As teachers and students streamed into Cheltenham High School for the first day of classes last Tuesday, they were greeted by the sight of the district superintendent, Dr. Wagner Marseille, doling out coffee and doughnuts — a symbolic gesture, perhaps, to wash away the bitter taste from the last school year that ended in controversy and rancor.

The breakfast treat served as a small harbinger of major changes that Cheltenham School District is implementing to tackle the disciplinary crisis that unfolded last spring after a wild brawl in the hallway in the 1,500-student high school left a teacher unconscious, led to student arrests, and produced embarrassing viral videos.

Since then, the district has hired "climate and culture" administrators and new safety and mental health staffers, implemented a stricter code of student conduct, and brought back homeroom periods, which will include a moment of "mindfulness" to start the day.

Yet tensions in the Montgomery County district continue to simmer, with high school students and some parents chafing at a new computer-chip-based tracking system, a shortened lunch break, and a clampdown on going outdoors —  a situation sophomore Andrew Moreland described as "they pretty much went from nothing to tight security and people saying it's like a prison."

And still boiling under the surface, according to some teachers and an outside expert who has worked with the district, are racial and cultural tensions in a demographically changing community on Philadelphia's northern border.

According to census data, the population of Cheltenham Township has remained around 36,000 since 2000.  But the white population has dropped —  from 66 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2015 —  while the black population rose from a quarter to a third. Likewise, Cheltenham School District has grown increasingly diverse; its current enrollment of 4,555 students is 51 percent African American, 34 percent white, 7 percent Asian, 5 percent Hispanic, with the rest multiracial or other races, according to state records.

"More challenging kids and economically challenged families finding their way into Cheltenham has created more of a challenge," said Robert Jarvis, the director of Leadership for Excellence & Equity Initiatives at University of Pennsylvania. He said there is "a new reality, especially, for some of the seasoned veterans, that there is a population of kids they've never had to deal with before."

That reality was evident when the Cheltenham Education Association released a survey in which its union members said they'd long been warning administrators about an out-of-control climate of violence and disrespect that left them feeling unsafe, if not terrified.

Among the most tangible reforms is a bulked-up staff around discipline, which includes four administrators for climate and culture, two secondary mental health wellness counselors, two disciplinary coordinators, two safety officers, and an elementary school social worker.

In addition, the district formed five "Climate and Culture" work groups around issues such as "Safety/Norm/Rules" and "Race/Equity," as well as what a district news release called "a more meaningful approach" to discipline, including suspensions, expulsions, and a first-ever "youth court"  slated to launch later this fall. It also announced expanded counseling and mentoring, as well new partnerships with the Graduate School of Education at Penn, Gratz College, and the Black Men at Penn School of Social Work.

Susan O'Grady, the district spokeswoman, said a teacher will be on special assignment this year as a mindfulness and positive psychology coach, arranging workshops on the power of positive thinking.

But the greatest concern for students and parents in the first week of school seems to be the changes around the cafeteria.

Cheltenham High students and their parents say the reduction in their daily lunch break from 47 to 30 minutes, coupled with the new tracking system called ScholarChip that requires students to swipe a card to enter the cafeteria, has created long lines followed by a mad dash to wolf down food.

"My son would go outside and run around, burn off energy," said Damon Moreland, father of 15-year-old twin sophomores.  "I told [his daughter] you had some bad apples that spoiled it for everyone else."  Moreland's daughter Zoe described the atmosphere during the first week of school as "definitely really tense."

Others with a stake in the district say the flurry of announced changes for the new school year don't go far enough in addressing the core problem of out-of-control students. For example, the district modified its cellphone policy to allow silent cellphone usage in the hallways and cafeteria. School officials said cellphones and social media triggered May's incident.

"To be honest, I think it's more about public relations than actually improving things," said Gary Colby, a GOP-endorsed school board candidate in this fall's election. Colby, who served on the district's communications working group, said that little progress was made and that "the direction we were being led was how do we put out good stories about Cheltenham."

The superintendent is expected to report on work group progress in November.

Marseille declined to be interviewed for this article. O'Grady answered questions via email, but she declined to address claims of racial tension in the school.

Jon Manser, the president of the teachers' union, was mostly positive about the new policies, citing ScholarChip as a sign "they're making a greater effort to try to make sure the kids are where they're supposed to be." But he also stressed that improving the school climate in Cheltenham "is not a one-year process."

Students returned to Cheltenham High School on Tuesday to find new stricter rules.
Philadelphia Inquirer
Students returned to Cheltenham High School on Tuesday to find new stricter rules.

Indeed, current and recently retired teachers who requested anonymity to candidly discuss the discipline issue said that there appears to be some progress, but also still some kids with disciplinary records hanging out in the hallways, occasionally cursing. According to one longtime educator at the high school, the administration is too lenient with African American male students and "we're told we're not meeting them at their level."

In late August, teachers and staff held a daylong workshop led by four experts on race and equity who trained them on topics such as racial literacy and racial microaggressions, referring to statements or acts that carry subtle or unintentional racism.

Also, Cheltenham hired a number of new teachers for the new year and outside adviser Jarvis said a significant number of them were black. O'Grady said the district "focused on identifying, recruiting, and hiring high quality diverse candidates."

Moreland, who is black and used to teach in Cheltenham, said he had encountered a lot of what he called "covert racism" among predominantly white staffers. "People that got up in meetings saying things like 'these people come from Philly,' " he said. "I stood up at a meeting and said I don't know who you mean by 'these people,' but that's code for 'black people.' "

Jarvis said he believes Marseille and his administrators inherited a "mind-set certainly among the staff that has created part of the challenge." He noted that historically Cheltenham had been a haven for middle-class African Americans but that many newcomers have fewer advantages. "Teachers would just as soon not have to deal with some of these issues," he said, "but the reality is these are the kids they have now."