Harper Leary | Staff Writer
I began attending William Penn Charter School in Pre-k. I grew up with the kids in my grade. It started with about 30 of us and grew to 120 when we got to eighth grade.
Throughout middle school, I struggled with the school’s lack of diversity and the continuous similarity of each grade. The school is 71% white, and I was a part of that majority.
There were multiple times when students had used slurs, and I believe this happened partly because of the upbringing that Penn Charter gave people. I don’t even remember us having conversations about the incidents. The most that happened with me was discussing why the student had been suspended for a few days. No teachers brought it up, and we never talked about why what they did was wrong.
Penn Charter often continued the bubble that the kids were raised in, usually living in the suburbs, going to private school their whole life, etc. The lack of diversity or crucial conversations about race and sexuality is what I think led to these incidents.
I wanted to attend a school that was more representative of the city I lived in. In addition to the homogeneous student body, I wanted a different learning experience in the classroom. At Penn Charter, I felt that I memorized information for tests and did not absorb it.
We came back to a unit from a few months ago, and I completely forgot what we had learned. I had my notes, and I had the test on which I had done well, but I couldn’t remember any details. I wanted to remember what I was learning and be able to use it in real life.
When I learned about the high school fair at the Convention Center during eighth grade, I went; what harm could it do? My parents made it clear that they would support my choice no matter what. They wanted me to do what I thought was best, making the process that much easier.
I decided only to pursue SLA. There was no other school I was interested in. I was intrigued by their ‘project-based learning’— I had never heard of something like that.
I went to their open house when they were at the School District building due to asbestos. I could immediately tell that there was something special about the school. The students seemed truly happy.
I remember walking down a hall by myself after the tour, and a girl stuck her head out of a classroom and started talking to me. I mentioned that I was there for the tour, and she laughed, saying that she thought I was a student at SLA. She hugged me and went on her way. That interaction was another push to apply; I felt already intertwined in the community.
After applying, I had to present my project as a part of the application process. I used the presentation that I had made to share with the middle school about scuba diving and why I’m passionate about it. I was so nervous that day; I knew subconsciously how badly I wanted to do well.
A few weeks later, I was accepted into the high school. My mom called me to tell me I had been accepted while sitting in the car with my best friend, Grace, who still attends Penn Charter.
I struggled with making the decision, mainly because I only had two weeks to decide. I focused on my first reaction to finding out I got in; joy.
It was a leap of faith that paid off.
Like other current SLA sophomores, my entire first year was virtual. It was hard but worth it.
When sophomore year began, the most noticeable difference of my new school was how different the student body was; not just racial diversity, but also in gender expression, socioeconomic standing, ethnicity, nationality, and life experience. I was suddenly exposed to an environment that looked much more like my city.
Throughout my six months of in-person school, I’ve noticed more differences that aren’t as apparent.
One such difference is the discussions held in class.
I noticed that teachers at Penn Charter often avoided many uncomfortable or ‘controversial’ conversations. In eighth grade, I remember speaking with the librarian about an activist who had advocated for abortion rights. She had brought up the topic, knowing that I was interested in the subject. I knew the teacher pretty well; I was in book club with her. One of my peers had turned to us and asked what we were talking about. I gave him a quick summary and my English teacher at the time overheard what we were discussing.
From what I remember, he asked me not to talk about it anymore, and I was baffled. I believe I had gotten defensive over the fact that I was speaking to another teacher, and he ended up giving me an infraction over it, which I thought was very uncalled for.
We didn’t discuss the Holocaust at length or eugenics in eighth grade while reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It felt like we weren’t going into the necessary depth. We focused more on the ‘motifs’ and ‘themes’ throughout the novel, not the bravery required to persevere.
While reading the same book in tenth grade, we are digging much deeper than before. We are talking about the eugenics movement popular in the United States, showing that it wasn’t just Germany with these ideas. Our English teacher makes it a point to connect everything we talk about to something that feels closer to home; so it has more impact. We have had meaningful discussions about moral dilemmas throughout the novel.
Our meaningful, more direct discussions reflect the intense city life that the SLA community finds itself in the middle of.
A prime example of this is gun violence. SLA has gone into lock-in and lock-down multiple times throughout the year— many of which were because of gun-related incidents.
I have never been scared during a lock-down or lock-in, though they were new experiences, and I suddenly found myself a part of a community affected by gun activity and violence in the city. This required me to change my naive mindset and realize that I now needed to have my thoughts involved.
Many peers of mine are not new to this. These weren’t their first gun-related experiences— some also deal with it closer to their home. Some have lost family members, friends, and neighbors. Learning that this was more common than I realized, I’ve become much more aware and conscious of this issue that impacts our city and now myself.
All of these experiences and memories have shown me how my previous education insulated me from the ‘easy’ real world; where hard conversations are avoided and most people look like you and think like you. And now, I’m exposed to the hard real world. The real world that doesn’t keep everyone sheltered safe but instead prepares them for what it’s truly like— hard.