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Beating the odds in Philly’s public school system: ‘I am more than a statistic’

Almost 10 years after William Griffin’s high school orientation, one memory still stands out in his mind. 

“My principal sat us in the auditorium and said, ‘Look to your left, look to your right. The student next to you will not be there when you reach graduation.’ These moments shaped the way I viewed high school,” recalls Griffin, a 2011 graduate of Jules E. Mastbaum High School, a career and technical education high school in Kensington.

I graduated with Griffin and vividly remember the sense of doom that came over the auditorium when our principal said those words. 

At 15 years old, hearing such a discouraging message from an adult authority figure felt like it further proved that our chances of succeeding in life were bleak. Only worrying about our existence as teenagers in a new school was a privilege we didn’t get to have. 

Although the principal’s message isn’t reflected in Mastbaum’s most recent four-year graduation rate, which was 89% in 2020, only 15% of 2020 graduates enrolled in college the following fall. So there is a disconnect between simply graduating and actually receiving the quality education needed to succeed in life after high school.

Video by Solmaira Valerio

In Philly, access to quality education remains unequal

All Philly schools have a School Progress Report (SPR) score that measures the schools’ performance in academic achievement, progress, school climate, and college and career readiness. Schools with a 0-24% score are recommended for intervention because, according to the School District of Philadelphia’s schools database, “performance is low and change is required.” Mastbaum’s score was 21% for the 2018-19 school year; due to COVID-19, no SPR was calculated for 2019-20. 

But this isn’t a Mastbaum problem; it’s a school district problem. Mastbaum’s graduation rate is actually the highest in the neighborhood. In the Kensington area, the difference between the four high schools’ graduation rates and SPR scores for the 2018-19 year was stark:

The overall four-year graduation rate of all schools in Philly is 76%,with an overall SPR score of 44%. According to the School District of Philadelphia, schools with a score from 25-49% need “intensive support in order to improve.”

Pennsylvania’s gaps in access to educational opportunity rank among the five worst nationwide in terms of both race and poverty, according to local nonprofit Research for Action’s 2020 study “Unequal Access to Educational Opportunity Among Pennsylvania’s High School Students.”  

In Pennsylvania, Black and Hispanic students are disproportionately enrolled in high-poverty high schools that provide fewer educational opportunities. Those students account for 65% of those schools’ populations. Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic students make up only 8% of low-poverty high schools and 17% of mid-poverty ones, and those schools provide more access to opportunities. Asian students account for 5% of the population in both high and low-poverty schools. Mastbaum’s student population is 44% Black and 45% Hispanic, making up 89% of the school’s population. 

Despite the fact that nearly 70 years ago the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional, American schools remain segregated today. Countless articles (here, here, and here) have addressed the issue.

The quality and funding of public education in Pennsylvania can also affect some students and their communities beyond graduation. High-poverty schools provide fewer educational opportunities. The fewer educational opportunities students have, the less likely they are to get a high school or college degree. 

And even if one can attain a high school diploma, it does not mean that they will be able to break out of poverty. According to a 2020 congressional report on Demographic and Social Characteristics of Persons in Poverty: 2018, nearly 55% of the country’s working-age adults in poverty only had a high school degree. 

A walking statistic 

In 2011, I became the first in my family to graduate high school and attend college. 

When I first transferred to Temple from the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), it felt surreal to think I had even made it this far in my life. However, being a first-generation college student was a lonely experience. I didn’t have anyone who understood and could help guide me; I just figured it out on my own. 

I was also constantly code-switching in and out of this new world of higher education that I suddenly had access to. I felt like there was no place for my authentic self to exist anymore, both at school and outside of it. Instead, just diminished versions of myself that met others’ expectations. 

My time at Temple became lonelier and felt dehumanizing when I quickly realized I was the poster example of a minority beating the odds. 

I remember sitting in one of my first classes at Temple when our professor shared some statistics about how Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) have a higher chance of experiencing poverty and unemployment due to a lack of quality education. A majority of my classmates were shocked at this new information. As a Latina with an immigrant father and a mother who moved from Puerto Rico to North Philly, this was not news to me. But I did realize that my friends, family, and I are some of those people who make up these statistics. 

I don’t know if I was more upset at the fact that I was in a sea of students who did not and could not understand my experience because of their privilege or at the fact that the mere existence of people like me was reduced into a number. 

I think about this moment a lot and about how it has left me feeling unheard and unseen. I remembered how I felt the same way when I was at Mastbaum, and I wondered how my fellow high school graduates must feel today. 

More than a statistic 

It’s officially been a decade since Mastbaum’s class of 2011 has graduated. We’ve overcome and accomplished so much more than society ever acknowledges. 

So to create a space for people to reclaim their own narratives and to put a face to the statistics that erase our stories, I connected with eight graduates from Jules E. Mastbaum High School. In a series of personal essays, those graduates shared their personal experiences in Philadelphia’s public school system and their resiliency in overcoming challenges brought on by unequal access to high-quality education. 

Most importantly, we are more than just a number. We are mothers, fathers, real estate agents, artists, first-generation graduates, essential workers, entrepreneurs, and survivors. 

We triumphed despite having the odds stacked against us and these are our stories.


Editors: Zari Tarazona, Henry Savage / Designer: Henry Savage

If you’re interested in sharing your experiences with Kensington’s schools, send an email to editors@kensingtonvoice.com, and we’ll consider publishing it in our Voices section.

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