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Top 10 local education stories of 2021

From students returning to full in-person learning to a university president and principal making history, a future departure from the school district’s top leader and a HBCU launching a science-and-tech hub, here are the top 10 local education stories of 2021.

School district returns to in-person learning

The School District of Philadelphia returned to five-day in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year. For many students, it was the first time seeing a classroom since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the district relied on layered strategies including universal masking, social distancing, testing of all staff members, and quarantining and isolating when necessary.

Superintendent Hite leaving school district

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite announced in September that he will not renew his contract at the end of the 2021-22 school year.

Hite, who has been one of the longest-tenured superintendents in the history of the district, will remain in his role until Aug. 31, 2022.

The search for a new superintendent, led by the Board of Education along with search firm Isaacson Miller, is ongoing. A decision will be made in spring 2022.

Temple gets new president

Former dean and professor of the School of Professional Studies at Columbia University Jason Wingard became the 12th president of Temple University over the summer.

The West Chester, Pennsylvania, native became the first African-American president in the university’s 137-year history.

He replaced former president Richard M. Englert, who retired after 45 years in 17 different positions at the university.

Dobbins principal makes history

North Philadelphia native Shervon Thompson is the first alumnus in Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School’s 85-year history to serve as principal.

She replaced former principal Toni Damon, who led the school for nine years. Thompson graduated from Dobbins, located at 2150 W. Lehigh Ave., in 1996.

Cheyney launches science-and-tech hub

Cheyney University announced plans to launch a Life Sciences and Technology hub.

The hub, which is located in the university’s Science Center, will provide programming designed to support science students, connecting them with resources and guidance to help them acclimate to scientific studies and career work.

Twenty-five percent of Cheyney students now major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), a 13% increase from the 2017-2018 academic year. The university has a goal of reaching 30% in those majors over the next two years.

Delaware State president leads HBCU board

Delaware State University President Dr. Tony Allen has been named chairperson of President Joe Biden’s advisory board on historically Black colleges and universities.

The President’s Board of Advisors works directly with the White House Initiative on HBCUs, which Jimmy Carter established in 1980.

Allen became president of Delaware State University in January 2020, after serving as provost and executive vice president since July 2017.

Philly student named Gates Scholar

Akayla Brown was named one of 300 seniors selected for the highly competitive scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Scholarship.

The scholarship covers Brown’s full cost for college including tuition, fees, room and board, books, transportation and other personal expenses for five years.

Brown, who graduated from Bodine High School, is currently a freshman at Howard University.

Graduates earn high school diploma, associate degree

Ninety students from Parkway Center City Middle College became the first group of graduates in Pennsylvania to graduate with both a high school diploma and associate degree.

The group of students earned over $10 million in scholarships, grants and aid. The middle college was developed from a collaboration between The School District of Philadelphia and Community College of Philadelphia

Lincoln gets funding from Jay-Z, Beyoncé

Lincoln University is among five HBCUs selected to be a part of the About Love scholarship.

The scholarship is in partnership with Tiffany & Co. for the Love Scholarship program, Beyoncé’s BeyGOOD foundation and Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation. Tiffany & Co. pledged $2 million in scholarship funding for students in the arts and creative fields.

Norfolk State University in Virginia, Bennett College in North Carolina, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Central State University in Ohio were also beneficiaries of the scholarship.

District teacher retires after 47 years

School District of Philadelphia teacher Frances Wilson retired in June after nearly 47 years. At the time, she was the district’s longest-serving teacher.

She started with the school district on Sept. 1, 1974, as a classroom assistant. She became a teacher in 2008 at the Henry H. Houston School in the Mount Airy section of the city.

After five years at Houston, she left to teach at Chester A. Arthur School in the Graduate Hospital area of South Philadelphia. Prior to retiring, she was the dean of students at Chester A. Arthur School.


Tutu at Penn

As he traveled the globe in the 1980s to spark a movement forcing the South Africa government to end its racist policy of apartheid, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, who died Sunday at 90 years old, made a pivotal stop in Philadelphia.

Tutu, who would soon become an archbishop, gave a January 1986 speech at the University of Pennsylvania. Part of a whirlwind tour with a dozen U.S. stops, his Martin Luther King Memorial Address reverberated around the nation.

Nine months later, in an effort co-helmed by Philly U.S. Rep. William Gray, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act to levy sanctions against South Africa.

Apartheid wouldn’t officially end until the 1990s, but passage of the act was a milestone in Tutu’s efforts to dismantle the segregation of races in his home country. Protests at colleges were considered key drivers of the movement.

Tutu referenced this student activism in his January speech at Penn, which you can listen to in full at the Fresh Air Archives.

“I came to this country in May of last year and visited a number of campuses … at a time when normally on campuses people are virtually obsessed with exams and grades and degrees” Tutu said, addressing what was reported as a crowd of 3,000 in a 2,250-seat auditorium.

“I would speak to audiences of 15,000 students [gathered] to demonstrate, to protest, against the evil of apartheid,” he continued in his famously straightforward style. “They were saying, ‘There are some things more important than degrees.’ ”

A few days earlier, Tutu received an honorary law degree from Temple University, which had in late 1985 divested $2.75 million in stock from companies doing business with South Africa.

But Penn had yet to act, according to university archives.

In his speech at the auditorium, Tutu didn’t directly urge divestment — at the time, it was illegal for South African citizens to do so — though reportedly he did speak privately with university trustees, who were slated to vote on the issue later that week.

Students had been pressuring the school to divest for years. In October 1985, for example, the Penn Anti-Apartheid Coalition held a round-the-clock vigil outside a board meeting. This dedication to the cause excited Tutu, who in his January speech compared it to the anti-war movement of the 1960s, only more impressive.

“You see, in the Vietnam situation, there was a fair degree of self-interest,” Tutu told the crowd at Penn. “They were talking about Americans, and they were also perhaps a little concerned that they might be drafted into the Army. … But on this occasion, young people were being concerned with something with which they needn’t have been concerned. They were caring about the human family.”

Three days after that speech, according to the New York Times, Penn trustees voted to wait at least 18 months before pulling $92 million invested with companies doing business with South Africa.

Student protests continued. A few months later, activists held a die-in outside a board meeting, and that summer Penn was one of several campuses that saw “occupy”-style shanties erected to urge South African divestment.

Representative Gray, who as pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church hosted Tutu during the January visit, showed up at some of the student rallies in Philadelphia. He sponsored the House bill calling for U.S. sanctions, and delivered the Democratic response to President Ronald Reagan’s veto after it was passed by both chambers.

Reagan’s veto was eventually overridden, and the act passed into law in October 1986. It would take another year for Penn fully to divest.


US officials recommend shorter COVID isolation, quarantine

NEW YORK — U.S. health officials on Monday cut isolation restrictions for Americans who catch the coronavirus from 10 to five days, and similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said the guidance is in keeping with growing evidence that people with the coronavirus are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop.

The decision also was driven by a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, propelled by the omicron variant.

Early research suggests omicron may cause milder illnesses than earlier versions of the coronavirus. But the sheer number of people becoming infected — and therefore having to isolate or quarantine — threatens to crush the ability of hospitals, airlines and other businesses to stay open, experts say.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the country is about to see a lot of omicron cases.

“Not all of those cases are going to be severe. In fact many are going to be asymptomatic,” she told The Associated Press on Monday. “We want to make sure there is a mechanism by which we can safely continue to keep society functioning while following the science.”

Last week, the agency loosened rules that previously called on health care workers to stay out of work for 10 days if they test positive. The new recommendations said workers could go back to work after seven days if they test negative and don’t have symptoms. And the agency said isolation time could be cut to five days, or even fewer, if there are severe staffing shortages.

Now, the CDC is changing the isolation and quarantine guidance for the general public to be even less stringent.

The change is aimed at people who are not experiencing symptoms. People with symptoms during isolation, or who develop symptoms during quarantine, are encouraged to stay home.

The CDC’s isolation and quarantine guidance has confused the public, and the new recommendations are “happening at a time when more people are testing positive for the first time and looking for guidance,” said Lindsay Wiley, an American University public health law expert.

Nevertheless, the guidance continues to be complex.

Isolation

The isolation rules are for people who are infected. They are the same for people who are unvaccinated, partly vaccinated, fully vaccinated or boosted.

They say:

The clock starts the day you test positive.

An infected person should go into isolation for five days, instead of the previously recommended 10.

At the end of five days, if you have no symptoms, you can return to normal activities but must wear a mask everywhere — even at home around others — for at least five more days.

If you still have symptoms after isolating for five days, stay home until you feel better and then start your five days of wearing a mask at all times.

Quarantine

The quarantine rules are for people who were in close contact with an infected person but not infected themselves.

For quarantine, the clock starts the day someone is alerted they may have been exposed to the virus.

Previously, the CDC said people who were not fully vaccinated and who came in close contact with an infected person should stay home for at least 10 days.

Now the agency is saying only people who got booster shots can skip quarantine if they wear masks in all settings for at least 10 days.

That’s a change. Previously, people who were fully vaccinated — which the CDC has defined as having two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — could be exempt from quarantine.

Now, people who got their initial shots but not boosters are in the same situation as those who are partly vaccinated or are not vaccinated at all: They can stop quarantine after five days if they wear masks in all settings for five days afterward.

Five days

Suspending both isolation and quarantine after five days is not without risk.

A lot of people get tested when they first feel symptoms, but many Americans get tested for others reasons, like to see if they can visit family or for work. That means a positive test result may not reveal exactly when a person was infected or give a clear picture of when they are most contagious, experts say.

When people get infected, the risk of spread drops substantially after five days, but it does not disappear for everyone, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, a New York physician who is a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“If you decrease it to five days, you’re still going to have a small but significant number of people who are contagious,” he said.

That’s why wearing masks is a critical part of the CDC guidance, Walensky said.

Varying recommendations

The new CDC guidance is not a mandate; it’s a recommendation to employers and state and local officials. Last week, New York state said it would expand on the CDC’s guidance for health care workers to include employees who have other critical jobs that are facing a severe staffing shortage.

It’s possible other states will seek to shorten their isolation and quarantine policies, and CDC is trying to get out ahead of the shift. “It would be helpful to have uniform CDC guidance” that others could draw from, rather than a mishmash of policies, Walensky said.

Given the timing with surging case counts, the update “is going to be perceived as coming in response to pressure from business interests,” Wiley said. But some experts have been calling for the change for months, because shorter isolation and quarantine periods appeared to be sufficient to slow the spread, she said.

The move by CDC follows a decision last week by United Kingdom officials to reduce the self-isolation period for vaccinated people who test positive for COVID-19.


Racial reckoning turns focus to roadside historical markers

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania had been installing historical markers for more than a century when the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 brought a fresh round of questions from the public about just whose stories were being told on the state’s roadsides — and the language used to tell them.

The increased scrutiny helped prompt a review of all 2,500 markers by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a process that has focused on factual errors, inadequate historical context, and racist or otherwise inappropriate references.

So far, the state has removed two markers, revised two and ordered new text for two others.

Across the country, historical markers have in some places become another front in the national reckoning over slavery, segregation and racial violence that has also brought downCivil War statues and changed or reconsidered the names of institutions, roads and geographical features.

The idea that “who is honored, what is remembered, what is memorialized tells a story about a society that can’t be reflected in other ways” is behind an effort by the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative that has installed dozens of markers, mostly in the South, to remember racial terror lynchings.

Historical markers educate the public and therefore can help fight systemic racism, said Diane Turner, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia, one of the country’s largest repositories of Black history literature and related material.

“By being able to tell everybody’s story, it’s good for the society as a whole. It’s not to take away from anybody else,” Turner said. “Let’s have these stories, because the more truth we have, the better it is.”

At the request of Bryn Mawr College’s president, Kimberly Wright Cassidy, the Pennsylvania history agency removed a marker from the edge of campus that noted President Woodrow Wilson had briefly taught there. Cassidy’s letter to the commission cited Wilson’s dismissive comments about the intellectual capabilities of women and his racist policy of federal workforce segregation.

The commission has ordered changes to a marker at the suburban Philadelphia birthplace of Continental Army Maj. Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne because it referred to him as an “Indian fighter.” It also is developing a replacement to a marker that has been removed from the grounds of the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, on the site of a 19th-century prison, that noted Confederate cavalry were held there after their capture in Ohio during the Civil War.

State government took down a marker in Pittsburgh’s Point State Park that noted the location where British Gen. John Forbes had a 1758 military victory that the marker claimed “established Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States.”

The commission also revised markers in central Pennsylvania’s Fulton County related to the movement of Confederate Army troops after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and related to an 1864 Confederate cavalry raid on Chambersburg that left much of the town a smoldering ruin.

One marker had previously described the last Confederates to camp on Pennsylvania soil — the state has since added language about their defeat by Union troops. The other marker, about two Confederates killed in a skirmish, was revised with detail about their raid and how Union soldiers from New York killed them and took 32 prisoners.

The changes have generated some political pushback, including from a Republican state representative, an appointee on the Historical and Museum Commission, who wrote in October about his objections to the initiative.

“My fear is that the commission is becoming less of a true historical arbiter and more of a miniaturized version of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth that has government officers alter history to fit the convenient narrative of those in charge,” state Rep. Parke Wentling wrote.

In a report to the commission, a contractor recounted that an elected Fulton County commissioner harassed his team when they removed the old markers last year.

And this month, a senior state House Republican press aide, Steve Miskin, responded to a news account about the Fulton County markers with a tweet asking, “Is Pennsylvania planning to remove ‘The Confederacy’ from textbooks? Censor TV shows and movies mentioning ‘The Confederacy?’”

Disputes about how historical markers should be worded — or whether they should exist at all — have divided communities in other states in recent years, including in Memphis, Tennessee; Sherman, Texas; and Colfax, Louisiana.

In Pennsylvania, the commission examined all of the 2,500 markers it controls with a focus on how African American and Native American lives and stories are portrayed and adopted a new policy on how markers are established. About a year ago it identified 131 existing markers that may require changes, including a subgroup of 18 that required immediate attention.

“The language could be sexist, it could be racist, it could be all those different things,” said Jacqueline Wiggins, a retired educator from Philadelphia on the state historical commission’s Marker Review Panel. “There’s work to be done.”

New markers getting approved are increasingly telling the stories of previously underrepresented people and groups.

The commission is offering financial support for the markers if their subjects concern women, Hispanics, Latinos and Asian Americans, or if they are about Black and LGBTQ history outside Philadelphia. Financial support is also being provided to underrepresented regions. Last year, the agency subsidized markers on petroglyphs in Clarion County, a camp where Muhammed Ali trained in Schuylkill County and the site of a boycott that stopped a school segregation effort in Chester County.

New markers approved in March include the first substantial workforce of Chinese immigrants in the state at a cutlery factory, the cofounder of one of the country’s first Black fraternities, and three Ephrata women who are among the nation’s first documented female composers.

Native American-related markers generally frame the Indigenous people in terms of the Europeans who displaced them, such as a Juniana County marker about “a stockade built about 1755 to protect settlers from Indian marauder.”

“There is a lot of tap-dancing over who initiated which battle or skirmish,” said historian Ira Beckerman, who recently produced a study focused on Pennsylvania markers that relate to Black and Native American history. “If the settlers started it, it was a battle and therefore worthy. If the Native Americans responded in kind, it was a massacre, savagery, etc.”

Beckerman concluded that as a whole, the state’s 348 Native American historical markers “tell a pretty accurate and compelling story of racism and white nationalism.”


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