When Tony B. Watlington Sr. became Philadelphia’s new superintendent in June, he joined a long list of leaders promising change in the school system, and recently appointed more than 80 volunteer advisors to help examine what works and what doesn’t.
One of the experts has a unique point of view.
Camika Royal, Loyola University of Maryland education professor and critical race scholar, studied 50 years of district history for his new book, Not Paved for Us: Black Educators and Public School Reform in Philadelphia, which examines the school reform efforts of 1967 through the lens of racism.
Royal, now 44, and her family lived through some of the history her book covers.
Her mother was placed in the business stream of classes at Germantown High, where educators told Cassandra Royal she was not college material. And when the senior Royal worried about the pace of her daughter’s reading progress in first grade, the Penrose Elementary principal questioned her credentials.
So the Royals transferred their daughters to a private Christian school in Delaware County – where a white sophomore classmate called Camika Royal the N-word, and where black students were overrepresented in less academically rigorous classes. and barely present in the advanced classes. No black staff were employed by the school.
She then attended Pepper Middle School and Central High.
These experiences, wrote Royal, “made me a critical theorist of race before I knew what it was.”
From early attempts to desegregate Philadelphia schools to recent and ongoing concerns about environmental conditions inside buildings, especially those educating large numbers of black students, racism has permeated the district, Royal said. She gives examples in her book throughout the five decades she has studied.
On desegregation: “No white students were bused to black schools in Philadelphia for racial integration. … Discriminatory testing was used to determine which students would be bused. Black students bused were more likely to be taught by a substitute teacher,” Royal wrote.
On budget cuts: In 1988, Constance Clayton, the district’s first female and first black superintendent, was forced to cut the budget drastically. Explaining her choices — she proposed cutting some funding for busing Philadelphia students who attended private school and closing five daycares in the Northeast, where parents were generally more affluent than in other parts of the city – Clayton said: “There are those among us who will always choose in favor of the historically privileged. It’s a luxury that the school district, this city, and our society can ill afford. When we are forced to choose, we must choose in favor of the most at-risk and needy children, even if they are not the loudest or most connected.
Clayton was heavily criticized for the comments, with some politicians, white Northeast residents and even an Inquirer editorial bristling at the idea that some Philadelphians were historically privileged and those who were not – namely children blacks – should be given fair treatment.
David Hornbeck, the white superintendent who succeeded Clayton and whose departure paved the way for the district’s takeover by the state in 2001, defined funding as a moral issue and fought hard against Harrisburg to get the resources needed to advance the education of black children. But he was, Royal said in an interview, “the king of turnarounds. He was ready to fight everyone. Much of what he did, in hindsight, is right, the Legislature was and still is racist. But at the same time, I don’t know if calling people racist leads them to say, “Well, let me write you a bigger check.”
Philadelphia’s last two superintendents, Arlene Ackerman and Hite, were both black outsiders with no prior ties to Philadelphia, and chosen to oversee the district’s “systematic defunding,” Royal wrote in Not paved for us.
“Their presence provided a veneer of representation that made the state’s dismantling of Philadelphia’s public schools more palatable as democratic institutions capable of improving the lives of blacks, browns, and the most vulnerable,” Royal said.
Royal’s research yielded a few surprises. Namely, she found extremely candid accounts of uncomfortable moments in council minutes.
“Some of these things I wouldn’t tell anyone,” Royal said.
To wit: In the 1970s, the school board tried to scrap school desegregation plans because 80 white students threatened to drop out of school rather than attend Edison High, where most students were black and Latino. School board member Augustus Baxter “said to them, ‘How could you do that? How could you go back? I was blown away by how it was captured within minutes,” Royal said.
Early minutes of school board meetings were voluminous, but when the state took control of the district and the School Reform Commission replaced the board, the tone changed, Royal said. Minutes of meetings were terse, dissent largely absent from the pages.
“But having been to Philadelphia, I knew it wasn’t without controversy,” Royal said.
Royal is watching Watlington closely. She is co-chair of his transition team the district’s anti-racism culture subcommittee, but said in an interview that she preferred not to discuss the work until it was completed.
But she knows what’s at stake.
“The district needs massive change because they haven’t had massive change,” Royal said. “All the changes have been incremental and not always sustained, and not always good or helpful. I would say some of the things that were problematic in the 1960s still persist.
Royal thinks changes to admissions policies for Philadelphia’s selective schools are a step in the right direction, as qualified students are now chosen through a lottery — instead of recommendations — with weight given to students from certain neighborhoods.
She loves Watlington’s promise of transparency and its wish to include all communities.
But she knows “the superintendent has to walk a tightrope,” Royal said. “I want to see somebody come in and say, ‘We’re going to dismantle this, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that’, but you can’t do that and keep the job going.”