Seeking refuge from school violence
“The meeting was really a follow-up to let people know that we’re aware of this problem,” says Coutts, who organized the March event. “We’re acting on it, and we would like their help.”
A dialogue was opened, solutions proposed. And soon, the assaults subsided. One of the initiatives from that meeting, the International Welcome Squad (IWS), will begin with the new school year that begins next Tuesday.
“Every time we get a new student who has limited English proficiency, they will be hooked up with one of the kids from the squad who speaks their language,” explains Coutts. “That person will take them through the building, show them where everything is, show them where to go if they need help, and really just make them feel comfortable.”
IWS student ambassadors will act as intermediaries between affected students, Fels administration and community groups, says Mia-lia Kiernan, Youth Programs Coordinator at the Cambodian Association, which has been working with Fels students.
“These kinds of partnerships with community organizations should be encouraged by the school district,” says Kiernan. “The district is now not only accountable to the students and families but to a solid network of community organizations.”
This year, Fels occupies a brand new building with 130 state-of-the-art security cameras. And Eileen Coutts was promoted to principal, chosen by teachers and community members to be in charge.
“They’ve definitely made some headway,” says Khin Mai Aung of AALDEF. “But I think there is a ways to go before it impacts the students who are directly affected.”
A few days after the community meeting, an Asian student walking home from Fels was pelted with rocks. She needed stitches on her face.
“Right now, I like school,” says Chandaravuth Non. “But I fear going to school.”
“I think Fels is really an interesting case study,” says regional superintendent Michael Silverman. “After a fight, Eileen [Coutts] brought together all these community groups, all these people, and they worked together to build a purposeful community that cares about kids.”
Transparency, honesty and creating a positive climate are the keys to success, he says. Silverman previously served as principal at Lea Elementary in West Philly, where the students spoke 47 different native languages, and at Germantown High during the year after math teacher Frank Burd had his neck broken by a student.
“My experience as a principal has taught me that I really need to build a consensus among the staff and the community,” Silverman says. “We need to explain that there are values that are going to be built at the school.”
Not everyone set the proper tone last year, admits Silverman, who oversees 31 schools.
“School climate was an issue in some of my schools,” he says. “That was addressed in principal evaluations. Some people made it better. Some people didn’t. Some people are still with us and some people are not. Bottom line is people need to take their school climate and culture very seriously. Because there is no learning in a school that doesn’t have a good climate.”
In an effort to bring about change in climate, South Philly High begins the school year with a new principal. Girl’s High graduate LaGreta Brown was recruited out of semi-retirement to become the first African-American principal.
“Instead of looking at one other, pointing out each other’s faults and tearing each other apart because we’re different,” Brown says, “we can celebrate our differences and celebrate that we’re more alike than not.”
A West Philly native who graduated from West Chester University and earned a master’s in education from Temple, Brown has already met with Asian students and community organizations. She’s aware of the school’s recent history of violence.
“It’s a challenge that we can address,” she states.
She declines to provide specific changes she will instill, explaining that it wouldn’t be right for her faculty, staff and students to learn about changes from the media rather than from her. But she says that she wants all students to have a voice in safety planning.
While the victims and the school district are reluctant to lay the attacks at the feet of African-American students, the fact is that black students make up 62 percent of the total population. They tend to be the alleged perpetrators. Asians represent 5.9 percent of the student population but they are a growing community in the city.
Asian students from South Philly High marched to school district headquarters Wednesday to protest recent violence at their school. PW's Joel Mathis was there to capture the scene.
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