Black Central High students demand changes to 'culture of racism'

Mike DeNardo
July 12, 2020 - 4:00 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Administrators at Philadelphia's Central High School are promising to address what Black students have described as a culture of racism at the magnet school.  

Mariame Sissoko recalls when she was a sophomore at Central, and she approached a white teacher who commented on her afro.

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"He made this joke. He was like, 'If I stick my finger in an electrical socket, my hair gets just like that.' And it was like, what? You can't say that," she said.

Sissoko, who just graduated from Central, said as the number of Black students has dropped below 20%, a culture of racism has advanced.

"You started getting incidences - there was a student who had the N-word written on his ID card and left out for him," she said.

Sissoko and Black classmates from the African-American Student Union and Black Youth Coalition drew up a set of demands that included changing admissions policies, recruiting more Black students for advanced classes, hiring more Black teachers and creating a bridge program for incoming students.  

Central president Tim McKenna in a statement said he takes ownership and recognizes changes need to be made. McKenna promised to develop a bridge program, hire a full-time climate manager and to work with student leaders to recruit more Black students, among other actions.

McKenna said the school is "not shying away from the difficult conversations."

Sissoko says she is encouraged by McKenna's response. But she also plans to remain vigilant.

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Here is McKenna's full statement to KYW Newsradio:

Statement from Central High School President Timothy J. McKenna

As is the case across our city, commonwealth and nation, schools and organizations are evaluating their current systems regarding racial equity. At Central High School, we are not exempt from this process. Prior to the Covid-19 school closure, the Central High School Administrative Team met with student leaders from our African American Student Union to discuss issues regarding racial equity at our school. These conversations led to the development of a plan to support our students. In early June, a virtual town hall on racial equity for members of the Central High School community was held. The administrative team and faculty members were presented with a list of demands from our African American student leaders. I have pledged to take action and implement the demands.  

Student voice is critical when you are leading a school and our student voices need to be recognized. The goal is for us to collaboratively improve student life for our African American students. I care deeply about the students I am fortunate to support each day as the leader of this school.  I take ownership and recognize changes need to be made. As a human being, I empathize and want the best for our school community. I am inspired by the leadership that has been exhibited by our students and am committed to improving Central High School.      

Here are the actions we are taking during the 2020 - 2021 school year:

Hire a new full time climate manager to support a restorative team building program during advisory. Advisors and student leaders will be trained to facilitate conversations on racial equity, racism and other topics.

Develop a pilot summer bridge program that will begin in August 2020 to support student transition to our school.

Create a new Equity Coordinator position on our faculty.

Plan ongoing Professional Development on topics of anti-racism, beginning with implicit bias training for all administrative and faculty members.

Evaluate current curriculum offerings and expand them regarding racism, racial equity and African American history in our English and Social Studies classes.

Evaluate our hiring practices with an effort to hire more Black teachers.

Work with student leaders to create a recruiting team with the goal of increasing the percentage of Black students at Central High School. 

Work with student leaders to create student mentorship program.

The Central High School Administrative Team, faculty, alumni, and students are committed to this work. We are not shying away from the difficult conversations. We are proactively working as a school community to improve student life for our students.