Themes From Upper Darby School District Stakeholder Interviews

  • In July and August, the Catalyst Community Conversations team conducted in-depth interviews with seventeen (17) people about their experiences with and impressions of the Upper Darby School District.  These stakeholders represented a variety of roles, identities, and connections in relation to the school district – parents, teachers, taxpayers, recent graduates, Township staff, pastors, advocates, consultants, and nonprofit staff involved with youth.  They represented as much as possible the age, racial, ethnic, social, gender and sexuality, and economic diversity in the District and Township.  Some sent children to District schools, others decided to send their children elsewhere.  They also lived in neighborhoods across the District.  The Catalyst Community Conversations team asked for and got their candid stories and observations about what the school system does well and where it falls short.


    The Team has distilled those hours of conversation into a list of cross-cutting themes, which it proposes as the foundation for the community conversation on excellence and equity that the consultants have been asked to help the District conduct.  Those themes are as follows:


    Diversity – An Asset and a Challenge


    In the interviews, more people than not said they count the Upper Darby School District's community’s ethnic, religious and social-economic diversity as powerful and positive, a community strength and a reason to send children to its schools.  However, all acknowledge that this diversity can also spawn misunderstandings, tensions, grievances and pockets of isolation that the District, while certainly aware and well-meaning, must do a better job of recognizing and addressing.


    A key issue is that the diversity of the District’s faculty does not match that of the student body or the larger community, leading to concerns about implicit bias toward students, parents and other District staff.   Some interviewees cited two (2) priorities in this regard: building a diverse recruitment pipeline and building up cultural competence among existing staff.  Some said that past stumbles at staff training around bias and racism must be acknowledged, with lessons learned.


    Resource Imbalances – Inside and Out


    Some interviewees said disparities in resources – books, materials, programs, extracurriculars, physical plant – among District schools seem apparent to them.  The willingness and capacity of parents in some schools to raise money to support programs and extracurriculars for their children – while admirable in itself – tends to accentuate this inequity.  What’s more, Upper Darby School District parents or students have to travel only a few miles, to Lower Merion, Radnor or Media to vividly see how unequally Pennsylvania’s system of education funding distributes opportunity based on zip code.  How might the District work to eliminate internal equity gaps while marshaling its community’s energy and will to push for reform of their state’s systemic inequities?  How might the District engage the various stakeholders to utilize the resources and expertise that exist within the community and with which they would like to become more actively involved?


    Community Engagement – An Island or a Hub?


    Interviewees credit the District with a sincere desire to do better at connecting with all elements of its remarkably diverse community.  Many said the District does a good job of letting the community know what’s going on in the schools.  However, several pointed out that engagement is a not just a matter of 'sending' but also 'receiving' and that the District may have the will but hasn’t yet found the way to operate as a true hub of community.  They said the District has room to improve not just on soliciting feedback, but also showing that it has heard and done something with the input it solicits.  Low parental involvement, they added, at some schools can’t be dismissed as a problem with the parents; it should be addressed creatively as the District’s job to solve.


    People also acknowledge the District has an extraordinarily complex challenge here - serving a community that combines rooted, multigenerational tradition with an influx of newcomers from many different cultures.  Parts of the community, some well-rooted, others lately arrived, could be described as "islands" - isolated from an active sense of belonging in the school community.  Building bridges to these “islands” will require patience, creativity, sincerity, humility and persistence.


    Discipline and Bullying – Real and Hyped


    Upper Darby School District is hardly unusual in having problems with disruptive behavior and bullying that can stress faculty and alarm parents.  It’s also not unusual in that such issues seem worse in its middle schools.  Disruptive behavior - and the perception of disruptive behavior - is a common theme among the various communities.  The interviews revealed the struggle to determine the degree to which it is actually a problem and the degree to which the perceptions are heightened by the age and ethnicities of the students.  Some interviewees assert that poor student behavior requires greater discipline, etc.


    Other interviewees insist implicit bias and a diversity mismatch may lead to disparate treatment of different students for the same behavior.  They believe this might worsen both the reality and perception of behavioral issues in the schools.  They also say this is not only an equity issue in itself, but can also feed a sense of alienation and disrespect in some students, leading to more disruptive behavior.


    Moreover, on a subtler level, veteran faculty and staff often have deep ties to the District, the community and long-time residents and families.  Because they “know” these students, their families and their neighborhoods, they may unconsciously offer more warmth and respect to some students while others students can feel less warmth and a feeling of unequal treatment.   Additionally, of course – while acknowledging that behavioral issues exist - racial biases might contribute to an exaggerated community perception of how unruly District schools actually are.