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Healing Minds, Nurturing Futures: Philadelphia Schools Embrace Mental Health Partnerships

May 15, 2024 Category: Column

There is a long history of insufficient resources and care allotted to the Black and Brown students of Philadelphia public schools, a history that has affected the socioeconomic outcomes of Philadelphia communities for several generations. In response to the long-held accusations of neglect towards Black students in Philadelphia, Tony B. Watlington Sr., Ed.D., Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia announced a recent partnership that may be able to bridge the gap between students and critical services.

On February 21, 2023, Philadelphia high school students received digital mental health and well-being resources through a partnership with Kooth, an international leader in online youth mental health. Between September and December, nearly 18,000 students at 139 schools across the district received individual support and services from counselors. According to district officials, students were supported through grief and loss, anger management, coping skills, controlling emotions, self-esteem, crisis management, and safety procedures. According to Walington on the School District of Philadelphia’s website, “The mental health of our students remains a top priority. We hope that Kooth will be a helpful resource for our high schoolers if and when they need it!”

Kooth partnership advertisement. Source: School District of Philadelphia’s website

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 The partnership with Kooth is a clear attempt to remedy the relationship between the School District and the Black students and families it serves, but is only a first step in addressing the larger issues at hand, most of which are systemic.  

One important barrier to optimal care at school for Black and Brown students, is that their specific demographic is most likely not to be physically in attendance to receive it. For Black and Brown students, there are extenuating circumstances that make attending school a challenge. According to a  Philadelphia Inquirer, “In Philadelphia, absenteeism is especially acute for Black and brown students living in poverty, confronting safety fears, mental health issues, and upheaval caused by the pandemic. Some students work, care for younger siblings or elderly family members, move from home to home, or are homeless.” 

Beyond those obstacles,  a deeper examination of chronic absenteeism within Philadelphia schools reveals a direct correlation to racial disparities within the classroom. According to a data report by 6abc, students of color are between 3.7 and 5.5 times more likely to miss school due to disciplinary action. The report found that, Disparities in school discipline often stem from misinterpretation of behaviors fueled by implicit bias.” The result is that “Black and brown kids are more likely to be suspended for subjective reasons”, and that Black and brown students’ behavior is at risk of being labeled “disrespectful” or “defiant” by teachers and principals who have been steeped in stereotypes that students of color are “aggressive, loud, violent, criminal”, according to Dr. Heather Bennett, Director of Equity Services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.


Source: U.S. Department of Education’s 2018 Civil Rights Data Collection • 6abc analysis


The data presented by 6abc demonstrates a clear color bias present within  Philadelphia schools, which is inherently damaging to the overall well-being of students of color – specifically affecting Black students at a much higher rate. The presence of prejudiced teachers  who frequently fail to consider cultural variations in behavioral norms when setting expectations for their students – even when they exhibit the same behaviors as their peers of different racial backgrounds – creates an inequitable and unsafe learning environment for students of color, especially Black students. 

The repercussions of disproportionate discipline extend far beyond the classroom, echoing and perpetuating racial disparities evident in various facets of society. Dr. David Thomas, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Community Engagement at Community College of Philadelphia, stated in the same 6abc report that, “Schools serve as a microcosm of those sorts of inequities, and if they’re not addressed, not discussed, not dismantled in schools, then they will be perpetuated externally.” This is another systemic obstacle that the partnership with Kooth can illuminate through its relationship with Philadelphia students and begin to address: children exposed to racially disparaging environments learn that even if they grapple with mental or emotional challenges, the very individuals positioned to support them—teachers—might disregard their concerns or, worse, label their reactions as inappropriate or offensive. This fosters a culture where students of color feel silenced and overlooked.

The narrative of systemic oppression isn’t novel, yet its impact on students of color seeking and embracing help is crucial. It erects barriers, impeding students of color from accessing the necessary care. There is a long history of mistrust of the health system by communities of color. Stigmas and other barriers often prevent people of African descent from seeking treatment in order to maintain good mental health. The Philadelphia Sun reports that communities originating from the Black diaspora are affected by generational trauma, which presents a barrier to feeling comfortable admitting that they need mental or emotional care. In the article, Marilyn Kai Jewett was quoted as saying, “the descendants of the enslaved Africans who were transported to the Caribbean, Central, South and North America especially, suffer from generational trauma that has been passed down subconsciously since the enslavement, through Reconstruction when the KKK was formed, through Jim Crow racism to the school to prison pipeline of today as described by Dr. Joy DeGruy.” She further explained, “Being stressed and depressed are often the result of being oppressed.”

Not only do communities originating from the Black diaspora have an avoidant attitude when it comes to seeking mental and emotional health treatment, but mental health in itself remains a taboo topic within the Black community. The fear and shame associated with acknowledging mental health challenges act as significant barriers, deterring many from seeking help. Healthy Minds Philly reports data that suggests fear of what others will think of them or the things they will think of themselves stems from a common ideology within the Black community not to tell your business to strangers, to have better faith in God, and to pray your problems away. With this in mind, we can draw the theoretical conclusion that students are learning unhealthy coping mechanisms from their parents, further exacerbating the barriers to seeking emotional and mental healthcare. The Healthy Minds Philly article features an interview from Imani Badie, a Community Recovery Specialist for the Miracles in Progress program at the Be Well Health Center at Girard Medical Center, about her personal experience learning about mental health as a child. Badie states, “Growing up, I heard a lot of code words being used for mental health. For example, ‘Don’t mess with her, she doesn’t take no stuff, or you know something is wrong with her or him.’ I would witness bizarre behavior within my family and neighborhood.”

Not only are young students unequipped with the tools to communicate their thoughts and emotions but research shows that they are likely experiencing peer pressure from other students to remain silent. WHYY reporters interviewed a seventeen-year-old high school student,  Sophia Angelica Delgado Feliciano, on her experience with using emotional distance as a cultural survival tool. “I realized that my anger had been hiding my sadness. Girls my age in North Philly like to say that ‘cold is cute’ Like, the better the front you put up, the cuter you are. But it’s not cute because it’s not real.” 

This issue must be brought to the forefront because the lives of current and future generations of students of color are in grave danger. According to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary and Trends Report, 42% of high school students felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped doing their usual activities. One in three high school girls has seriously considered suicide, a 60% increase from a decade ago. In an average classroom of 30, three students or 10% will attempt to end their lives this year. 

The Philadelphia School District’s partnership with Kooth is a step in the right direction, but without addressing the larger framework of barriers that systematically oppress communities of Black and Brown students, we will not garner sustainable results. The community’s response has reverberated this sentiment, with parents, teachers, and community organizers actively creating more sustainable solutions to provide a more enriching educational and overall more inclusive developmental journey for the students of The Philadelphia School District. We interviewed Chanice Smith, a staff member at NOMO Foundation, a Philadelphia based nonprofit dedicated to empowering the surrounding impacted community by facilitating student access to diverse programs and resources aiming to enhance their quality of life. This provided an insider’s view of the enduring perception of the strained relationship between the Philadelphia School District and the communities it serves. Regarding the neglect to create safe spaces that foster opportunities for quality education, Smith offered,

“There is a lack of empathy and sensitivity to account for cultural differences. Schools place a higher priority on instilling disciplinary action than creating an understanding of the obstacles students face just to attend school, like homelessness and exposure to gun violence. The hyper criminalization of the Black and Brown students of Philadelphia has created even more pressure on the surrounding community to fill in gaps in education and care.”

An anonymous educator employed at a charter school in Philadelphia, had this to say about the internal leadership team’s approach to the chronic absenteeism that is affecting Black and Brown student’s ability to gain a comprehensive and quality education,

“The community that we serve has high percentages of trauma, food/home insecurity, and truancy. Our school can remain open only if we have high enrollment. So we place a lot of priority on getting kids to school and academics/data and not so much on the barriers that present challenges to this approach being effective. Most of the events that we had to promote attendance either fell through because they were poorly planned, staff didn’t want to stay to support, or families did not care enough to engage.” 

It is apparent that effective strategies for establishing safe learning environments conducive to healthy personal development must prioritize acknowledging students’ complete humanity. This involves implementing tactics that address the environmental, financial, and psychological barriers to care they encounter daily.

Our interview with Chris Avery, Vice President for Program Strategy and Partnerships at Heights Philadelphia, a non-profit organization creating pathways to educational and professional success for Black and Brown students in Philadelphia, reiterated this same notion. Heights Philadelphia serves as a liaison, fostering connections between the leadership team of The Philadelphia School District, their employed teachers, and the students they serve, with particular attention to Black, Brown, and first-generation students. This grants the Heights Philadelphia team a distinct and well-informed perspective on the relationship. When asked about how Heights Philadelphia is able to maintain its success in creating collaborative, safe, and inclusive environments for the students, Avery stated,

“Generally, kids are looking for just someone who cares and then really a path forward, and they don’t always have that. And so I think one of the things that this organization is able to provide because of the work that we do is give kids greater access and opportunity for that. Again, never perfect. But we can definitely give them a chance of support in a way they wouldn’t be able to have otherwise.” 

Ultimately, the students of Philadelphia are looking for their voices to be heard and their lived experiences to be acknowledged. Last year’s partnership with Kooth proves that strides toward becoming a more responsive school district are being taken.  Without addressing the larger framework of issues, relationships, and obstacles on a systemic level, we can’t expect sustainable and effective change to take place. As we look toward the future, hopefully, we can continue to work towards creating more inclusive solutions to the gaps in support of youth mental health. The students of Philadelphia deserve a more equitable and just world where their basic human safety, overall wellness, and health needs are met, their right to a quality education experience is protected and upheld, and the  safety of their learning environments is guaranteed.   


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