We allowed Bartram High fiasco to happen

Posted: April 04, 2014

UNRULY students roaming the halls, fighting, smoking weed. Ordering takeout.

Frightened teachers covering their windows and locking their sometimes busted-up doors - while what? - whispering Hail Marys that the roaming band of delinquents won't disrupt their classes.

And then just days before a lunchtime brawl at Bartram High School that left six students in police custody, a staffer assigned to keep the peace gets knocked unconscious by a student and suffers a fractured skull.

The March 21 incident grabbed headlines, but it was just the latest incident at a school long plagued by violence.

In 1999, an assistant principal trying to break up a fight was shot by a student in the school. From 2002 to 2008, the school was on the state's list of persistently dangerous schools, district spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

In 2010, when it was not on the list, a mother stood before a Family Court judge and told him that the reason her son wasn't going to school was because he was getting beaten up and nothing was being done to protect him.

So far this school year, the district has reported dozens of serious incidents at Bartram, including assaults, robberies and one incident of "forced oral sex."

We might ask ourselves: How could we let this happen?

But while this question relates to Bartram, the answer is the same it is for all of this city's problems: We get used to all kinds of things in Philly, including corrupt politicians, negligent city agencies and a bunch of mostly poor and black and Latino students trying - often in vain - to get an education.

Because that's just how things are, right? It's "normal." "Business as usual." Yawn.

And the tragedy is that this, more than anything, is what we're teaching our kids. Sophomore Ramira Andrews said as much in the Inquirer story about staff and student concerns over safety. She used to be scared. "But then I got used to it."

That should sicken and shame us. But if it did, we wouldn't have generations of young people more schooled in combat than chemistry.

Charles Williams, professor of psychology and education at Drexel University, calls it the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

"The message here is that we don't think poor and black [and] Latino kids can learn, that they ought to learn," Williams said.

"Soft bigotry says that Bartram High School is going to be off the hook because well, those are poor black and Latinos, so what do you expect? And so behavior that is not normal suddenly becomes normalized and accepted."

If that's the case then there's nothing "soft" about the kind of bigotry that has written off a whole generation, that sets them up to fail.

The complicity and negligence and inequality that plays out in broken city schools is chronic. It's in your face, even if so many choose to be turn a blind eye to this national disgrace.

And even in those miraculous cases when these kids manage to overcome the chaos, the limited resources, the demoralized teachers and finger-pointing adults, they still struggle not to be left behind.

Earleena Sewell was an A and B student at Bartram when she graduated in 2002. She said she suspected she was getting some of those grades for just showing up and not causing trouble. But as an honors student, she thought she was prepared for college.

She was wrong. And she soon discovered she wasn't alone; some students she graduated with were struggling to read, she said.

Sewell got lucky, she participated in a program that helped good, low-income students earn college credit at the Community College of Philadelphia. But she still struggled to keep up.

While the rest of her classmates in a class about U.S. presidents bought the textbook, Sewell also picked up a copy of U.S. Presidents for Dummies.

"I was really surprised at how far behind I was," she said. "I always found myself having to do more just to keep up."

She stuck with it and graduated from Temple University in 2010. While working to pay off school loans, she still dreams of attending law school.

The condition of Philadelphia's schools are a tragedy. But the greatest tragedy is the students who have a chance to break from the vicious poverty cycle because they're smart enough or dedicated enough, but are denied that chance.

On April 10 at 6:30 p.m., a community meeting will be held at Bartram. I hope the community shows up in droves to demand that those kids get their shot.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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