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Message to a Germantown congregation: Educational inequity dishonors King

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“How are the children?”

That is the traditional greeting of the Masai tribe in Africa, said Barbara Moore Williams in the annual Martin Luther King Day address at First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG) on Sunday morning.

A longtime teacher and former Philadelphia School District official, Williams reminded the congregation that the answer for the Masai was, “All the children are well.”

She wondered how things might be different in Philadelphia if we asked ourselves that question every day.

Moore Williams, who once led professional development in the District, now runs a consulting company that works with districts and charter schools on diversity training for teachers and other school employees.

But her message at FUMCOG was about how inequity and inequality is tolerated in our region and our country -- something, she said, that dishonors Dr. King.

Moore Williams noted that only 60 percent of children in Philadelphia graduate from high school, and that one district where she works just outside the city limits spends $10,000 more annually per child -- $24,000, compared to $14,000 in Philadelphia.

In that district, the graduation rate is 99 percent, compared to 60 percent in Philadelphia, a number that is even lower in some high-poverty high schools. In that district, in addition to the higher per-pupil spending, she discovered that most of the children had outside tutors.

“To me, that’s a civil rights issue,” she said. “How dare it be that we don’t have enough money to educate all our children. … Education in America is not fairly distributed.”

Moore Williams urged the congregation to “go out and do something about” educational inequity. She recalled how the first African American candidate for Philadelphia mayor, Hardy Williams, knocked on as many doors as he could.

“We should be knocking on doors about children and educational inequity,” she said.

And, she said, although she “loves” President Obama, she disagrees with his statement that anyone who works hard can succeed in America. There are always exceptions who rise above difficult circumstances, she said, but too many children “are not getting the education they need.”

FUMCOG is a progressive congregation right across from Germantown High School, which is one of 44 schools that the District is planning to close or relocate. The church runs a tutoring program at the school.

The church's Committee on Race has issued a statement on access and equity in education. And although it endorses equity in resources, the statement goes a step beyond into analyzing the culture within schools.

It says that racial bias is infused in American schooling -- from the curriculum to practices that result in more White students being declared gifted and students of color being more often assigned to special education, to the quality of relationships that educators have with students’ families.

“Teachers and school systems need to affirm that race impacts each of us all the time,” the statement says. It calls for “color consciousness” and understanding of the consequences of low expectations. It calls for Whites to examine their own “racial privilege.”

“The goal is to intentionally transform classrooms and schools where children of color can access effective schooling,” the statement says, calling for “interracial dialogue, continuous learning, and the interconnected actions of those with and without racial privilege. This will strengthen our democracy and our ability to compete in the global economy."

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.