Last year the William D. Kelley public elementary school in Philadelphia forced 5th grade students to simulate a “black power rally” to “free Angela Davis from prison.” A teacher at the school, in fact, designed an entire social studies curriculum to celebrate Angela Davis, who procured weapons used in the armed takeover of a courtroom and spent time on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list.
“At the end of the unit, the teacher led the ten- and eleven-year-olds into the school auditorium to ‘simulate’ a Black Power rally to ‘free Angela Davis’ from prison, where she had once been held on charges of murder. The students chanted ‘Black Power!’ and ‘Free Angela!’”
The idea that a public elementary school is teaching our young people to celebrate the actions of a domestic terrorist is bad enough. What is perhaps even worse is that this school does not actually teach its students anything else.
William D. Kelley is 94% black. It ranks 1,516th out of a total of 1544 elementary schools in the state of Pennsylvania. By the time they “graduate” from the school, only 13% of its students will have achieved even basic literacy.
In 2019 43% of fifth graders in Pennsylvania were deemed proficient in math based on standardized testing. Only 6.1% of fifth graders at William D. Kelley achieved that level.
Despite this, the focus of the teachers and administrators of the school remains on radical political indoctrination. They recently commissioned murals of Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton. Newton co-founded the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers murdered at least 19 police officers. Ironically, enough Newton – by his own admission – was functionally illiterate when he left high school.
William D. Kelley is, of course, simply representative of a broader problem within the entire Philadelphia public school district. Last year the big focus of the superintendent was on the creation of an Antiracism Declaration dedicated to dismantling “systems of racial inequity.” He also circulated a memo recommending racially segregated training programs for white and black educators.
The local teachers’ union produced a video describing the United States as a “settler colony built on white supremacy and capitalism” that has created a “system that lifts up white people over everyone else.” The solution, according to the union, is to overthrow the “racist structure of capitalism,” provide “reparations for Black and Indigenous people,” and “uproot white supremacy and plant the seeds for a new world.”
The result of this focus on radical politics over the business of education could not be more striking. The School District of Philadelphia has 18,000 employees and a $3.4 billion annual budget. The high school graduation rate is just 72% – substantially below the national average of 84.6%. Even that number doesn’t really capture the scope of the disaster. Six percent of students don’t finish 9th grade.
Neither are the trend lines positive. In fact, according to the school district’s own figures, reading proficiency is on the decline.
As a consequence, Philadelphia ranks 92nd out of the 100 largest U.S. cities in educational attainment. Only 23% of Philadelphians 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 225,000 adults in Philadelphia do not have a high school diploma.
Over fifty percent of adult Philadelphians are functionally illiterate. Over two-thirds cannot read above a middle-school level. In short, almost 40 percent of Philadelphia’s potential workforce has trouble filling out a job application.
The impact of this educational catastrophe is clear. Philadelphia is the poorest large city in America. In 2019 its overall poverty rate was 23.3%. The Black poverty rate in Philadephia in 2019 was 26.7% in 2019. The median family income for Blacks was substantially below that for other ethnic groups. A large portion of the city struggles to make ends meet.
We pride ourselves on the idea that all men are created equal. We cling to the belief that this is a land of opportunity. We want every American to have the chance to reach his or her full potential and to pursue their dreams.
The kids in the Philadelphia school district are being denied these opportunities. They are being turned out onto the street, even if they graduate, with a meaningless diploma and no skills. They cannot read. They cannot do basic arithmetic. They have no chance of pursuing higher education, and they will be lucky to be able to hold even the most menial of jobs in an increasingly high tech economy.
These students, most of them black, are not being betrayed by a racist system. They are not being forced into schools reserved for people of their ethnicity or barred from employment based on the color of their skin. They are being betrayed by the very same teachers and administrators who pretend to be their allies and their supporters. They are being stabbed in the back by those who pretend to have their best interests at heart.
If the principal of William D. Kelley elementary truly cared about the students under his charge he would turn off the polemics, remove the portraits of murderers and terrorists and get serious about the business of education. He would remind the black students in his school of the incredible achievements of Black Americans who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds and achieved great things, people like Harriet Tubman, William Harvey Carney and Guion Bluford. He would teach his students to read and to write and to do math and to reason and to compete against graduates of the best schools in the land.
But, that would take work. That would take discipline.
Easier to preach entitlement and anger and convince your students, as you send them off to lives of failure and despair, that they were powerless to do anything more.
Easier in other words, to sell out those very children for whom you are responsible. Easier to fail.