The promise and peril of Cheltenham: Race and education in a changing suburban school district
Cheltenham has long been at the forefront of racial integration. After a fight at the local high school, the trailblazing community is grappling with big questions.Listen 6:58
Three years ago, Meleah Brame-Scott was browsing a Facebook page for Cheltenham residents when a post from a local parent caught her attention.
“I grew up in a little pocket of Philadelphia called Overbrook it was wonderful…”
Brame-Scott, 40, had also grown up in Overbrook, a neighborhood on Philadelphia’s western edge. During her childhood, the area underwent a massive racial shift. White families moved out. Black families, like hers, moved in. From 1990 to 2010, the area lost a staggering 80 percent of its white population.
The Facebook post continued:
“We had a great life! Over time the neighborhood changed and people panicked sold their houses. Now we can only have memories and reminisce through Facebook. Why? Because we allowed them to take over as a neighborhood we regret it.”
Brame-Scott knew what the poster meant by “them,” but she asked anyway. The woman dodged, explaining she wasn’t racist because she had black friends. Three year years later, Brame-Scott still keeps screenshots of the conversation on her phone.
Brame-Scott moved to Cheltenham seven years ago. She picked this border suburb of 36,000 just north of Philadelphia to escape the kind of bigotry detected in that Facebook post.
Other suburbs were too white. She worried her two kids wouldn’t fit in. She chose Cheltenham, and still believes in its potential — despite a creeping sense of disillusionment. Her youngest graduates in three years.
“This past year, more than ever, I’ve constantly said 2020 can’t come soon enough,” she says. “And it’s not because of the school district. It’s because of my neighbors. They’ve just made me so sad that they’re my neighbors.”
Both of Brame-Scott’s parents were born in the South and migrated to Philadelphia for shots at a better life. Her dad first landed in North Philadelphia and went to Ben Franklin High School. From there he moved to West Philadelphia, met his wife and landed a job at the IT company Unisys. Finally, the family decamped to Overbrook, lured by the promise of a stable, middle-class life.
“Each step a little better,” she said.
Brame-Scott went through the Philadelphia public school system and graduated from a magnet program at Bartram High School. But Philly’s reputation for crowded classrooms and empty coffers convinced her to seek something else.
In 2010, after her daughter graduated from a Philadelphia charter school, Brame-Scott followed the family tradition of upward mobility. Then a divorced mom making $68,000 a year, she rented a three-bedroom townhome in the Lynnewood Gardens housing development, which sits just atop the city’s northern border. Five years later, she bought her own home.
But whatever she was trying to escape by taking that next, “better” step, has proven hard to shake. Today’s Cheltenham looks a lot like the Overbrook of Brame-Scott’s youth — increasingly black, with threats of white flight and falling home prices. If she ever needs a reminder of how familiar this all seems, Brame-Scott only needs to look at the Facebook post still preserved on her cellphone.
“You would think she was describing a war zone,” she says of the post. “And you would think that the people who moved in were some outsiders who were just destructive animals.”
For over 150 years, Cheltenham has been one of the region’s great experiments in tolerance. Rare among suburbs, it has been a beacon for both outsiders and the affluent.
Maintaining that mix has never been easy, but the township appears to be in an especially precarious position right now. The housing market is weak. And whispers of the school system’s decline turned into a roar in May, after cellphone video of a fight among four African-American girls at Cheltenham High School led newscasts around the region.
It’s easy to see the trap that lies ahead. The school system declines. People move. Housing prices fall. The tax base weakens, leaving the school system with less money to educate a poorer student body. The school system declines again, and the whole cycle spins downward.
The fear is that Cheltenham will wash away in another wave of middle-class flight. The hope is that the caring people in this hyper-involved community can somehow band together and stop it.
A streetcar, a railroad and the seeds of integration
Cheltenham’s diversity is rooted in one act of uncommon tolerance and another act of undeniable racism.
In 1858, Philadelphia ran its first, horse-drawn street car. Lines quickly sprouted all over the city and the cars became a dominant form of transportation in the era before automobiles. But not everyone could access this new form of mobility. Rules forbade black passengers, restricting where African-Americans could move within the region.
A few years later, after the outbreak of the Civil War, Union leaders needed a training ground for African-American soldiers. Philadelphia, with its large Quaker community and deep abolitionist roots, seemed a logical choice.
Financier Jay Cooke and a real estate developer named Edward M. Davis — the son-in-law of famed abolitionist and suffragist Lucretia Mott — donated parcels of land in Cheltenham for the establishment of Camp William Penn. The camp would go on to house and train nearly 11,000 troops.
The site made sense for a couple reasons. First, was the political support of nearby Quaker landowners. Second, was Cheltenham’s location along the North Pennsylvania Railroad, according to local historian and former Drexel University professor Thomas Wieckowski. Union commanders needed some method to transport troops from the training ground to war offices in Center City. Since the streetcars would not accept black passengers, finding a spot along the railroad became imperative.
The great middle class boom
After the war, Cheltenham retained its welcoming reputation among African-Americans. The butler to millionaire George Elkins — a black man named William Ritchie — encouraged black families to buy homes in a corner of the township that was eventually named “LaMott” (after Lucretia Mott).
Cooke, meanwhile, encouraged other wealthy industrialists to build estates in the area.
In the middle part of the 20th century, Cheltenham’s population boomed. Many of the newcomers were Catholics and Jews. To them, Cheltenham offered a measure of acceptance they might not have found in other suburbs. If you weren’t welcome in the Main Line’s wealthier enclaves, Cheltenham’s door was open.
My grandparents, both Jewish, walked through that door in 1953 when they bought a house at 8226 Forrest Avenue for $22,000. Over the next two decades they would send two kids — my dad included — through the Cheltenham School District and off to the University of Pennsylvania. In 1976, shortly after my grandmother died of cancer, they sold the house on Forrest Avenue for $66,000 — three times what he’d paid for it 23 years earlier.
The boom times continued through end of the century. In 1989, my aunt bought a gorgeous, Victorian on Washington Lane for $164,000 — a staggering $49,000 more than what the property sold for two years earlier.
Like her parents, she sent two kids through the Cheltenham schools. Unlike her parents, when it came time to sell, the housing market had soured. After months of fruitless efforts and tepid interest they finally sold the place for $210,000 in 2016.
But you don’t need an anecdote to know where the area’s housing market is headed.
Since 2009, the median home value in the Philadelphia region has gone up $16,400, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Over that same stretch, the median home value in the Cheltenham school district has fallen by $19,200.
Drexel professor and housing expert Kevin Gillen has kept his own tabs on housing prices in the 19027 zip code, which borders Philadelphia and contains a large swath of the Cheltenham school district. Using proprietary data, he’s documented a similar trend. While median prices rise elsewhere, they keep falling in 19027.
Communities rise and fall, prosper and hollow all the time. But what happened here? Why specifically is the arrow pointing down in Cheltenham?
Lots of people have lots of conflicting opinions. The common denominator is that so many want to talk about it.
A town hall following last May’s fight at the high school overflowed with people and opinions, spilling out over five hours of uninterrupted testimony. It wasn’t always pretty. In fact, much of it was ugly. But you couldn’t deny the pulsing urgency.
Within minutes of posting in a Facebook group about this story, parents and students bombarded me with messages. They wanted to be interviewed (about race relations, no less). They pleaded to be heard. They wanted, for the most part, a chance to rebut the insults lobbed at their district over the past year.
My post drew 142 responses. But part of the thread mutated into a name-calling battle so nasty the moderator had to close comments. Cheltenham’s people care, but not always for each other.
Debbie Carboni, for one, is fed up with Cheltenham — its liberal politics and what she sees as an egg-shell-stepping deference to its growing black population.
Carboni and her husband, both white, listed their house in the Melrose Park neighborhood this summer after years of growing disenchantment. They moved to the area in 2004, specifically because of the school system’s stellar reputation.
Carboni’s son was subject to what she calls “reverse discrimination.” When he lashed out, teachers came down hard, she says. When black classmates did the same, she claims teachers pulled back.
“I’ve had both of my children be called ‘crackers,’ ‘whities,’ ‘sticks,’ ” she says. “And I’ve actually had them say they wish they were dark skinned so that they could be liked.”
“When your nine-year-old comes to you and he tells you, ‘Mom, I’d rather be dead because I just feel like everybody tells me I’m a bad kid from school,’ there’s a problem there,” she added.
The Carbonis are shopping for houses further from the city now, mostly in the western part of Chester County. Again, one of their top criteria will be schools. And while they didn’t think about Cheltenham’s liberal bent when they picked the township, politics now is part of the calculus.
“I’ll guarantee you it will be part of my consideration moving forward,” she said.
It’s not just white families, though, that are moving out of Cheltenham or mulling the thought. At the recent town hall and around the community, I heard black families talk about relocating. And a seeming majority — of all races — say Cheltenham’s schools have gone downhill.
Some believe district staff and administration have been slow to adapt to the district’s changing demographics. Black students, they argue, get stopped more frequently in the hallways or talked out of taking tougher classes. White students cluster in a handful of advanced classes, while many black students fall further behind and drag the school’s test scores down with them.
Meleah Brame-Scott told me she had to scrap with school officials to get her daughter — who skipped a grade in elementary school — into honors classes. When it came time for college, a school counselor pushed Brame-Scott’s daughter toward state schools instead of Drexel or Penn. After two years at Shippensburg University, her daughter, an electrical engineering major, will transfer to either Drexel or Penn.
Others say Cheltenham’s woes are demographic. The schools, they say, are serving lower-income kids with bigger challenges and shorter fuses. They’ll refer derisively to the “renters,” a racially tinged term that alludes to families — many originally from Philadelphia — who live in one of the township’s apartment buildings.
“You really wanna know the problem,” one black grandfather told me outside a local grocery store. “It’s the kids from Philadelphia.”
Given the overwhelming pessimism, I expected to find dramatic statistical evidence of this supposed decline. And that’s where things get weird.
For all the talk of Cheltenham’s fall, I had a hell of a time trying to prove it.
Data versus perception
Start with the neighborhood.
In 2000, Cheltenham township had a poverty rate of about five percent, according to the U.S. Census. The most recent data from 2015 puts poverty around eight percent. That’s a modest increase, but no more dramatic than the overall uptick in poverty nationwide.
Also worth noting is that a majority of the township’s impoverished residents are white — not black. Proportionally there’s almost no difference between the percent of poor, black residents and the percent of poor, white residents.
Meanwhile, the number of township residents with a college degree or higher has gone up. So has median family income, although it did not go up as fast as inflation did.
And what about those renters?
Again, there’s been no dramatic changes. Just like the nation as a whole, the proportion of renters in Cheltenham has inched up — from 35.5 percent in 2000 to 37.9 percent in 2015.
It’s trickier to determine how well the schools have been doing over the last decade and a half. There are few objective, consistent and transparent measurements of educational quality. But state test scores at least provide a roadmap.
Between 2001 and 2012, there was little discernible difference in Cheltenham High School’s performance compared to the state average. Though scores did seem to dip in the late aughts, they rebounded almost immediately.
It’s hard to follow the thread past 2012, since state tests have changed dramatically over the last several years. But from the data available, it’s tough to find evidence for the pessimism.
On the latest version of the SPP, Pennsylvania’s catchall statistic for measuring school quality, Cheltenham High School scored a solid-but-unspectacular 77.2.
There were 381 high schools across Pennsylvania that scored 70 or above, a benchmark that state used to use to determine adequacy. Of those 381 good high schools, there were only two traditional public high schools in the entire state that had a majority African-American student body. Cheltenham was one of them.
For all the doom and gloom, Cheltenham may well be one of the best, majority-black high schools in Pennsylvania.
Finally, there’s the issue of violence.
Here, there is some credible evidence of decline. Over the last couple of years in particular, the number of fighting incidents at Cheltenham High School has spiked, according to the state’s Safe Schools report. But the spike is only very recent and in no way parallels the school’s demographic changes — despite the many insinuations that black students have caused these problems. In fact, the first year the Cheltenham school district’s black population surpassed its white population, the number of fighting incidents hit a near-low.
There are only two trends that seem to meet statistical scrutiny: home prices are going down and the number of black students is going up. Though the township is still about two-thirds white, the school district’s black population has grown steadily for decades. Many of the black families profile similarly to the Jews and Catholics who flocked to Cheltenham 60 years ago. They’re in the middle class or on their way there. And Cheltenham is their stepping stone.
In that way, Cheltenham has barely changed at all.
But even if Cheltenham’s demise has been greatly exaggerated, perception is a powerful thing. As long as people associate the township with decline, it’s likely an actual decline will follow.
Cheltenham has a weak corporate tax base compared to some suburbs and its property taxes are the second-highest among Montgomery County school districts. That’s partly why the district can spend big money on its schools despite not having an abundance of high-worth properties.
But it’s also a major danger. After all, few families will want to pay high taxes to live in a school district they consider unworthy.
More than once I heard people speak of Cheltenham as if its slide into racial homogeneity and poverty were inevitable. This is just what happens to inner-ring suburbs, they said, as white flight moves farther and farther away. (And lately, for some, farther and farther in, as Philadelphia neighborhoods gentrify.)
But there are a lot of people who don’t take this as a foregone conclusion. Cheltenham has worked hard in the past years to change its trajectory. There’s an innovative project-based learning program at the high school, along with a raft of new rules, regulations and staff members to help ease discipline problems.
Cheltenham also has a remarkably active and dedicated parent community. Even the parent groups have their own super-structure parent groups.
They believe they can change the narrative about Cheltenham and market it to a new generation of residents. They believe there are people who value diversity — who want a suburban lifestyle and suburban schools, but not the lily-white, cookie-cutter version found in far-flung communities.
They believe they can find people like Melissa Cohen, a long-time Center City resident who made the plunge she vowed she’d never take and moved to Cheltenham this summer.
The new Mt. Airy?
Cohen and her husband are white, but their child is black. They felt it necessary to find a diverse community and so far are thrilled with what they’ve uncovered in Cheltenham.
Cohen says people talk about Cheltenham as if it’s “the new Mt. Airy,” a reference to the long-integrated neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia. And that may be the model for Cheltenham — an intentionally diverse community that markets itself as such. In the past, families might have picked Cheltenham for the unparalleled quality of its schools. Now, they’ll pick Cheltenham because it comports with their worldview and values.
It’s a tricky comparison, though. Mt. Airy has a broad network of school alternatives — from private schools to charter schools — that make the area more palatable to parents turned off by Philadelphia’s predominantly black, predominantly poor, public schools. Cheltenham has fewer such alternatives.
“We will be the proof that it can work”
Scholars, politicians, activists and planners all trumpet the value of diversity. Diversity isn’t simply a moral imperative, they say, but a societal benefit. Segregated schools crush students of color. Diverse schools buoy them. Segregated neighborhoods ensure the poor remain poor and the rich remain rich. Diverse neighborhoods offer at least a patina of equity.
But it’s easy to celebrate diversity in the abstract. Making it work is hard. And you could forgive the people of Cheltenham if they feel they are being punished for their commitment to the concept. After all, if Cheltenham were as white as other suburbs, there would be no talk of racial tensions. Were its houses as uniformly pricey — and its rental apartments nonexistent — there would be no unpleasant riffs to talk around or coded language to parse. No one would care about Cheltenham if it wasn’t trying to be something everyone says it should be.
But Cheltenham’s residents — at least some of them — also see a tremendous opportunity.
If they can strike the right balance and market their district the right way, they can achieve the sort of integration that still eludes much of society.
“We will be the proof that it can work,” says 18-year Cheltenham resident Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein. “You don’t have to be shtetl or a gated community of like people.”
Ezekiel-Fishbein belongs to the core group of Cheltenham believers. About two decades ago she ran public relations for the district, but her boosterism is genuine and enduring.
If Cheltenham can steady itself, it will be a “model,” she says, for modern education. She admits, though, that if the township breaks apart in racial discord, it will be especially heartbreaking. After all, if a community with 150 years of groundwork can’t solve the integration puzzle, what hope is there for the rest of the country?
Ezekiel-Fishbein, like Meleah Scott-Brame, hails from a border neighborhood inside Philadelphia.
She grew up in East Oak Lane, just across the border from Cheltenham. Her parents, both public school teachers, were fiercely dedicated to maintaining the neighborhood’s racial mix. When her sister moved across the city line to Cheltenham, her parents took it hard. And they took it hard when Ezekiel-Fishbein followed suit.
“They felt like if families like us moved out, what was going to become of the city schools,” she said.
Today, Ezekiel-Fishbein’s elementary school — which she remembers as a “rainbow” — is 92 percent black. From 1990-2010, Oak Lane went through about the same transformation Overbook did. It lost three-quarters of its white population.
“And I worry that someday my kids are going to say, ‘Sorry mom, dad, we loved growing up in Cheltenham, but we’re not going to move there,’ ” she said. “‘ We’re not going to send our kids there.’ ”
She is fully aware of the historical parallels. She is not naive to the irony.
She wants her kids to choose Cheltenham, but to make a different choice than she did.
You’re invited to join WHYY, WURD and the Philadelphia Media Network tonight, Sept. 28 for the third installment of our “Courageous Conversations” series. The discussion will focus on “Reimagining Race and Education,” how we talk about these issues and resolve them together. The event starts at 6 p.m. at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia.Click here for more information and to register.
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