Last year, Asian immigrant students walked out of South Philadelpha High to protest the administration’s failure to protect them from attacks by blacks. The school is 70 percent black and 18 percent Asian; many are recent immigrants.
A new principal has installed security cameras, hired bilingual staffers, ordered diversity training and started a club to take Asian and black students on group trips. Immigrant students no longer will be isolated (and sheltered) on the second floor. Can South Philly High be saved?
Duong Nghe Ly, a victim of violence and a walk-out leader, is back for his senior year, AP reports. Ly praises the English as a Second Language classes, the caring teachers and the computer lab.
“If I study hard I will get a lot of opportunities, scholarships, grants…,” he says. “It’s rewarding to work hard and study hard here, more than in Vietnam. I can go to a better school, go to college, get a career, then I can take care of my parents. So I like it more here.”
Wali Smith, who holds workshops on anger management and conflict resolution in various schools, said black students resent Asian immigrants “studying on their special second-floor sanctuary,” which offered language classes and a welcoming environment.
“Those (black) kids feel the majority of the staff there does not care about their education,” Smith says. “They see these Asian kids come in and be nurtured, and they want that same kind of comfort.”
Then there is a small group of troublemakers with a value system that says, “it’s cool to be gangster,” Smith says. “But really you’re afraid, a scared coward. So you take advantage of weak people.”
In a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, Ly called for zero tolerance for racism. In the past, some staff members “mimicked our accents, ignored our concerns when students were attacked at school, and showed a lack of understanding.”
Students of different races need a “chance to safely communicate and eliminate misunderstandings,” he wrote. Immigrant students have campaigned “to keep everyone safe regardless of race or language.”
We immigrant students gave up everything in our countries to come to the United States, hoping for a good education and a better future. Getting a good education in a safe school should be a right, not a privilege. We never thought we would have to fight for that right, but we are glad we did.
Ly came to the U.S. speaking very little English in 2008. His parents are poorly educated. His father works as a cook; his mother is unemployed. This summer, Ly held an internship at the University of Pennsylvania on Asian health issues, took a psychology class at a community college and started work on his college essays. He is going to succeed no matter what.
His classmates — black and Asian — will be much more likely to get an education and a decent future if South Philly High stops letting gangstas rule the school.