was not ruled out.
Said Maloney, “Our passes are priced and intended for personal use, not to be shared — and at a cheap discount. When we hear reports that individuals buy passes and swap it around a household, the gender sticker is just one mechanism to limit that. We can move away from it, but it won’t be until we recognize the impact it will have on revenue the next time we adjust fares.”
SEPTA has a hotline for sexual harassment complaints. Both Heinle and Malone said they have had few complaints regarding transgender and gender non-conforming riders.
“Now, I will see emails next week from across the country saying that this policy is ridiculous,” Heinle said. “It has happened before.”
City looking into former superintendent’s claim she was ‘advised’ to change her charter decision
Former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is no longer the central figure charged with educating the more than 155,000 students in the district, but her influence continues to run far and wide in the city.
Almost a month after she and the School Reform Commission agreed on her contract buyout, Ackerman has shifted attention to another unseemly School District situation — the Martin Luther King charter fiasco.
Specifically, Ackerman told The Notebook.org, a blog that covers the Philadelphia public schools, that Mayor Michael Nutter already has the results of an investigation into the controversy. It was back in April that Nutter announced an investigation into the situation headed by Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman.
“I think it’s tragic and unconscionable, that the story hasn’t been told yet,” Ackerman told the Notebook earlier this week.
According to the office of the mayor, that day is coming within the next two weeks, maybe less. Until that time, though, Ackerman and others will have to wait a little bit longer.
“The report from the chief integrity officer to the mayor will be released shortly,” mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said. “It would be premature to talk about anything particular to that whole issue at this point.”
With the resignation on Monday of School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie, Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg says that the public is due an answer now.
“It is my understanding that the Markman report is in [the mayor’s] hands, and I think it should be released,” said the president of the watchdog organization. “Not releasing it sends a bad message on top of the other bad messages that have already been sent. The decision of who is going to be the operator of Martin Luther King High School has been closely watched since Easter. It would clear up at least one of the clouds hanging over the school district if the mayor released the report.”
Archie’s resignation, Stalberg says, just raises more questions begging to be answered.
“Now that Archie has resigned, the public has the right to know whether or not the findings of the report had anything to do with his resignation.”
At the core of the controversy was the battle between Foundations, Inc., an organization with which state Rep. Dwight Evans has deep ties, and Mosaica Education out of Atlanta. It was reported last April that Evans — in a closed-door meeting, allegedly convinced Mosaica to back out of the five-year, $12 million contract it had been awarded so that Foundations could have it.
While she gives no specifics, Ackerman painted a picture of arm-twisting and political backroom deals being made that superseded the wants, needs and desires of the parents and children of Martin Luther King High.
Of that situation, Ackerman told The Notebook that she felt pressured on more than one occasion to endorse Foundations, Inc. over Mosaica. She added that she “was told by someone that if I didn’t get my mind right about this Foundations situation, that something would be leaked about my finances.”
Not long after she was allegedly given this directive, Fox29 News aired a report that showed she owed more $20,000 in back taxes. Ackerman’s tax attorney works at Duane Morris LLP. Archie is also a partner at Duane Morris, and a close associate of Evans.
The SRC voted to award Mosaica — which had been the choice of an advisory panel of King parents and community leaders — the contract on March 16. Scant hours later, Archie, who said he was acting in his official capacity, called a meeting of all parties despite his obvious conflict of interest — Duane Morris had represented Foundations before.
Shortly after Archie’s role became public, Foundations withdrew its bid for the contract. A long-suffering school that has struggled academically, King today is run by the school district as a Promise Academy.
At the time the decision was made, Ackerman appeared neutral on the issue. Now it appears that her support was for Mosaica all along, and she wants the story told.
“I think the public needs to know exactly what happened so that this won’t happen again,” Ackerman said.
When Nutter launched the investigation into the King controversy, he spoke in urgent terms of getting to the bottom of the situation. However, in the days, weeks and now months that have passed — that sense of urgency has waned.
Meanwhile, the SRC is still shrouded in mystery. When the SRC bought out Ackerman’s contract at $905,000, $405,000 came from anonymous donors. The privacy of those anonymous donors stirred a furor in the city that eventually the public donors reneged on the money, leaving the school district — and taxpayers — to foot the bill.
Shortly after the Million Father March wrapped up in front of Universal Audenried High School, new principal Robert Rouse had hit the ground and was ready to start running.
It was shortly before 8 a.m on Tuesday, the first day of the academic year in the Philadelphia School District, and Rouse was finishing up his obligation to the march, which included the reading — with the help of a megaphone — of the Founders Pledge, urging, in call-and-response fashion, for the group of about 100 participants, most of them men, to stay engaged beyond the opening festivities.
“That’s what is going to be the most important aspect of it all, keeping everyone involved,” said Rouse, the new principal at Audenried. “The challenge is we have a beautiful school building and it’s filled with beautiful children. But you have to change their mindset of what has been delivered and what has been acceptable in the past.”
Last spring, the School Reform Commission turned over Audenried, located at 33rd and Tasker streets, and Universal Vare Middle School, located at 2100 S. 24th St. and the origin point for Tuesday’s Million Father March, to Universal Companies. They are part of the “Promise Neighborhood,” struggling schools in the Point Breeze and Grays Ferry neighborhoods that have traditionally underperformed and are slated for dramatic changes.
Universal Companies partnered with the House of UMOJA in Tuesday’s march, which is part of the Chicago-based, 2011 National Million Father March that sponsors similar events all over the United States to mark the opening of the school year.
Rouse wants to build on the momentum of the march. He underscored the importance of having African-American men involved in what goes on at schools such as Audenried.
“Any parent being involved is important,” Rouse said. “But it’s even more so for fathers to be involved. When a young lady grows up to be a lady it is what they saw in their father that will show them what they want to find in a husband.
“Boys need to see the example of a hard-working man,” Rouse added as he paused to help students tie their ties. “Unfortunately, we see a lot more women at school than we do men. Fathers tend to sit on the sidelines and watch the mothers do it. I saw some good men here today; I want to see more of them, though.”
Rouse has his work cut out for him. Universal, which hopes to receive millions in grant money later this month from the United State Department of Education to fully implement its plan, has pledged to make certain that the school graduates 100 percent of its students by 2020. Universal’s website places special emphasis on “at-risk African-American males, given their extraordinarily high and unacceptable high school dropout rate.”
“Moving forward,” Rouse said, “the plan is to wrap at least three Black males in the community around every male child and provide them with someone who is a spiritual guide, a mentor and someone who can just be there for them.”
That’s one of the reasons why community activist Kenneth Smith marched on Tuesday. His children are no longer school age. However, he is active as a mentor and said that just because his children are older does not mean that his “work is done” in the community.
“That’s why it was so important for us to show up here,” Smith said. “We want the kids to see us. Not just today, though. We want them to know that there are those in the community who are concerned about their future.”
School officials allege factual errors in seven Black plaintiffs’ lawsuit
The Lower Merion School District denies the allegations of a lawsuit claiming it intentionally and routinely placed African Americans in special education programs when it wasn’t merited, and is seeking to have the case thrown out.
Earlier this summer, the LMSD filed a motion for a summary judgment in the case. The plaintiffs — seven African Americans — want to see the case go before a jury, and their representation responded with a court filing detailing why the case should move forward.
However, in a recently filed reply brief, the District maintains that there are factual errors by the plaintiffs that further point out why a trial by jury is not needed.
Specifically, the LMSD refutes the assertion that “from 2005 to 2008, Lower Merion did not enroll a single African-American student in any of its Honors, AP or IB courses.”
The District asserts that the plaintiffs’ expert’s work doesn’t include this. Rather, the District says Dr. James Conroy’s report states “that African-American students were enrolled in more than 30 Honors and AP courses in every year from 2005 to 2008.”
A judge is expected to rule on whether or not this case will have a jury by early November, according to LMSD liaison Doug Young. However, the judge can take as much time as he wishes before rendering a decision.
In the meantime, the LMSD says that it wants the best for all of its students whether they are Black or white. The District maintains that these are just a few isolated incidents and that they are not a full representation of the District’s approach to educating children.
“What we are trying to do is get to the same place; we do share the same goals,” said Young. “We would like to see every student achieving at their highest level. We are proud of what we have accomplished at Lower Merion. That is not to say that we are perfect and that there is not room for improvement.”
Overall, statistically Lower Merion is not doing too badly in terms of educating African Americans.
According to the District, PSSA math and reading scores for African-American students in the LMSD are at all-time highs. Its African-American students attend college at twice the rate (83 percent in 2011) of the national average. The African-American graduation rate (97 percent) substantially outstrips the national average (55 percent). In fact, African Americans in the LMSD do better than their white counterparts nationally (78 percent) and statewide (80 percent).
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, however, contend that the overall success of African-American students in the LMSD and the herding of African-American students into special education classes are exclusive of one another.
“One has absolutely nothing to do with the other,” Carl Hittinger, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said last week.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers say that in 2006 and 2010 a state report found that there were a disproportionate number of African-American students at LMSD in special education classes, which the commonwealth found was not in compliance with its requirements and standards.
The District countered this by saying that in the 2003-2004 school year, data indicated a disproportionate number of Black students “receiving special education services in relation to their population within the District.”
The obvious difference here is that the parties are discussing different school years altogether.
According to Wanda J. Blanchett, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Education and an associate professor of urban special education in the Department of Exceptional Education at the University of Wisconsin, the disproportionate placement of African Americans in special education classes is a nefarious plot.
“African-American students are disproportionately referred to and placed in high-incidence special education categories of mental retardation, emotional or behavioral disorders and learning disabilities,” Blanchett said.
She referred to a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education that indicated that African-American students are not only placed in these programs at a disproportionately higher rate than their counterparts, but that they also exit from them at a slower rate.
“Once labeled as having disabilities and placed in special education, African-American students make achievement gains and exit special education at rates considerably lower than those of white students identified as having disabilities.”
African-American students, Blanchett says, that are placed in special education classes are more likely to be segregated from — with little to no contact with — their non-disabled peers and denied access to the general education curriculum.
“These realities suggest that race maters, both in educators’ initial decisions to refer students for special education, and in their subsequent placement decisions for students labeled as having disabilities,” Blanchett concluded.
What are they giving back to the community?
It is a question often asked by African Americans of the stores that do business in predominantly African-American neighborhoods from coast to coast, and often the answer is unsatisfactory.
This is not the case, however, with Philadelphia-based urban apparel retailer Villa. With 11 of its 32 stores (with locations also in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Reading, York, Allentown, Camden, Cleveland and Toledo) located in Philadelphia, the company has initiated a new marketing campaign — “Dream Project” — aimed at inspiring and “awakening the dreams within Philadelphia’s youth.”
Late last month at Benjamin Franklin High School, the Dream Project brought together more than 500 local high school students for a day of engagement and mentoring from more than 70 business executives representing companies such as Nike, BET, American Express, Fannie Mae and others. Mayor Michael Nutter was in attendance, as was former Def Jam president Kevin Liles. Liles has played a major role in the success of artists such as Jay Z, Ludacris , LL Cool J and Ashanti, to name a few.
Students participated in panel discussions with the various professionals. They were given exposure to potential career pathways outside of the norm, such as in sports, entertainment, banking and finance, business and marketing, E-commerce and real estate.”
“I enjoyed interacting with all the kids, and as the day progressed, I personally saw kids’ lives were being impacted positively, said Hezekiah Griggs, managing partner at New York-based H360 Capital. “I received several emails that impressed upon me the importance of what took place during the day.”
According to Patrick Walsh, vice president of marketing at Villa, the company will continue to gain more visibility but not just as a retailer. Next Wednesday, Villa will host a screening of CNN’s Black in America 4. The event will be held at Shoemaker Mastery Charter in West Philadelphia. Four hundred students from the Mastery charters will screen the show and then have a chance to pepper Emmy Award-winning producer Jason Samuels, an African American, about his career path. Samuels is the producer of the show.
Joining Samuels on the panel will be Navarrow Wright. Wright is one of the featured success stories in Black in America. He is the chief technology officer at Interactive One, the nation’s largest digital media company serving African Americans.
“It’s imperative — and it’s our obligation as African Americans, that we do all that we can to expose the future leaders to all different sorts of opportunities,” Wright said recently.
And on Jan. 1, at the Liacouras Center, Villa will host a high school basketball tournament, bringing together nationally ranked teams from the New York and Philadelphia areas with the proceeds being funneled back into the Dream Project.
All of these ventures are under the directorship of Patrick Walsh, vice president of marketing at Villa. Before he embarked on the project, Walsh spent time going throughout the city and talking directly with students, wanting to find out exactly what their aspirations were for the future.
“Everyone who has seen the struggles of the last 12 months knows it has been hard on the youth,” Walsh says. “Flash mobs, bullying, problems on public transportation. We’ve seen a lot of negative stories in terms of our youth.
“I wanted to interact with the kids and see what they were doing, and you know what?” Walsh continued, “I walked away with the understanding that the bulk of our kids are not doing these things. A lot of the kids looked just like me and others who are being successful. But they wonder who is going to help them get to their destiny.”
Walsh knows that as the director of marketing for a growing company, his job is to drive business to Villa. But he grew up in the hard scrabble neighborhoods of Queens and Harlem watching African Americans struggle to get ahead.
“We are going to do more,” Walsh said. “The Dream Project is just a launch pad. It is a launch pad for sharing success stories in the community. There are so many stories of successful minorities in non-traditional businesses. We have connections to phenomenal people. It’s our obligation to get the message out so that our kids can aspire to be just like them.”