Inspired by their collective experiences during June protests for justice for George Floyd, high school students from both sides of the “City Line Divide” are challenging the education inequity between city and suburban schools here.
City Line Avenue has historically served as a dividing line between West Philadelphia and some of its wealthiest suburbs. It marks a stark contrast between predominantly white, middle-class and wealthy residents in suburbs like Ardmore, Lower Merion and Bala Cynwyd, and predominantly Black West Philadelphia, where residents tend to be middle- to lower-income.
On Aug. 30 an estimated 150 people, including students from Lower Merion High School in Ardmore and Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, took to the streets demanding a change to an economic system that allocates $26,422 annually per student in Lower Merion, while just four miles away less than $14,400 a year is spent per Philadelphia student. The annual average household income in Lower Merion is $131,000, compared to under $35,000 in the neighborhoods surrounding Overbrook High.
The march, which included Lower Merion High School seniors affiliated with the group “I Will Breathe” and members of the Philadelphia Student Union, started with a rally at the Cynwyd Station Park in Bala Cynwyd, just west of the city.
It was followed by a solidarity march to Tustin Playground and Recreation Center across the street from Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia, located across City Line Avenue from Lower Merion. The marchers led with a large yellow banner reading: “Lower Merion-Overbrook/Student Solidarity/Break the Divide of City Line.”
“Breaking the divide” must go beyond economic inequity. For too long Black parents have also complained about the racism they and their children have experienced in the Lower Merion school district. Following the protests for George Floyd in June, it was reported that racist social media posts circulated there. One particularly disturbing and offensive post included two white students pretending to reenact Floyd’s murder.
The district has also had controversies over school busing changes that disproportionately disadvantage Black students.
Kisara Freeman, one of the Lower Merion students, stated, “I believe a lot of people in Lower Merion, including myself, have grown up in a bubble and have not understood that 17-year-olds just across the street don’t get the same education that we do.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 31)
Saudia Durrant, an organizer with Philadelphia Student Union, described the experiences of Black youth: “We’re in a moment where we don’t feel like our health is secure. We don’t feel like our housing, maybe our livelihood, is secure. We don’t feel like our loved ones are secure. That’s what it’s been like for Black youth in this country, long before 2020.” (Inquirer)
Caitlin McGinty, one of the rally organizers, urged students to work together to address the education disparities: “We are here because we refuse to participate in a system that favors us and neglects our friends across the street. …for too long we have knowingly and unknowingly reinforced a sociopolitical system that divides urban and suburban schools.”