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Shaler Alumni Demand That District Commit To Anti-Racism Curriculum In The Largely White District

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Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA

Taylor Charity says it’s long overdue that her alma mater works to dismantle institutional racism within the mostly-white Shaler Area School District.

Charity is a 2020 graduate and helped form the Students of Color Union in 2018. In front of the school board and administrators Wednesday, she outlined the discrimination and racism she faced while a student.

“Throughout the years I have dealt with many microaggressions such as being called angry, sassy, or loud,” she said.

She was one of nearly 20 people who asked the district to do better in person and one of more than 900 alumni and community members who signed an open letter demanding that the district take five actions: update the curriculum to incorporate anti-racism education; improve diversity, equity and inclusion for staff; enhance support for students of color; complete a diversity assessment; and make an official statement with actionable steps.

The alumni acknowledged that anti-racism is uncomfortable and hard work. But, they said they wanted the district to take the first steps to be better.

The letter states that the students’ educational experiences lacked representation of Black voices and history.

“Many of us graduated with the impression that racism ended with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and without any understanding (or even mention) of white privilege and its connection to white supremacy," the letter states. As a predominantly white school district, the fact that our education lacked Black voices, authors, and history is both unacceptable and dangerous."

Students and parents spoke about only hearing about Black historical figures during Black History Month, during which Malcom X was often vilified. They said the district’s curriculum is whitewashed and that they hadn’t learned about parts of American history – like the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Okla.– until adulthood. Once known as Black Wall Street because of its place among the United States' wealthiest black communities, Greenwood was the site in 1921 of one of the worst racially motivated massacres in U.S. history.

“For the longest time I believed that slavery wasn’t relevant because it was abolished,” Charity said. “It wasn’t until I began to learn my own history that I realized slavery continues to be relevant to this day.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Charity told stories of fellow students wearing confederate flags and making monkey noises, seeing the n-word written on a mirror and eating lunch in her mother’s car because of racist conversations in the cafeteria.

The letter also calls for creating a culture of equity and inclusion.

“We recognize that teachers today face many challenges and restrictions. We acknowledge the efforts made to include Black voices and history in their classrooms,” the letter reads. "In fact, we hope that those who have already committed to doing this work will work together with their fellow educators to create learning environments that allow students to grapple with discomfort when unpacking the history and impact of systematic oppression."

Superintendent Sean Aiken has been at the helm for more than four years. He apologized Wednesday for the district not doing a better job. He called the testimonies enlightening.

“It’s obvious that we still have a ways to go,” he said.

He said in the coming weeks the district will convene small group discussions on race to have honest discussions related to how to move forward. He says the district is considering curriculum adjustments and implicit bias training.

The alumni demanded the district commit to dismantling racism as seriously as it has committed to responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

“I understand that many of you might be feeling that what we share tonight does not demand your attention," said Audrey Schreiber, a 2012 graduate who helped organize demands from alumni. "And you might feel inclined to think this is not your problem, that you’ve been dealing with a lot already, that the school has neither the time or the resources to handle this. Ask yourself why you might be inclined to deflect our calls to action tonight."

"Racism is a crisis," Schreiber continued. "Tonight I’m asking you to address this crisis with as much vigor as you are addressing the COVID-19 crisis.” 

Alex Almonte is a 2020 graduate who was involved with the Students of Color Union. For example, he said the high school’s history courses are very euro-centric.

“That can be understandable because we speak English. But, I think it’s so important to hear the background of these other cultures because we can’t broaden our knowledge truly without going into places that we aren’t necessarily known or comfortable or familiar with,” he said.

The letter calls for the district to update curriculum to incorporate anti-racism and decolonized education into curricula for every grade level not limited to history.

“Because if we start very young in early education teaching kids this, then they’ll have an opportunity to be more enlightened to these ideas and to know what is ignorant and what isn’t,” Almonte said.