Education: After Community Pressure, Colonial School Board Expands Diversity Efforts in District

Mike Christian, Superintendent of the Colonial School District, announces the hiring of a District Equity, Diversity, and Instruction Officer during a school board meeting on Thursday, July 23.

During its July 23 meeting, the Colonial School Board, located in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, passed a resolution supporting anti-racist education in Colonial School District.

The resolution called for “developing and/or adopting culturally responsive curricula that teach anti-racism and incorporate ethnic diversity and respect for persons of color” and announced the district’s intent to hire a district equity, diversity, and instruction officer.

This newly created position will be responsible for addressing diversity and inclusion in the curriculum, working to hire more people of color in the district, and talking directly to students to get a better sense of the general culture around race among the student body, according to Jennifer Dow, a member of the school board.

According to Dow, the resolution was developed partly in response to local activism, including a petition created by Shreya Bhutani, a district alumna who graduated from Plymouth Whitemarsh High School in 2018.

“The petition started by Ms. Bhutani brought to light many issues that were unknown to many people in the district,” Dow said. “I hope she and other students continue to speak out on these issues.”

Bhutani attends Bryn Mawr College, where she is majoring in growth and structure of cities and minoring in educational studies. As a college student, she has become more educated about systemic oppression from her college professors, especially those of color, she said. She was motivated to start the petition after thinking about her own experiences with racism while a student in the district. 

Shreya Bhutani poses with her mother outside City Hall on September 20, 2019, during the Global Climate Strike. Bhutani’s sign explains that the land now known as Southeastern Pennsylvania is on former Lenni Lenape land. (Shreya Bhutani/COURTESY)

“Some prominent experiences [I’ve had with racism] were being told that Trump was going to deport me,” Bhutani said. “And hearing the n-word casually thrown around by white students on a daily basis.”

The death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers on May 25 and the growth of national Black Lives Matter protests made Bhutani think the time was right to circulate a petition calling for change in her home school district, she said.

“It’s alarming that there are no guidance counselors of color, only a handful of teachers of color, and no advertised services to support students of color at [Plymouth Whitemarsh],” Bhutani said. 

Colonial School District’s academic year was wrapping up online around the time of Floyd’s death, leaving teachers with little or no opportunity to discuss it with students. Chris Manero, a social studies teacher at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, said that had students been in school, he would have taken time out of class to talk about issues exposed by Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests.

“We have a major societal problem that has been unearthed, but everybody comes to it from a different direction,” he said.

On June 1, Mike Christian, superintendent of schools for Colonial School District, released a statement condemning the death of Floyd and offering resources for parents of families attempting to inform their children about diversity and equity.

“The recent events throughout the country in reaction to the tragic and senseless death of Mr. George Floyd in Minneapolis are having an adverse impact on many children and adults,” Christian said in his statement. “It is imperative that we support the African-American community with compassion and empathy.”

However, Bhutani said the resources offered by Christian did not go far enough and referenced the need for more active measures in the district in her petition.

“We need to be doing more to be actively anti-racist in our approaches to education,” Bhutani wrote in the petition. “The activism and support for Black individuals in our community should be apparent every day, rather than just within the time frame surrounding a national crisis.”

Teachers and administrators should be prepared to regularly confront issues of racism, Bhutani said.

Manero said classrooms are an ideal space to discuss and process events that challenge students, especially around race.

“I would like to think that had we been in school at the time, a lot of what I would have done would have been very much reflective of what a lot of people have been trying to do in the country,” Manero said. “Listen to one another and let people share their perspectives.”

Bhutani’s petition, which was started in mid-June, and had more than 3,400 signatures by the end of July, demanded the school board take concrete, anti-racist action. The board’s recent decision is the kind of progress she was hoping for. 

“I’m glad that they’re taking positive steps in the right direction,” she said.

Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

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