For years, the hallways of Mastery Charter School-Pickett Campus were decorated with colorful bulletin boards announcing their core mission and motto: “Excellence. No Excuses.” The administration that ran the charter high school placed a huge premium on academic achievement for the students Pickett served in North Philadelphia, PA. In many measures, their efforts toward academic excellence succeeded.
Pickett’s high schoolers had made such impressive strides that in a speech to the National Urban League in 2010, President Obama singled out the school as a model of success: “One school called Pickett went from just 14 percent of students being proficient in math to almost 70 percent.” The President also boasted that a few of the Mastery charter schools [of which Pickett is one] had doubled or even tripled their reading and math levels in just two years. “Now, if a school like Mastery can do it, every troubled school can do it.”
Pickett, a neighborhood high school in the Germantown community of Philadelphia that serves about 900 students, 100 percent of whom are from low-income households and 96 percent of whom are Black, deserves accolades for its academic achievement. The “Excellence. No Excuses” model succeeded in elevating students’ test scores, grades, and college admission. But as many other schools have realized in recent years, “no excuse” schooling that was so strict and controlling happened at a high cost to the students. Once in college, Pickett graduates reported back that they found themselves unprepared for conceptual thinking, their writing was formulaic, and they were unaccustomed to the autonomy. One student reported that he was still asking for permission to go to the bathroom in class.
As a result, the entire Mastery network, including Pickett, moved away from the no excuses model. Pickett shifted its focus to offer students more agency and include more collaborative learning. But it wasn’t until the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide reckoning that racism permeates so many facets of our institutions, that Pickett decided to step back and rethink all of their practices and policies to dismantle the biases and inequities their students face. Pickett decided to become an anti-racist school.
The rise of the anti-racist school
Education experts have long known that racism — the systemic oppression of people of color based on social and legal structures that privilege white people — has severe consequences for students of color. When students feel stigmatized by their racial difference, they suffer emotionally and academically. “It’s harder to pay attention in class, persist at difficult tasks, and motivate yourself to be fully engaged,” explains Howard Stevenson, professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Over time, he says, the experience of racism “leads to decreased academic performance.”
Research has also found that a plethora of education policies that many would not consider consciously racist have had disproportionate effects on students of color. For instance, policies that allow only high-performing students to take advanced classes in high school can unintentionally discriminate against students of color whose middle schools did not offer more rigorous classes. Similarly, seniority rules in unions that allow experienced teachers to choose where they teach can have the unintended effect of routing the most inexperienced teachers into lower-performing schools. Since inexperienced teachers are on the whole less effective, students of color, who are more likely to attend low-performing schools, are more likely to be taught by less effective teachers. Zero-tolerance discipline results in Black students facing disproportionately harsher punishments than white students. Black students make up 16 percent of the student population in the U.S., but they make up 42 percent of all students who have been suspended multiple times.
Even the very policies that were created to improve outcomes for students of color have had unintended negative consequences. Many educators have observed that the single-minded focus on closing the achievement gap has sometimes led to a narrowing of the curriculum and a reliance on rote learning. Similarly, the focus on teaching students of color what they need to know to succeed in a white dominant society has often resulted in a curriculum with little that addresses their own culture and life experiences. The teachings often do little to place value on their identity, intellect, and joy.
Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor emeritus of education at University of Wisconsin, Madison, explained how these policies and practices, along with systems that reinforce racial inequality, work together to create outsized obstacles for students of color. The “historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral decisions and policies that characterize our society have created an education debt” for Black and Brown students, she wrote, and they are the ones paying for it.
Schools that embrace anti-racism commit to dismantling any policies or systems that prevent an equitable education for all students. For Pickett, this meant creating a new north star.
How one school rethought everything they do
Principal Margaux Munnelly has served as the principal of the Pickett Campus since 2016. After the murder of George Floyd, the staff met and talked about how their school was going to respond. “We realized we had to do more,” she says.
For her, the anti-racist work started with the creation of a new vision that abandons the narrowly academic “Excellence. No excuses.” focus.
“Pickett is a culturally competent, high-achieving beacon of the community, where students love to learn and develop positive identities, and where staff grow and reflect in their practice, pursue equity, and create affirming spaces,” says Munnelly, reciting the school’s vision statement by heart. It all began by “distilling what we wanted to do and writing it down in a vision statement… everything that we do goes back to that vision statement: What are we driving towards? Any practice or decision that we make, how is it aligned with this vision?”
Staff, students, and families were involved in crafting this new vision that did not embody white culture, explains Assistant Principal NaaAmerely Badger. The staff also created their own tenets to “pursue equity, work towards the good, model life-long learning, and promote community.”
Many schools have equity-focused vision statements, which amount to no more than a PR performance. Badger says that Pickett’s evolution went deeper because they focused on changing the hearts and minds of the adults in the building. “We started with the leadership team,” she explains.
Principal Munnelly, a white woman, admits that she has had to look at the way that she “perpetuate[s] white dominant culture.” Munnelly says a constant question for her is to ask, “How do I leverage my power and privilege to enact change? And make school more equitable for the Black and Brown students?”
The efforts made by the Pickett staff and faculty to become a consciously anti-racist school has resulted in dramatic changes that include more student voice and choice so that students choose the classes they want to take, instead of being assigned courses solely based on academic performance. Also, to support cultural identity, the school significantly relaxed their uniform policy, allowing students to have several “dress down” days and ensuring they won’t be harshly disciplined for uniform infractions.
Perhaps more meaningful, the school’s new focus has made teachers realize how many damaging assumptions they had about their students and their families, assumptions that colored their interactions with students and parents and affected their learning. By raising awareness about staff’s unconscious biases, the school has succeeded in doing something that many schools struggle to do: change its culture.
Over the past few years, Munnelly says that diversity, equity, and inclusion surveys of teachers suggest the school is moving in the right direction. In 2016, the staff rated the school at a 3.9 out of 10. In 2021, it jumped to 7.0, the highest rating Pickett has ever had. Pickett has also made significant changes to their curriculum by adding a social justice class and an African-American history class. In literature courses, says Munnelly, teachers discuss “inequity in anything they read…” and push students to consider, ‘How would this play out differently if this character was a person of color?’”
The slow, steady process of becoming an anti-racist school
While they have made progress, Munnelly says that becoming an anti-racist school is a journey, not a destination. Pickett is still a school within a charter system like many other high schools within districts. It is not uncommon for schools to have to work within and against the systems they are in, so there is only so much in their control.
Principal Munnelly acknowledges that Pickett has “certainly not arrived fully into the very school we’ve declared that what we endeavor to be.” Even so, says Munnelly, “We have made really strategic decisions this year to get us ever closer to that end… We also have to acknowledge that we are working with a system that is built on white supremacy and has thrived under those norms and values.” Creating an anti-racist culture is not a matter of checking items off a list. It takes the patience to realize that dismantling white dominant culture “is a very difficult and complex thing. So we are constantly considering how to use our power and privilege.”
What anti-racist practices in education can look like
Pickett is just one example of a school that has embraced an anti-racist mission. There are a number of large, and smaller, ways that a school can pursue equity. Those can include, but aren’t limited to:
- Providing professional development for staff to become aware of biases and how those biases affect their mindset, teaching practice, and the students they serve.
- Implementing inclusive community decision-making. This might include inviting parents and students to weigh in on a school’s mission, vision, policies, and curriculum.
- Hiring and recruiting a diverse staff that is committed to equitable education.
- Creating a curriculum that considers a schools’ particular population. This curriculum might include teaching them to critique social inequities, work on their “cultural competence” to affirm and appreciate their culture of origin and social identity, and learn in-depth about at least one other culture.
- Using their language of origin as a teaching strategy.
- Rethinking allocation of resources to ensure the students with the most need receive services and support.
- Designing transparent discipline policies that foster strong positive relationships and check staff biases.
How to learn more about anti-racism education
- When touring a school or even thinking about your current school, it’s worth starting a conversation about how the school is addressing race from different angles. Here is a list of questions to ask your school or district about race and anti-racism.
- The website EmbraceRace provides resources for raising children who are informed and thoughtful about race.
For educators & administrators:
- Learn how to build an equitable organization by getting racial literacy training through The Lion’s Story.
- These books offers a good primer in taking an anti-racist stance at your school:
• In Cultivating Genius, Gholdy E. Muhammad presents a four-part framework — one grounded in history that seeks to enhance basic skills-driven instruction by supporting teachers in developing students’ skills, intellect, identity, criticality, and joy.
• Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain by Zaretta L. Hammond offers a framework for educators to elevate all students’ engagement.
This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.