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By the Way: A plea for cultural change

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Drew Vogelsang, an alumnus of New Hope-Solebury schools, joined by Anthony Lagana, Shaelyn Parker, Eric Luo and Alexa Ghiz, gathered signatures on a letter last week to the school administration.

High schools across Bucks County are engaging in similar petitions to fight white supremacy within their curricula. The effort includes Bensalem, Central Bucks East.

“In less than 24 hours, over 350 NH-S students, alumni, parents, faculty, staff and community members have pledged their support for the letter, many of whom shared personal statements regarding their time at NH-S,” Vogelsang said. The letter expresses disappointment with the school district’s handling of the Black Lives Matter movement and combating white supremacy and systemic racism in the schools.

Following are excerpts from the letter, which was directed to Dr. Charles Lentz, superintendent, Liz Sheehan, school board president, and Dr. Charles Malone, director of education. The letter was written in response to a district letter sent to parents of current students.

“We, the current students, alumni, parents, and community of New Hope-Solebury School District, are writing to you regarding what we feel are the insufficient ways in which systemic racism is currently being addressed in New Hope-Solebury’s curricula and culture.

“... The District’s current plan for ‘No Place for Hate’ is not the first iteration of this program to be implemented in our schools, and lacks a clear plan to spur action and awareness in our community. Moreover, the choice to send the letter solely to the parents, instead of making it available on the district’s website, has created ambiguity for alumni and community members over the district’s stance on systemic racism and white supremacy.”

The petition calls on the district to address the community with a detailed plan of actionable steps taking into account four requests.

“New Hope-Solebury has played an important role in providing a safe and encouraging place for us to grow as students and world citizens,” the letter to administrators says. “We each have had our lives positively impacted by the care of hardworking teachers and staff who opened our minds to a range of issues, fields, and passions. However, this has all occurred within the confines of what we refer to as the ‘New Hope Bubble.’

“In a district that is 92 percent white, meaningful engagement with racial issues is rare while frequent microaggressions and more overt racist acts are not uncommon.”

The petition proposes the following list of tangible actions:

- A change in curriculum that actively combats inherent bias and systemic racism by engaging with, and educating through, the non-white perspective in history, literature and art.

- Correcting the underrepresentation of black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) as leaders, writers, artists, and thinkers. The examples should include not just hardship and strife, but also pride and diversity of cultures.

- Utilizing social studies courses to address not only our country’s foundational history of white supremacy, but also the enduring effects these systems maintain in modern America.

- A change in culture that engages in continued education of the ways systemic racism and white supremacy pervade lives and how students can acknowledge and combat such systems of oppression.

- Encourages the student body to take an active approach to discussing the difficult topics of race and racism in the United States.

- Emphasizing the contributions BIPOC have made in the fields of art and music.

- Creating a committee that oversees the implementation of anti-racism into the district’s curriculum and culture and gives regular updates on progress in realizing the goals of racial equality.

- Releasing a public, detailed statement that acknowledges the district’s stance on white supremacy and systemic racism.

- Creating a titled administrative position that focuses specifically on general diversity and inclusivity with regards to pay, administrative support, and schoolwide culture.

- Encouraging a diversity of races, backgrounds and voices as staff, teachers, and board members and reaching out to historically black colleges and universities when seeking applicants for positions.

“While our history curriculum examines slavery and the civil rights movement, the conversation rarely extends beyond the 1960s and into the purview of modern-day institutional racism, police brutality, and mass incarceration,” the petition says.

The letter to the administration suggests writers who could be added to the curriculum including James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Robin DiAngelo, Maya Angelou, Jericho Brown, Gregory Paldrow, Alex Haley and James McBride. And it recommends musicians and artists to be studies, including Kehinde Wiley, Jacob Lawrence, Basquiat, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, Ella Fitzgerald, Jeremy O. Harris, August Wilson, Audra McDonald, Abbie Mitchell and Bob Cole.

The letter also suggests hosting guest speakers, training counselors to effectively support minority students, and providing resources for parents to continue the conversation about race at home. It recommends developing implicit bias, communication strategies, and anti-racism training among faculty and sharing content of the training with the public.

“By implementing these necessary and overdue changes,” the letter concludes, “we believe that the New Hope-Solebury School District would be living up to its mission of engaging, enriching, and empowering students through an education that is aware of the realities that exist within our small town and the world at large.”

The letter offers background reading with such articles as “How White Students Reap Benefit from Teachers of Color” in The Atlantic, and “Even Babies Discriminate” in Newsweek.


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