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A couple posts back, I mentioned that I had written a feature for a national online magazine. Well, the article has been posted on the site. Here is the link.


Zero Tolerance Policy Helps Local High School Aim High

Located in South Philadelphia, The Academy at Palumbo, hopes to become “the finest high school in Philadelphia,” according to the school’s handbook. After opening in 2006, the magnet liberal arts high school, aimed to prepare its students for higher education, instill a passion for learning and raise each student’s aspiration, according to the school’s website. “When we first opened, the new teachers and principal created behavioral expectations along with the SDP’s student code of conduct,” said Dr. Adrienne Wallace-Chew, principal of Palumbo.

According to the School District of Philadelphia’s (SDP) 2011-2012 Code of Student Conduct, students are expected to “respect the authority of all school personnel and the rights of other students and all members of the school community.”  Students are also expected to comply with their individual schools’ handbooks. At Palumbo, the school handbook expresses a “zero tolerance policy towards the language and behavior of intolerance.” Aimed toward staff and students, The Academy at Palumbo’s zero tolerance policy towards intolerance also extends to the “inappropriate comments regarding ethnicity or sexual orientation, offhanded discriminatory remarks, offensive jokes and overt harassment of any kind.”

In the past, the teachers of Palumbo received training from the school district on making appropriate comments regarding ethnicity or sexual orientation, and  handling offensive or discriminatory comments. Although the SDP did not offer the training this year, “Palumbo has a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club at the school. “We also have many staff members who are openly gay or lesbian and offer support to our students,” said Chew. “We have not encountered any gay bashing or bullying from students that we are aware of,” she added.

Palumbo’s zero tolerance policy towards intolerance plays a large role in keeping the peace among its diverse student body of over 600 students. According to the SDP, African American students make up the largest ethnic group at Palumbo, at 50.6 percent of the school. Asians make up 21 percent of the student population, followed by whites at 17 percent. Latinos account for 9.3 percent of the school’s student body, while Other, makes up the remaining 1.9 percent.  Of Palumbo’s current student population, 73.4 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, according to the SDP. “There’s a diverse student body, not a lot of cliques, everyone gets along with everyone,” said English teacher, Christopher Alvarez. As a diverse high school, The Academy at Palumbo strongly enforces the SDP’s Multiracial-Multicultural-Gender Education policy. Issued on Aug, 18, 2004, the policy encourages students to develop a sense of respect among staff and students. The policy also implemented a grievance process that allowed ‘students who found that they had either been discriminated against or denied the rights guaranteed by the policy’ to have both the Principal of the school and the SDP investigate the incident,’ according to School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Accountability.

With student body of over 600 students, The Academy at Palumbo currently employs two school police officers and uses metal detector and kiosks, which are located in the first floor hallway to monitor students’ entrance into the school, according to Chew. During the 2010-2011 school year there were two suspensions, down four from the previous school year. There were also three incidents of assault during the 2010-2011 school term, according to the SDP. In addition to the school police officers, the high school has three noontime aides and two school support assistants.

“Most students here will follow the rules because they are the rules,” said ninth grade English teacher, Meghan Donnelly. Donnelly, who previously taught English at Edison High School in North Philly, found the students at Palumbo to be refreshing. “Here, there’s an innate sense of wanting to do the right thing. At my other school there had to be a sense of punishment,” said Donnelly. “Its positive incentives here,” she added.

In addition to its zero tolerance policy towards intolerance, attendance is also very important to the high school. Palumbo uses a system of detention, and the loss of school privileges to encourage students to attend school. According to the school’s Absence/Lateness Policy, “Due to the accelerated pace and heavy workload at The Academy at Palumbo, its especially important for students to make a commitment to attend school everyday.” For the past three school years, 2008-2011, the school has maintained a 90 percent student attendance rate, according to the SDP. As a result of Palumbo’s high attendance rate, the high school recently won the Get Schooled Fall Challenge. According to the Get Schooled, Dec. 1 press release, the high school increased its attendance to 97 percent in seven weeks, Oct. 3 to Nov. 18. For their efforts students of The Academy of Palumbo will be awarded a red-carpet event, “with a Mission: Impossible-themed event at the school and preview screening of Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol at the UA Riverview theatre in Philadelphia,” according to the non-profit organization.

Similar to the challenge, Palumbo provides incentives for students to succeed. According to the school’s handbook, extra curricular activities are privileges that can be taken away due to students’ behavior and grades.  “We have over 15 extra curricular clubs and offer boys and girls volleyball, basketball, baseball, football, badminton, soccer, track and field, softball and wrestling, ” said Chew. Palumbo’s extracurricular clubs include afterschool yoga, a knitting circle, a poetry club and an afterschool Journalism program.

As a special admittance high school, The Academy at Palumbo, selects students according to its admission requirements. “All A’s and B’s with one C and standardized test scores at the 88 percentile in Reading and Math, good behavior, good attendance,” Chew summarized.

“I think that because the students are selected, there is a culture of not getting into fights. Students who were successful in the past are less likely to get distracted,” said Alvarez. According to the SDP, of Palumbo’s student body, 13.4 percent of students are mentally gifted, 3.1 percent of students are with a disability and 83.5 percent of students are without an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). “We have a Mentally Gifted (MG) English and MG Drama and 12 Advanced Placement courses,” said Chew.

The Academy of Palumbo, according to the 2010 School Performance Index (SPI) is ranked among the top 10 schools in Philadelphia. Data shows that during the 2010-2011 school year, Palumbo had a higher attendance rate and performed better on both the Math and Reading PSSA tests than schools like Carver High School of Science and Engineering, located in North Philadelphia and the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). According to the SPI, schools are measured and compared by their “academic progress or growth on the PSSA and academic achievement, performance on the PSSA, as well as the satisfaction of parents, teachers, and students.”

“All policies are part of an attempt to establish guidelines by which we all use to effectively function. All organizations must have policies,” said Chew. “When I was at Central high school we had a saying, “We will never lose on substance, only on process.” If you don’t have a good process you won’t readily see success in the daily things you do, the substance of school. I have carried that saying with me to Palumbo, using it to become one of the finest high schools in the city,” Chew concluded.


Should the Welfare of a Country Trump Individual Rights?

Formally known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health care reform was signed into effect March 23, 2010.The Affordable Care Act (ACA) met opposition at both the federal and state levels. Those opposing ACA either feared that the government was overstepping its boundaries by imposing a government sponsored health care plan, or found the law to be unconstitutional. Is the American government actually breaking the law by trying to provide affordable healthcare for its people?

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) aims to provide health care for the millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans by extending coverage to those searching for a policy to cover their pre-existing conditions, providing affordable treatment and medication, in addition to allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26 and providing incentives for small businesses that provide health insurance for their employees. In exchange for the government providing these services, Americans would have to buy a policy before 2014 or pay a penalty fee.

To understand the oppositions’ beliefs one must understand who stands to lose more if the law is not repealed before 2014, when most of ACA’s mandate go into full effect. Before the Affordable Care Act, both pharmaceutical and health insurance companies stood to make millions from Americans, by overcharging for medication and treatment along with cutting cuts by discriminating against patients with pre-existing conditions, and expensive treatments. By placing life and annual limits on health care benefits, agencies were not responsible to cover costs once an individual’s health care plan had reached its limit, whether annual or over the course of a lifetime, leaving patients with chronic illness out in the cold, according to the White House. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act, individuals could now find health insurance policies that would cover treatment, procedures and medication for conditions existing before the policy went into effect. The health reform also cut costs of both brand name and generic drugs for adults with Medicare, according to While the former health care system benefited pharmaceutical companies, health insurance agencies and investors, ACA benefits the people, by making healthcare both accessible and affordable.

Before the health reform law was passed it faced much opposition from majority of the Republican Party, as well as a few Democrats. Republicans are well known for disapproving any government inference in the market and industry, thus their reaction to ACA, was to be expected. Shortly following the passing of the healthcare reform there were several courts that declared the mandate that required Americans to buy an insurance policy, or pay a penalty unconstitutional. Among the rulings was one by Federal District Judge Roger Vinson of Florida who found that the federal government had overstepped its regulatory powers as stated in the Constitution. Vinson is only one of the many federal judges, senators, governors, and citizens who found fault with the health reform. Is Vinson’s claim valid? Did the United States Federal Government indeed overstep some sort of boundary? The Constitution is already prone to interpretation by the courts, however under administrative law, the government is expected to serve, protect, and provide essential services to its people. In exchange for such service, Americans are expected to give some individual sovereignty to the local, state and federal governments. One would only hope that health insurance for all would be included in those services distributed by the federal government.

It is hard to believe that such a powerful law that can and will impact the lives of all Americans rests on an individual mandate; pay for insurance, support the costs of insurance for your fellow Americans or pay up. It is possible that the mandate could be altered to exclude a penalty fee, however if an American citizen, by choice refuses to buy health insurance, in the event of a medical emergency will end up paying for the costs of treatment, medicine, doctor visits out of pocket, so why refuse the government-sponsored insurance. Therefore the law is in the best interest of its people and has been implemented to protect Americans in both the short and long run.

If indeed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is repealed, millions of Americans will once again have no access to health insurance, those with chronic illnesses will have to go without treatment, young adults without insurance will have to live cautiously, and the healthcare system will lie in disarray waiting for another reform or decision made by the federal government that will in no doubt be unconstitutional, stopping short of providing the necessary services for citizens. Federal District Judge Vinson’s argument seems to lack validity, would the health and welfare of millions of Americans not trump the childish squalor for power and money? One would only hope so.

Khmer in America: Philadelphia Students and Organizations Work to Bring Change to Ethnic Community

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The disheartening tale of Cambodians in America is only one example of the hardships faced by immigrants who enter this country, immediately experiencing socioeconomic, cultural and educational adversity. For these immigrants it is both the quantity and quality of education they receive that sets them apart from the recurring story of immigrants who become a statistic.

As refugees, Cambodians arrived in the United States in the 1970’s and 80’s. They left behind war, genocide, lost loved ones, and trust in government and other social institutions. Cambodia, located in Southeast Asia was taken over in 1975 by the communist group, Khmer Rouge. According to the Cambodian Information Center, the Khmer Rouge became known as one of the most violent regimes of the century. This communist group is responsible for the deaths of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians.

For many of the refugees who were resettled in the Philadelphia area, home became the inner-city neighborhoods, with high crime rates, violence and gangs. For Cambodians and many immigrants, especially those who do not speak the language of their host country, this is the test which determines whether the ethnic group sinks or floats. For these Cambodians, their fragile cultural network was unable to withstand the pressures of their new environment and soon many youth became involved in gangs, and crime.

In American education system, Cambodian Americans were often overlooked or lumped with Asian Americans. The Khmer, by no means, were prepared to meet the expectations held of Chinese and Japanese Americans, who excelled in the classroom, particularly in math and science. This phenomenon, also known as the model minority myth, caused frustration among many Cambodians who later dropped out of school, deciding not to further their education. These issues followed Cambodian Americans through the years and in 2000, the U.S. Census revealed that more than 60 percent of Cambodian Americans had less than a high school education, thus, the underrepresentation of Cambodian Americans in institutions of higher learning. However, in states with a large Cambodian community, such as California and Pennsylvania, there are student organizations devoted to promoting the Khmer culture, and informing the general population of the group’s ethnicity and existence in the community and the universities.

At Temple University, located in North Philadelphia, PA, the Temple University Society for Khmer Students works to inform the mainstream Philadelphia population about Cambodia, its history and culture, as well as to provide positive role models for younger Cambodian Americans. Stacie Leap is the student adviser of the organization. Leap, born Sienh Leap, has had a remarkable educational experience. The daughter of Cambodian refugees, Leap was strongly encouraged to excel by her parents, who refused to see their child become a mere statistic.

“I was the first to go to high school, the first to graduate high school, and I’m the first to go to college,” says Leap. She was an A student and on the honor roll throughout her academic career. Leap is now in her fourth year of university taking six courses, majoring in Therapeutic Relations, with a minor in Public Health. While she currently has four jobs, Leap is leading three student organizations on Temple University’s main campus; she is also member of several other student organizations.

Both of Leap’s parents were in some way affected by the Khmer Rouge. Her father, who served as a soldier in the Vietnam War was jailed. After his release, he returned to his parent’s home only to find that the house has been severely destroyed by fire. Hoping to retrieve some of his belonging, he ventured inside only to find his parents’ remains rotting away.

“He was in his twenties, or thirties, I think. So he was traumatized for life and because of that anything dealing with war, [even] the war in Iraq, we turn off the T.V.,” says Leap. “The only thing that the T.V serves for is to watch our movies. But, as far as news broadcasts, we don’t watch that because if he sees the guns or the violence, people getting killed, he gets very emotional. It hurts him, but it hurts me to see my own dad being so upset.”

As for Leap’s mother, twice married, her first husband, a teacher, was shot and killed as part of the Khmer Rouge’s plan to rid the country of educated. Her mother also watched as members of the Khmer Rouge swung her first-born child towards a tree that near the family’s property. The child, a daughter a few months old, was instantly killed.

Danny Yem, David Pindara Sao, and Savonchanmonin Alexander Sao are members of the Temple University Society for Khmer Students (TUSKS). Yem and David Sao serve as executive and assistant directors. Yem is a junior at Temple University, majoring in Chemistry. David Sao is also a junior, majoring in biology, with hopes to go into nursing. Savonchanmonin Alexander Sao, Alex, is a second year student at the Community College of Philadelphia, CCP, pursuing nursing. Alex Sao, but was impressed with TUSKS and often travels to Temple, to partake in the organizations activities.

The family of David Sao, who was born in America, migrated to the United States in 1980.  First the family settled in California and once they were sponsored to Philadelphia, where we currently live,” says David Sao.

As Alex Sao puts it his family’s experience was “almost the exact thing.” “Before we were transferred, [sponsored] to America we actually lived in the border between Thailand and Cambodia. And that’s when we got shipped to California and then from California to Philadelphia,” Alex Sao explains.

While completing K-12, Yem, David Sao, and Alex Sao had little help from their parents. “They gave us the best support they could.  They really didn’t have much and couldn’t do much because they have a language barrier. So everything we do was for ourselves, by ourselves,” said Yem.

Like Leap, Yem, David Sao, and Alex Sao’s parents were determined to have them attend college. “My family pretty much pushed it,” says Yem. “It wasn’t really an option. Once you graduate high school, you were going to college. There are no ifs, ands, nor buts about it.”

These parents were directly attacking the issue of failing Khmer American students, who were entrapped by negative cultural pressures of the early 20 century to avoid the pull of crime, and gang activity. In doing so, these parents ensured that their children were focused on attaining an education while remaining within the roles of  a Khmer family network. Leap recalls that in elementary school she had many Cambodian American friends and peers.  “But when I was in high school, it was in North Philadelphia and there weren’t really that many Cambodians, there were more Koreans. I had more Korean friends, I’d just talk a couple of my Cambodian friends from elementary school, but because some of them dropped out or got pregnant and I wasn’t one of those, they stopped talking to me because they were busy or they felt like I wasn’t part of their lives anymore.”

In addition to their studies, Yem, David Sao, and Alex Sao practice Kickboxing. “It is like a Cambodian martial art, old martial art. We’re trying to compete against Moi Tai, it’s a sport from Thailand,” says David Sao. “There is a lot of history between the two. Basically Thailand was our Cambodian neighbor, and [we] shared culture, so Cambodia helped them build an army and warriors, I guess. When Cambodia needed help during the Khmer Rouge, that’s when martial arts was exposed to the world, after Bruce Lee died. Thailand took martial arts and claimed it as their own. Cambodia never had the chance to claim what was theirs, because they were stuck with the Civil War, during the Khmer Rouge,” explains David Sao.

“I am looking to open a kick boxing to school, show that Cambodians are everywhere. We just need to be known a little better,” says Alex Sao

Additionally, Cambodian community organizations are working with the support of members of the community to reintroduce the Khmer culture to its youth. Organizations such as the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, which works out of South Philadelphia to unify the Cambodian population living in Philadelphia, and provide links to aid and information available. CAGP provides youth classes that teach the Khmer language, and traditional dances.

As an immigrant community begins to recognize problems within, the community is able to work together to move away from socioeconomic, cultural and educational adversity. When Cambodian refugees first migrated to America, almost 40 years ago, money, a fragile cultural network, and a language barrier prevented the refugees from accelerating in society. With organizations such as TUSKS and CAGP working to provide Cambodian Americans with a formal and informal education, the community is on its way to becoming visible to the general public and becoming prominent members of society in Philadelphia.