Times Chronicle & Public Spirit
Report: Underfunding fuels under-achievement among Black and Hispanic students in suburban districts
Southeastern Pennsylvania suburban schools with larger proportions of Black and Hispanic students are not only underfunded by the state but the effect of that shortfall results in lower levels of minority student achievement, according to a recently released report.
The report, titled “No More Dreams Deferred,” also found that Black and Hispanic students are disproportionately suspended and disciplined through law enforcement than their white classmates in the suburban districts.
Public Citizens for Children and Youth released the report, which examines the 61 school districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties and found that schools have a hard time meeting the needs of diverse students.
Of the 363,500 students attending school in the 61 school districts in the four suburban counties, 23 percent are Black or Hispanic.
Gaps in Reading and Math Scores
In 2019, the last year for which
complete statistics are available, the gap in reading scores between white and Black students was 22 percent and 16 percent between white and Hispanic students in those districts, the report found after examining standardized test scores.
In Montgomery County, the top three largest gaps in 2019 were found in Wissahickon, Pottsgrove and Souderton districts, in that order, according to the report.
In Chester County, the top three largest gaps in 2019 were in Owen J. Roberts, Phoenixville and Octorara school districts in that order, according to the report.
Math achievement was worse with a 27 percent gap between white and Black students and a 19 percent gap between white and Hispanic students, according to the report.
“There’s a consistent gap right across the board,” Tomea Sippio Smith, the education policy director for PCCY and the author of the report, said during a press conference last week held to announce the report’s release.
Further, PCCY found that in 92 percent of the suburban districts, fewer Black and Hispanic students are enrolled in advanced placement classes than one would expect, and fewer Black and Hispanic students to access career and technical education programs.
Across the region, suburban school districts where more than half of students are Black or Hispanic have the least to spend on instruction. The funding difference between districts with the highest and lowest concentrations of students of color amounts to $35,430 per classroom.
“What we’re seeing are the conditions in school districts, whether they are urban or suburban, are what are causing Black and Hispanic students to not hit the same achievement rate as their White peers,” Donna Cooper, executive director of PCCY, said the press conference.
Those conditions extend beyond the school walls to the neighborhoods where those students live, said Sippio Smith.
She said her research found students of color “are more likely to reside in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of students of color, which leads to a gap of 30 percent or greater in enrollment between schools in the same districts.
“Segregation still exists in the suburban schools,” Sippio Smith said.
The eight suburban school districts where this segregation is most prevalent are Phoenixville and Coatesville in Chester County; Upper Darby and Ridley in Delaware County; Bensalem in Bucks County and Norristown, Upper Merion and Abington in Montgomery County.
There is also a technology gap that undermines achievement for students of color.
The report found at least 13,000 students in these suburban districts who lack digital access.
That gap became painfully clear when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of schools, which then tried to pivot to online learning. For example, took Pottstown weeks and a capital campaign to get devices and Internet access to many of its students, leaving them far behind on educational progress last year.
In wealthier SpringFord, on the other hand, many households already had computers and Internet access and the district was able to quickly provide additional computers so there was more than one per household for the students there to use.
“Collectively, the results of these compounding factors have been devastating,” said Sippio Smith.
The fact that Pennsylvania’s unfair and racially biased school funding system contributes to lower levels of academic achievement is supported by the finding that Black and Hispanic students living in the highest spending school districts did better on their math and reading scores than their counterparts in the lowest spending schools, the report says.
“We know that when students have access to funding and adequate resources, they do better,” Sippio Smith said. “When you look at the school districts that have more money to spend on students, we see that the scores go up or improve.”
In addition to being shortchanged on funding and resources, Black and Hispanic students are also disciplined more harshly than their white counterparts by their schools.
Although Black students make up about 13 percent of the students in the four suburban counties, about 43 percent of in- and outof-school suspensions are of Black students, the report found.
School officials also involve law enforcement in infractions involving Black students at greater rates. In some districts, school officials call the police for Black and Hispanic students three to five times more often than for white students.
Black and Hispanic students also face obstacles that don’t show up in datasheets, according to some of those who spoke during last week’s press conference.
Collin Woodward is a Black sophomore in Strath Haven High School in Delaware County’s well-funded Wallingford-Swarthmore School District.
Despite have more resources available than the neighboring Chester-Upland School District, Woodward said he still had “to fight to get into AP and honors courses” to overcome objections by guidance counselors and administrators.
He said he still has it better than students in Chester-Upland. “Yeah, it’s hard to run this race, but they’re fighting just to get in the race,” he said.
Nevertheless, in a betterresourced school district, “No one was looking out for me. I shouldn’t have to push them to do their jobs.”
‘Systemic Racism for Generations’
Beyond the state funding policies, students of color also face racism in subtler, often unconscious ways, in their individual schools.
“Even in well-funded districts, high school students of color still have issues,” said Nellie Jimenez, executive director of ACCLAMO, a Hispanic advocacy group that operates primarily in Norristown and Pottstown.
“They are seen as students who cannot be high achievers,” she said.
It’s a problem school administrators are becoming aware of and addressing.
By the time the state had notified Phoenixville Area School District about disproportionately high discipline figures for students of color in 2019, the district had already taken steps to address it, according to Superintendent Alan Fegley.
And, by the time he and other administrators were interviewed by a reporter about it 2020, they could demonstrate their efforts were having an impact, and those numbers were dropping.
Although Tomas Hanna has only been the superintendent of the Coatesville Area School for six months, he told the press conference “we’re seeing some of what’s in the report,” adding that the district’s newly adopted comprehensive plan included “conducting equity audits throughout our schools.”
Abington Superintendent Jeffrey Fecher said his district has “made equity a priority for decades. We are constantly reviewing the data and confronting these brutal facts.”
Although Abington has open enrollment for AP classes, Fecher said he knows the enrollment still does not reflect the district’s Black and Hispanic population adequately.
“There is systemic racism that has existed for generations and to ignore that would be not to confront reality,” he said. Abington is “focusing on school environment to create opportunity, and to hear their voices and not just look at data.”
What’s to Be Done?
Steps like these are just some of the things the report recommends be implemented on both a statewide and school district basis.
The report has four primary recommendations. They are:
• Ensure that schools serving Black and Hispanic students are equitably and adequately funded.
• Hold schools accountable for equity.
• Reform school climate so that the disproportionate racial gaps are closed.
• Require schools to demonstrate equitable access to high-quality academic options.
The report also includes 15 other recommendations at the state level that include:
• Boost state-level funding to ensure appropriate staffing of counselors and mental health professionals.
• Require school districts that have a racial disparity gap in arrests and suspensions to adopt and implement research-based social and emotional learning programs in each school district to address student discipline and to post suspension and expulsion data on their websites.
• Amend school code to require teacher and administrator certification and continuing education programs on implicit bias and racism training.
• Recruit and increase the share of teachers and administrators to mirror the level of diversity of the student population.
• Identify and recruit talented Black and Hispanic students for Honors and Advanced Placement classes.
• Adopt a culturally rich and competent curriculum that includes and celebrates historical, political, scientific, and economic contributions of Black, Hispanic, and other people of color routinely and throughout American and World History.
Work Worth Doing
“This is tough work,” said Cooper. “It requires a lot of time and self-exploration, but also changes in state policy.”
“It’s also messy work,” said Hanna, who has participated in similar efforts in New York City before coming to Coatesville.
“When you start to do this work, you’re going to press some buttons,” Hanna said. “You’ll get pushback from within the system and outside the system. It takes courage to do this work and do it well so it’s not about pointing fingers.”
But it is work worth doing, said Jimenez.
“These are the people who will be our workforce. If you think it’s expensive now, wait until you see how expensive it is not investing in our children for the future,” she said.
“These are real numbers that represent real children,” said Jimenez. “Shame on us if we continue down this path. Shame on us if we don’t act today. Let’s get this done. Let’s give our children access to the resources they need, so they can succeed and thrive.”