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Learning to listen

By Dale Mezzacappa on Feb 6, 2009 02:53 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Philadelphia Student Union demonstration from Summer 2008.

Although I have been writing about the School District of Philadelphia for more than 20 years, this is my first attempt at blogging. By temperament and training, my inclination has been to keep my opinion out of things. Sure, I decided what to write about and sought out particular sources. But never did the words “I think” ever appear in anything I wrote. That didn’t stop some people for criticizing me for what they thought I thought; others, though, actually sought out my opinion.

When I was at The Inquirer, in the pre-blogging era, such conversations were verboten for a beat reporter, and they still are. But The Notebook is a different journalistic animalpart newspaper, part advocate. While I’ve been writing articles for The Notebook since I left The Inquirer three years ago, and have been on staff for one year, I’m still getting used to the advocacy part. In some ways it makes me uncomfortable, in other ways, I find it liberating. After a lifetime of sitting on the sidelines and writing about what other people did, I now have the chance to be a little more involved, to make a bit more forthright use of the expertise and the knowledge I’ve accumulated.

What I’m hoping to do in this blog, however, is not just sound off. I will try to monitor coverage of the School District in the dailies and draw attention to interesting stories about reform efforts elsewhere that could be relevant here.  I also hope to use this space to  break news now and then, to hold people to account, and to be provocative.

So, in the interest of provocation, my first topic is community engagement. This is a topic, I must say, that in hindsight I realize I gave short shrift to at The Inquirer.

I was still working there when the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change began working on plans for reforming Kensington and West Philadelphia High School. I had written, over the years, many stories about attempts at high school reform. I knew that this was a good story – one about students trying to take control of their own education, doing research, making decisions, agitating for their rights. But somehow, I never got around to writing it. Other things kept coming up, more “important” things about politics or the outrage of the day. The editors weren’t all that interested.

I bring this up as a cautionary tale to the District’s current leadership: don’t make the same mistake. Don’t brush aside the importance of bottom-up efforts at change led by the people whose lives are most affected by policies, initiatives and upheavals.

The school district is about to unveil a whole new strategic plan. Community members have participated in working groups along the way. Supt. Ackerman likes to talk about transparency, and, as these things go, this process has been relatively transparent. I’ve just written about one of the nine working groups. And the process isn’t over. Groups are going to be given the chance to come to a few meetings and say what they think. What happens after that, we’re still not sure.

Since coming to The Notebook, I’ve been forced to think a lot more about what community engagement really means. It doesn’t mean just asking for opinions and then taking them or leaving them. It doesn’t mean creating a plan and then expecting a rubber stamp because a few people and groups have been allowed to sit at the table. Even here at The Notebook we have to work very hard to make sure that student and other grassroots voices are truly heard.

Listening to community voices – really listening – doesn’t mean that District leaders must cede their decision-making authority. By contrast, such listening and responsiveness is a characteristic of visionary, confident leadership.

Since PSU and YUC began trying to influence what their high school education looks like, a generation of students has come and gone. But they are still at it. That says something. District leaders would do well to ask themselves whether they are really paying attention.

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Comments (14)

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on February 8, 2009 8:00 pm

There are three parts to the educational equation: Students, teachers/schools, and parents/community. All three must pull their own weight and function at a minimum level in order for a school system to be successful. All three segments must also be given a significant voice within the school district. I agree with Dale when she says, "community engagement . . . doesn’t mean just asking for opinions and then taking them or leaving them." The district must really listen.

At the same time, all of us must crawl before we can walk. In other words, we must have our priorities in order and take care of first things first. With teachers, this means working to the best of our ability to give ALL students a quality education. We must work diligently to get to know our students so we can give them the services they need.

The same goes for students. They must hold themselves--and each other--accountable to high standards. They must take responsibility for their OWN educations. Our city's youth should not resort to making excuses. The PSU does great work, but earlier this year during a student brawl at Sayre, union members overlooked the violent and disrespectful behavior of their peers and turned their attention to other issues. In a school system that sets high standards, this can not happen.

As for parents and the community, the basics must be covered first: Children should be taught proper communication skills and probelm solving stragtegies, and how to deal with conflict nonviolently. They should be taught proper nutrition, how to follow a schedule, and the overall importance of getting an education, among many other things. Once parents take care of the basics, then their voice will take on more power and relevance within the district.

All of us must step up to the plate together. When everyone takes responsibility and does their equal share, I'm sure the district will truly listen to our voice.

Submitted by Eric Braxton on February 10, 2009 6:03 pm

The first reaction of most adults when we hear about a "student brawl" is to blame it on out of control students, but the causes and solutions to such incidents are much more complicated. In my experience, the Student Union has done an excellent job of trying to identify the underlying causes of school violence and address those. I don't know the specifics of this incident at Sayre, but I know that in many of the schools that I have been in, the main cause of school violence is an overall school climate that is disrespectful to everyone involved, but especially to students. We have tried adding more and more punishments for students and it doesn't work. What we need to do is to create a school climate where everyone feels known, cared about, and respected. This is what the Student Union members at Sayre were trying to do and what so many adults in our schools fail to understand.

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on February 12, 2009 8:21 pm

I’ve been teaching in the Philadelphia School District for 12 years, so I am well aware of the causes and effects of student behavior. School culture is very important, and an unruly building can have a negative impact on a school. Since you’re not familiar with the incident that took place at Sayre this past September (9/17/08) allow me to explain: Several students arrived to school that day at 9:45 am, an hour and 45 minutes late. A city police officer turned them away at the door because of dress-code violations. A student tried to enter anyway, sparking a physical confrontation with security. That mushroomed into a series of fights inside the school, causing the school to be locked down for an hour. Two students were charged with assaulting police, one was charged with assaulting a teacher, and 17 were charged with disorderly conduct. The Philadelphia Student Union showed up several weeks later and held a protest in front of Sayre. They’re only gripe: That Philadelphia police were too rough with the students. Ironically enough, no formal complaint was ever filed against the police, nor was there any report of excessive force given to the principal or school officials. In essence, the PSU missed a golden opportunity to hold their peers accountable for coming to school on time; for following the dress code; for respecting police officers; for respecting teachers; for respecting themselves. None of this was mentioned during the protest. Motivation comes from within. Your idea that the “school climate” is solely to blame for misbehavior is dangerous. In essence it is saying that it is okay to give up on school, that just because learning conditions aren’t up to par, teenagers are absolved of responsibility for their own schooling, and have the right to point fingers and place blame. THE STUDENTS ARE THE CLIMATE. If students are going to be successful in Philadelphia public schools, we ALL must step up to the plate. We ARE the system, and we must stop making excuses.

Submitted by Leo (not verified) on February 13, 2009 12:28 am

I'm curious about the level of detail you have surrounding this incident, as the stories I've heard from students were very different. Were you there? Have you spoken with any students to get their side of the story?

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on February 13, 2009 6:22 pm

The incident at Sayre was covered by the Inquirer. Both Sayre students and PSU members were interviewed. Here's the link:

I don't want to come off like I'm slinging mud here, I just wanted to make a point about taking responsibility for your actions. We ALL must take responsibility: Teachers, police, parents, everyone.

Submitted by Eric Braxton on February 13, 2009 8:27 pm

Point 1: Denying students access to school based on uniform policy is against School District procedure. I'm not saying students were right to force their way in the school, but this is a case in point about how denying students rights creates a culture of disrespect that results in violent incidents. When students know that even the rights they have on paper can be violated without recourse they loose faith in the system and see no reason to follow the rules.

Point 2: We need to listen to students. Your complaint is that the Student Union did not admonish their peers for their behavior. Most adults focus all the attention on what students did wrong without looking at all of the other factors. I'm not saying students shouldn't be held responsible for their actions, just that there is already a lot of attention put on student behavior and not much on other factors. Maybe we should try listening to students to find out why they are acting out. Maybe they know something about what is not working in the schools. Even if we don't like all of their behaviors, we might learn something if we learn how to listen.

Point 3: Former Police Chief Sylvester Johnson used to say that we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem. Similarly, we cannot punish our way out our discipline problems. If that was going to work, it would have a long time ago. This does not mean that students are justified in breaking rules or that we should condone their behavior. It just means that we can keep blaming them for breaking rules until we are blue in the face and it will continue not to work or we can try to look at root causes and address those. I think that students should be held responsible for their actions, but that this should be done in a context of creating a climate where everyone feels respected and everyone has responsibility for their actions.

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on February 14, 2009 6:02 pm


In January of 2008, I published a commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer called, “Better way to police teens”. In it I talked about the issues of communication—how students, teachers, and police must watch their tone of voice, develop better listening skills, and be more aware of the other person’s personal situation. I posted the article on the blog I host. You should give it a quick read—I think you’ll find we’re on the same side. Here’s the link:

With this said, we must be careful not to generalize. You say in your comments, “Most adults focus all the attention on what students did wrong without looking at all of the other factors.” This is hardly the case. The majority of adults in Philadelphia schools are trained educators who understand diversity issues and the psychology of young people, and know how to resolve conflict respectfully. The school where I teach, Swenson Arts and Technology, is a case in point. We have a culture of mutual respect, and we’ve made AYP two out of the last three years.

You also say, “there is already a lot of attention put on student behavior and not much on other factors.” This is another generalization. Teachers and principals regularly work with counselors, student government, home and school associations, parent ombudsmen, gay-straight alliance groups, etc., to get to the root of behavior problems We are constantly looking at the “other” factors, communicating with students to try to understand why they act out.

Obviously, you’ve had experiences that prove otherwise. Can you tell me specifically how students’ rights are being violated at school? You speak as if it’s a common occurrence, and I’d just like to have specific examples so I can better understand your point of view. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been teaching in the Philadelphia School District for 12 years. Prior to this, I worked as a substitute for two years. I coach cross country and track, and I’ve been to schools all over the city. From my experience, students are mostly treated with respect by teachers, administrators and other adults.

Please provide me with specifics so I can be better aware of the situation.

--Chris Paslay

Submitted by Eric Braxton on February 15, 2009 7:27 pm

I agree that there are many dedicated and hardworking educators in the Philadelphia schools who really care about students. I also think that the majority of students are respectful of adults and their peers. My concern is not with individuals. I have been in some schools that are plagued by constant fights and disruptions. I do not think that these schools have worse students or worse teachers than other schools. I think these schools have a culture of disrespect.

Two years ago I spent a lot of time in such a school. As an adult running a program in the school, school security would sometimes scream at me about who I was and where I was going. If they treated me this way, you can only imagine the way they treated students. I saw staff curse at students and push students in to lockers. Students who felt they were mistreat had no recourse.

Many people wanted to blame the problems in this school on out of control students. I had spent enough time in the school to know that there were deeper causes. Teacher absenteeism was extremely high so students were being taught by strings of substitutes and little learning was going on in their classes. Because of teacher shortages rosters were constantly changing creating overall chaos, and as mentioned above school security was often escalating conflicts. When students are surrounded by this kind of chaos, many of them react badly to it. I am not excusing their behavior, but the solution to that school's problems was not calling out students for bad behavior. The solution was to address the underlying chaos in the school.

This is what the Student Union members at Sayre were trying to point out. That there were some underlying causes of problems there that needed to be addressed (probably not as bad as the problems in the school I mentioned above). If we keep just blaming the students we miss some of the real problems.

I think if we can learn to really listen to students, we might learn a lot about the problems in our schools. Sometimes they might say things in ways we do not like, but that doesn't mean we cannot learn from them.

I think that everyone in schools needs to be held accountable for their actions and everyone needs to be listened to about their experiences and their ideas to fix schools. When a group of students speaks out about problems in their school, we should listen, not blame them for getting the problem wrong. Maybe they caught something we missed.

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on February 15, 2009 8:58 pm

I agree with everything you are saying. Every school must maintain a culture of mutual respect between all parties. And everyone should be listened to, especially students (they give a very authentic perspective on their own buildings). As a teacher, I will work to make my colleagues more aware of student rights and perspectives, and you should connect with the PSU to make sure students understand that there are no excuses for inappropriate behavior (not roster changes, not substitute teachers), and that no matter what the underlying issue may be, students must take ownership of their own actions.

You are right when you say, "If we keep just blaming the students we miss some of the real problems." At the same time, the PSU must understand that they can't just keep blaming teachers and schools. This was my original point. I'll advocate for change among teachers, and the PSU must advocate for change among their peers. We should listen to each other, and at the same time, shoulder a fair share of the burden. As the saying goes, "He who is without sin shall cast the first stone."

I'm glad we had this dialogue. You should visit "chalk and talk" once in a while, a blog written by Philadelphia public school teachers. I'd be interested to hear your point of view on some of the topics. Here's the link:


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 10, 2009 1:43 pm

Following the incidents at Sayre High School in September the Philadelphia Student Union took action on several fronts: 1) creating a positive school climate by partnering with Project Grad to create a peer mentoring program, 2) meeting with the head of school security for the district to talk about the way the incident was handled and to promote a climate of justice, and 3) building relationships and communication to improve the climate with respect to interactions between school security/police and students.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 15, 2009 9:05 am

And, what happened at Sayre last September?


What sort of incidents?


Someone wrote on the desks?

What actually happened at Sayre? Tell us...

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on June 15, 2009 10:59 pm

I think Sayre was where some students who showed up late and out of uniform tried to push by security. The police came in and criticized for trying to sort them out. Some people still want to blame the cops for doing their job.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 15, 2009 11:45 pm about the cops who were fired after the school called the Philly cops to quell a riot at Audenreid...

The district's Mr. Golden...then crows about how great it was that the cops got fired by Ramsey...

Well, don't call the cops next time and no-one will get fired...

I think this case is outrageous...

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