“Teaching academics is easy. We would not leave students unprepared,” said Steve Piltch, Head of School at Shipley School. “Teaching emotional literacy is the harder issue.” Yet this is the work that has to be done and the reason over 200 education leaders, policy makers, funders, and families gathered together in the Gesu School gymnasium for the school’s 17th Annual Symposium on Transforming Inner-City Education last Friday.
What do students do and say in the face of someone who talks, acts, and looks differently? How do we identify racism and classism in our schools? How do we strengthen cultural understanding among our student body and quell stereotype threats? How do we give all students not only academic guidance, but social mentoring?
Both personal stories and ideas for systemic shifts were exchanged among André Robert Lee, Keynote Speaker and Director of “The Prep School Negro,” Symposium panelists, and audience members to begin to formulate potential answers to these questions.
Lee, through his very personal account of his journey from a middle-lower class neighborhood in North Philadelphia to the halls of the predominantly white, upper-class Germantown Friends School, described how a “psychological homelessness” set in as he navigated between his “two worlds” with little guidance from his family. School administrators were equally unaware of Lee’s emotional struggle – his struggles with elements of identity and privilege – though he thrived academically.
The director wished that his family had been more involved at his school, more willing to bridge the divide between his home life and his school life. At the same time, Lee was ashamed of his parents’ professions (a factory worker and a sanitation worker), the way he pronounced words, and the clothes he wore. In many ways, he wanted to keep these two worlds as separate as he could.
Many Symposium audience members could relate to Lee’s story, citing “PTSD” after their experience at elite high schools and colleges, for example, as a child of refugees, as a minority student, or as a student on scholarship – stress-inducing issues of race and class.
What can be done on a systematic level to support students who may be facing these same stresses? For starters, said panelist Howard Stevenson, Ph.D., we have to practice.
Students, administrators, and families have to practice having these conversations. Families need to speak up for themselves. Indeed, minority or scholarship families are not “guests” of an institution. They are part of the community, advocates for their child’s education, and they have a voice.
The infrastructure of schools should be set up in such a way that social mentoring is as common as academic tutoring. Affinity groups and diversity alliances should be student-driven and student- governed. Multicultural experiences should be the norm. And when students are faced with racial illiteracy – from a peer or a teacher – they should be able to identify it, call it out, counter it, and have the tools to strengthen cultural understanding.
There also needs to be a partnership between sending schools – elementary schools like Gesu – and the receiving high schools. Sending schools can provide a foundation for a “growth mindset” for students, but high schools must be cognizant of potential stresses for students whose high school transition may be tough. Preparations and interventions must be in place. Preparations like Merion Mercy Academy’s Saturday program, which invites 7th and 8th grade students from feeder schools to spend time at the high school before their first day as a freshman, acclimating to the new environment and meeting potential fellow classmates, their new friends.
This education of the “whole person” – fostering not only academics, but social and spiritual growth as well – has long been and will continue to be part of the Gesu ethos. Gesu fosters the growth of each child so that he or she will not simply “fit in” to a prescribed societal structure, but question that structure and make it better.
We thank our generous event sponsors:
Locust Capital Management LLC
JP Morgan Chase
Philadelphia School Partnership
St. Joseph's Preparatory School
The Shipley School
Mr. and Mrs. Mark I. Solomon
Mr. Craig White