“More than 500 Manheim Township alumni and students signed a letter sent to the district Thursday imploring it to better educate students about race following the death of George Floyd,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Alex Geli reported in Saturday’s edition. The letter called for a less racially biased curriculum, mandatory anti-racism training for faculty, school assemblies to address racism and the hiring of more teachers of color. Superintendent Robin Felty responded promptly with a lengthy statement outlining the district's diversity efforts.
We find it especially notable that Manheim Township students from across many generations signed this letter.
Individuals who identified “as past and future Manheim Township graduates, from 1967 to 2024” joined the call to address the curriculum and other key issues within the district, Geli reported. That’s an impressive range — nearly six decades.
It is a further sign of the nationwide urgency for this moment to be different. For the widespread outrage over the death of George Floyd and systemic racism in the U.S. to lead to meaningful, fundamental changes.
Changes to make America more just, more equal.
That means within the realm of education, too. In fact, it may be crucial that change starts there.
The letter was written by Grace Torrance, a 2017 graduate. She wrote: “I urge Manheim Township public schools to be accountable for teaching about systemic racism in this country. ... We were not given the tools to actively seek resources to have difficult conversations to move towards becoming anti-racist.”
She adds: “Anti-bias education for children of all ages and grades is one of the many ways to begin creating a future of positive and peaceful change.”
Torrance and the hundreds who signed her letter are not the only ones who see a need for bold changes to public education.
In a column for today’s Opinion section, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera (formerly the superintendent of the School District of Lancaster) writes: “Our education system is not without fault in perpetuating the systemic inequities and institutional bias that many of our communities have accepted as normal. Education is an institution rife with historic inequities in resourcing, inequities in discipline and inequities in opportunity.
“These structures must be dismantled.”
We find such unequivocal boldness refreshing, coming from Harrisburg. But Rivera’s actions and policies must speak louder than those words. We hope his vision — his rejection of the status quo as insufficient — leads to real change within Pennsylvania public education. We urge lawmakers to support future Department of Education proposals that would dismantle the “systemic inequities and institutional bias” to which Rivera refers.
Rivera is correct, too, when he writes that schools and teachers are “change agents and community leaders.” And Torrance is correct that our schools must do better at educating students on the history of racism and the systemic ways in which it poisons the fabric of modern American society.
Sarah Svetec, a 2016 Manheim Township graduate, also addressed this point at Thursday’s school board work session: “Racial biases do exist. They can be addressed at school, a place where they can be unlearned.”
To be clear: This isn’t about the educational system indoctrinating young people with liberal ideas. Anti-racism is nonpartisan. It’s about teaching students the real history of the United States and the challenges we face in 2020 in living up to the ideals on which the U.S. was founded.
To have useful conversations in our classrooms about race, racism and anti-racism, we must confront uncomfortable truths. And more of those necessary conversations, Rivera notes correctly, must be led by minority educators, “so more students see teachers, principals and superintendents that look like them at school.”
Conservative columnist David French wrote this month about the unproductive ways in which discussions about race, bias and police brutality are too-often politicized. There is a need, he wrote, for conservatives to consider a reframing of these issues: “It’s hard even to begin to describe all the ramifications of 345 years of legalized oppression and 56 years of contentious change ... but the central and salient consideration of American racial politics shouldn’t center around pride in how far we’ve come, but in humble realization of how much farther we have to go.”
We have so much farther to go. In classrooms, streets and workplaces. Peaceful protesters and thoughtful letter-writers are telling us that, loud and clear.
Returning to Manheim Township, we were heartened by the swiftness and detail of Felty’s response. We hope it’s just a start. As with Rivera and the state Department of Education, Manheim Township School District will be judged by actions, not words. (And it must be said that the spotlight Torrance’s letter places on Manheim Township should be expanded to all of our county’s school districts. There is work to be done everywhere.)
Felty made some encouraging points. She acknowledged that diversity and equity are “key components” of the district's current strategic plan. She mentioned “recruitment strategies” to hire teachers with “varied backgrounds and experiences that are representative of our community.”
And with regard to Manheim Township’s curriculum, Felty wrote: “We do facilitate dialogue about racism that is age-appropriate and meaningful given the context of the course. This dialogue occurs within various departments at the secondary levels ... and is embedded in a historical context or a current event, including open class discussions that encourage healthy dialogue among students that allows for diverse opinions expressed in respectful ways.”
We hope that approach continues to be refined. And that it leads to classroom conversations about race and racism that are more constructive than the ones Manheim Township students had in 1967, 1987 or even 2017.
And we hope students from future Manheim Township graduating classes who signed Torrance’s letter can look back and see that their advocacy made a difference.