Teachers and students marched for Black lives on July 12, and delivered their demands to the school district

As concerns multiply over coronavirus safety, a group of Philadelphia teachers are not content to drop their other mission: to turn the city’s public school system into an antiracist organization, a goal they say is essential to protecting and educating students.

The Melanated Educators’ Collective, or MEC, first came together in January 2017. In addition to being a place for Black teachers to process racist experiences they’ve had inside schools, it was designed to create change, and organizers recently outlined a list of specific, actionable ideas for how to do that.

Alongside the Racial Justice Organizing Committee, another group of Philly educators that became active this summer after branching off from the teachers union’s Caucus of Working Educators, MEC cofounder Angela Crawford helped draft the list of 10 demands

“As we navigate our buildings, we have to…think about who’s in the room; how am I going to say this; how is this going to be perceived,” said Crawford, an English teacher at Martin Luther King High School. “These are things we shouldn’t have to do when we’re speaking our truth.”

The demands were officially presented to the School District of Philadelphia, or SDP, in mid-July. The district hasn’t yet committed to anything, and its current focus is on developing a COVID-safe reopening plan. But Superintendent Dr. William Hite insists his administration is ready to do the work.

“We are ready to take on the work to provide our children with an education that is protecting and just, as well as ensure that all of our staff feel supported and valued,” district spokesperson Monica Lewis said in a statement provided to Billy Penn.

So far, the SDP has announced an “Equity Coalition,” a district-wide body it says will create and audit an action plan. There aren’t a ton of details yet — but Hite reportedly sent a district-wide email callout for teachers willing to participate.

Crawford and the MEC aren’t thrilled with the so-called Equity Coalition, in part because it asks teachers of color to work on the issue without any extra compensation.

“Symbolic changes mean nothing to me,” Crawford said. “What has to happen are actual changes in curriculum and policies and practices within the school district. If you use these demands with fidelity, then it will make an impact.”

What exactly are those demands, and what goals do they have? Read on for an item-by-item breakdown.

1) Bias and racial equity boards

Basically, the activist groups want every single school in Philly’s district to have its own “Bias and Racial Equity Board,” which would exist outside of administrative control. There’d be a clear process for students and teachers to report instances of discrimination — not just racism but also Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and other forms.

As imagined, the board would investigate the violations and protect those who reported from backlash.

Philadelphia teachers, parents and students marched in support of Black students Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

2) More funding for counselors and abolition of school police

School police officers, per the MEC, have done more harm than good for students of color.

“We take our own biases into the classroom,” Crawford said. “We see a kid with a hoodie, and we make assumptions that this kid is a thug. If that kid becomes too loud, you now feel threatened and you’re calling school police.”

Last month, amid daily protests demanding Philadelphia defund its police force, the SDP announced it would rebrand its school police officers as “safety officers,” giving them new uniforms and adjusted job descriptions. MEC members don’t think that goes far enough. Instead, they want to abolish school police completely and replace them with trauma-informed staff members like counselors and social workers. The Philadelphia Student Union held a recent demonstration to call for the same thing.

“We’ve started this whole criminalization behavior toward students,” Crawford added. “That’s just not acceptable.”

3) More special education support for schools

The MEC members say they’ve noticed disproportionate special education programming across different SDP schools.

To bridge the gaps, they demand standardized programming and equipment for students with special needs in every public school. They’re also asking for universal “gifted” programs across the district.

Schools should be regularly monitored to ensure quality in special education programming — and those programs should be staffed with more Black and POC teachers, the collective recommends.

4) Better training around and enforcement of LGBTQ equity

This demand means, per the MEC, that students should be addressed by their correct name and pronouns by all school staff. They should also have easy access to restrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

SDP’s Policy 252, among the most progressive in the nation, already mandates these things — but it has gone widely unenforced across the district. That’s why the fourth demand also asks for a reporting system made available to students, with the option to submit complaints via text.

Philadelphia teachers, parents and students marched in support of Black students Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

5) More recruitment and retention of Black educators and educators of color

In a majority-Black school district, MEC members say it should be a priority to staff up with Black teachers.

“We need Black teachers teaching Black and brown students,” Crawford said. “When I see someone that looks like me, that can relate to me, doing great things, I want to model myself after that and achieve those things as well.”

To make that happen, they’re demanding programs that encourage Black educators and educators of color to teach in Philly — like pay raises, extra certification programs and teacher recruitment programs in city high schools.

6) Implement ‘culturally responsive’ curricula

As an English teacher, Crawford said she still has to assign her 11th grade students an anthology that includes stories about Christopher Columbus and the Plymouth plantations. She doesn’t have a choice — it’s part of the curriculum.

Students aren’t required to take their first African American history class until high school, Crawford said.

“There’s nothing in place from kindergarten up, and even if you’re offered it in high school, that doesn’t mean it’s taught with intentionality,” Crawford said.

The MEC demands courses on Indigenous, Black and ethnic history from 1st through 12th grade — and that the district “foster knowledge about…social classes, genders, religions, disabilities, sexual orientations (perceived or known) and gender identities (perceived or known).”

Left to right: Middle school teachers Andrea and Amy Pittman joined the march of 200+ educators and students Credit: Sojourner Ahébée / WHYY

7) Mandatory anti-racist training with measurable goals

Activists say anti-racism trainings among SDP staff should be annual and required for everyone from teachers to school police, principals and climate staff.

The primary goal should be to encourage introspective work, which they say might require the SDP to fund legit therapy for all staffers.

“This is not a checklist approach to anti-racism,” Crawford said. “This is work people really have to go inside themselves to do. In order to be transformative, you have to start inside. I would like for the school district to recognize that and implement that.”

8) Non-toxic schools free of lead, asbestos and pests

Pretty standard demand here. School District buildings have been plagued with lead and asbestos for decades — with dozens of instances being reported in schools all over the city in recent years.

Per the MEC: “No child should be in a building where there are asbestos, lead, COVID-19, and mold risks.”

Youma Diabira, president of the African American student union at Central High School Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

9) Equitable access to magnet schools and honors courses

Crawford said she teaches an advanced placement course because she begged her school to allow her to do so, and sought the training independently. The MEC thinks it shouldn’t be that way — and that students across the district should have equal access to advanced learning opportunities.

They’re demanding the SDP reserve 30% to 35% of the spots in magnet schools and AP courses for Black students. Schools that fail to do so should be punished, the collective recommends, and all students should be able to take AP tests regardless of whether they can afford the fees.

“Black and brown students need to be introduced to AP courses,” Crawford said. “And there need to be opportunities for Black educators to teach those classes.”

10) Board endorsement of Black Lives Matter Week of Action At Schools

The group helped create the Black Lives Matter Week of Action, which drafted a curriculum and community events for kindergarten through higher ed students to learn about what Black Lives Matter means in Philadelphia.

The MEC says it would be a “show of good faith” if the SDP committed to taking an entire week to celebrate Black students and teachers and uplift their voices.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...