Students at CAPA walked out in protest of discrimination Wednesday morning

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Dozens of students at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts walked out of their classes Wednesday morning to protest a pattern of discrimination and racism at the school.

The rally had three chief demands: an end to what students see as discrimination against Kimberly Byrd, CAPA assistant principal and one of few Black faculty at the school; more teachers of color to reflect the school’s majority non-white student population; and a more equitable environment for students of color.

Standing in front of the school building’s impressive columned facade, students chanted “Respect Black leaders.” They held signs with slogans like “Keep Ms. Byrd at CAPA” and “Don’t play with Big Byrd,” and gave speeches via bullhorn to voice frustration with the school environment and its lack of Black faculty.

CAPA was founded in 1978 as part of a desegregation program, with the goal of attracting arts students across the city to its South Broad Street location. Today, nearly three quarters of students are people of color and almost half are Black — a higher proportion than at other Philly magnet schools like Masterman or Central.

Students say microaggressions and a lack of Black faculty are not new issues, but that Byrd has faced discrimination they believe is designed to push her out of a leadership position.

“She’s put in weird positions all the time, but she’s left out of things,” said Sarah, a disabled CAPA student who says the assistant principal has been one of her biggest resources at the school. “They have her working in the cafeteria when that is not her job or her place.”

“It becomes very clear there’s an unfair power dynamic just by walking into the [admin] office,” Sarah continued. “They’re trying to prevent her from doing her job.”

Credit: Kaitlyn Rodriguez

Byrd earned her master’s degree from Lehigh University, according to her LinkedIn profile, which shows she started with the Philadelphia School District in 2016 as a consultant, and then joined the district’s leadership team full-time as a Principal Fellow in 2018. A CAPA student said Byrd joined the magnet school’s faculty this year.

In response to the walkout, District Assistant Superintendent Ted Domers is “currently meeting with students at CAPA to understand and address any concerns,” District spokesperson Christina Clark told Billy Penn.

The demographic imbalance between a majority Black student population and a mostly white faculty is harming their education, CAPA students say.

“There are times when faculty may say things … and it doesn’t register that it might be a microaggression or racist or discriminatory,” one CAPA senior, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said during the walkout. “There are some teachers that just think it couldn’t be them that’s doing these discriminatory acts, when sometimes they might not realize that they are.”

Having Black teachers can create positive effects for Black students’ long-term learning outcomes, studies show. Diversity in teaching and administrative staffs can also boost teacher recruitment and retention, with the presence of Black teachers and principals increasing the likelihood that Black teachers get hired — and remain — within a district.

“There is a really clear division [between] the white teachers and POC teachers,” said the senior, who emphasized that faculty diversity “is not just a CAPA problem, [but] a school district problem.”

Credit: Kaitlyn Rodriguez

‘I hadn’t had my first Black teacher until I got here’

District-wide, more than two thirds of Philly’s teachers are white, despite almost three quarters of students being Black or Hispanic. And as the proportion of students of color in the Philadelphia School district grew in the last two decades, the number of educators of color shrunk to widen an already substantial gap.

“I hadn’t had my first Black teacher until I got here. And I feel like that’s a problem,” said the CAPA senior.

Recruiting Black educators has long been a goal for the School District of Philadelphia and has run through a few different initiatives to attract teachers under Superintendent Hite. There was last year’s “Teach to Change Tomorrow” program, which prioritized diversity within its goal to recruit 900 teachers for the current school year. Then came the Black Teacher Pipeline project, which matched four Philadelphia-educated teaching students with fellowships in the district.

Even Tony Watlington, who will become Philly’s school superintendent in mid-June, has said he wants to prioritize partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) during his tenure.

CAPA students emphasize that the point of the protest was not to put the school’s administration on blast, but to voice their support for Byrd.

Credit: Kaitlyn Rodriguez

During the protest, participants picked flowers for the assistant principal, giving her a small bouquet as a token of their appreciation when she stopped by towards the end of the demonstration.

Byrd was not involved in the planning of the walkout, students said, but she did graciously accept their bouquet.

“Ms. Byrd is one of the strongest advocates in our school,” said Sarah. “She’s one of the only people in power that has supported me the entire time, and supported my needs.”

CAPA student Kaitlyn Rodriguez and Billy Penn deputy editor Beatrice Forman contributed reporting.