Posted on March 7, 2023
Categories: News from SDP, Student of the Month

Congratulations to Laila Johnson, a 17-year-old senior at Central High School as she was named Senior of the Month for February! Laila truly stands out from the crowd as she exudes quiet strength and humble character. She’s an excellent example to her fellow students, family, and the Central High School community.

“The main drive is my parents,” Laila explained. As the middle child and daughter of a pastor (father) and lawyer (mother), the guidance of her parents is one of the reasons for Laila’s success and disciplined lifestyle. “Being a pastor’s kid, I’ve never really known anything other than that. So I feel like it’s provided stability for me.” The encouragement and guidance from her parents over the years have propelled Laila forward even in today’s cultural climate in the city of Philadelphia. Laila comes from a very close-knit family as they are her driving force. Her younger sister Lena, who she seeks to be a positive example to is a fellow Central High School student.

Laila is a born leader. She has consistently worked to make Central High School a more nurturing place for Black students. As the President of AASU (African-American Student Union) and a Big Sibling to two 9th-grade mentees, she has used her leadership positions to uplift the Central community. While many talk about change, Laila takes action. She approaches challenges with concrete solutions, writes well-researched proposals, and negotiates with the administration to ensure students’ voices are heard. Three years ago, students developed a 10-point platform for improving Black student life at Central. Laila has committed herself to implement that vision as a Big Sibling for Central’s 9th grade Bridge program. She readily volunteers to design workshops on midterm preparation and course selection. With enthusiasm, she mentors two 9th-grade students. When she identified that one of her mentees struggled with motivation and a reluctance to advocate for herself, Laila accompanied her on visits to all of her teachers. While some mentors might suggest these action steps, Laila sees it through to its conclusion. This is simply who she is. A role model, always leading by example.

Adjourned in African jewelry that she acquired from her trip to Ghana over the summer of 2022 via CIEE, which is a high school study abroad program – her plans are to study abroad more in the future. On her trip to Africa, she was a student classroom teacher. She had the privilege of teaching 3rd graders English, Grammar, Science, and Arts & Crafts. One of her goals while teaching was to study the Ghanaian education system in an effort to conclude what the Philadelphia education system is lacking. She’s constantly trying to figure out ways to better the education system and culture in the Central High School Community.

On her list of top 3 schools, Laila lists Yale, Columbia, and Spelman. She was recently accepted to Temple University. Laila also has an unwavering commitment to her community. As a future educator or civil rights lawyer, we have no doubt that she will continue to use her power to pursue justice and implement change. When asked, What’s one thing you’ll take with you from Central High School? Laila responded, “Have pride in yourself. From the moment that you get here, the faculty talks about class pride. That translates into the things that you do here. A lot of the clubs are student-led and they take a lot of pride in the is students place a great emphasis on want students to be proud of themselves and what they do.” Well, we’re proud of you Laila, and all that you have already accomplished. Once again, congratulations and we are excited about your future!

We asked Laila our favorite list of questions:

1. What does being named Senior of the Month mean to you? 

To me, being named Senior of the Month is a big honor because I think too often student leaders do so much for their school community without seeking recognition. Personally, this honor reveals to me that being humble does not have to come at the expense of not being appreciated and acknowledged for your work. I am very grateful for this opportunity to highlight my own work, but also continue the conversation for amplified Black student support, not only in Central, but across the School District of Philadelphia.

2. Why do you think you were nominated for Senior of the Month?

I think that I was nominated for Senior of the Month because I am dedicated to advocating for Black student support at Central, specifically in times of adversity and change. As our African American Student Union (AASU) President at Central, along with my other leadership positions in our Bridge Leadership Program, and Central’s Black Student Council, I have been influential in decisions to recruit, welcome, and celebrate Black students at Central.

A core issue at Central is that the demographics of teachers and students vary greatly from the rest of Philadelphia and the School District with students. By comparison, The School District of Philadelphia is 48% Black and 22% Hispanic and/or Latino, while Central is less than 22% Black and 10% Latino. As a Black student, it was overwhelming to see my school grow increasingly less Black. Even worse, the dwindling numbers were also deterring Black parents from seeing Central as a viable school for their children because of a potential lack of cultural support.

From 2020 onwards, I have worked to lead virtual and in-person conversations, particularly with predominantly Black middle schools in Philadelphia. In addition, I worked to create videos detailing the vibrant Black experience of Central with our cultural clubs, step team, and academic clubs. As a member of the Bridge Leadership Program, I have been serving as a mentor to incoming freshmen to help them “bridge” social and academic gaps and further acclimate them to our school. I’m excited that Central’s freshman class this year is now at a 30% Black student population, one that I will still continue to help grow. Furthermore, for the past three years, I have served as a student representative on faculty selection panels alongside Central’s teachers and administrators to interview and hire a multicultural group of teachers with a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) mindset. It is important to me that having a more diverse class is matched with diverse teachers who are enthusiastic about supporting students and are a resource to our community.

However, I also believe that in order to be the most effective, this recruitment work should be matched by providing a safe space to support Black students and teachers when they arrive. At a time when sentiments around the school echoed that our freshmen did not deserve their spot at Central because of the district lottery, I met with President Kate Davis about ways to fix this issue. Additionally, as AASU President, I took the initiative for our first event to be a Cookout to welcome freshmen. The phrase “you’re invited to the cookout” has largely become synonymous with acceptance and belonging in Black spaces and I wanted to ensure that was conveyed to my new Black peers.

3. You were nominated by Nicholas Palazzolo. Explain your relationship to him. Why do you think he nominated you specifically? 

Mr. Palazzolo (Mr. P) is my IB History teacher this year as well as a teacher sponsor in the Bridge Leadership Program and Asian Pacific Islander Union (APIU). I think that Mr. P nominated me for this honor because he saw the amount of work I put in to advocate for students at Central. More specifically, after winter break I heard that our three cultural showcases—a pivotal highlight of our school community—would be shortened to exist only in advisory. For context, in my previous years under past administration, the African American Student Union (AASU) Showcase, was allowed to go past those 53 minutes and into the beginning of first period. Even though I understood teacher and administrative complaints that the shows should not prohibit class time, I also recognized that after midterms and preparing for these showcases for three months prior to word about this decision, it would be devastating to students to hear that some acts would have to be cut to accommodate the time. I wrote and sent a proposal to administration with my solution to create a revised bell schedule that would allow the showcases to go to 9:15 am instead of 8:53 am, and would only take away 4 minutes from each class. As APIU also creates a showcase in April, I talked to Mr. P, as well as the APIU President, Maya Mischler, and created a joint plan as to how to advocate for more time. Mr. P was impressed by my four-page proposal that cited Gloria Ladson-Billings, and her call for Culturally Relevant Education (CRE). I hypothesize that Mr. P saw the hours of work I put into making that proposal and subsequently meeting with faculty members, on top of my Bridge Program and IB History responsibilities, particularly during our midterm month, and wanted to celebrate and broadcast the work that I have been doing.

What is one thing you’d like to share about yourself that most people don’t know about you?
Up until I was about 12, my sister, Lena, and I had a weekend routine. On Friday nights starting at 7 pm, we would watch all the new Disney channel shows. Then, Saturday, from around 10 AM until we got tired, we would go and play Dolls on the porch. As the assertive older sister I am, I would normally pick the topic for dolls, something that normally ending in the “dolls” having a singing competition with Lena and I singing along to hits from her iPad, or some makeover which would be hours of meticulously cutting our Barbie’s hair and “dyeing” it with markers. After a long day on the porch, we would relax at 7 pm with the latest Nick show.

5. What do you enjoy most when you are not at school?

When I am not at school, the thing I enjoy most is brewing coffee! Making coffee brings me joy—so much so that when I got an espresso machine this summer, I threw a latte party on Instagram Live! The fragrant smell fills up my entire house, and meticulously measuring the vanilla syrup and milk to reach a caramel color always makes me smile. As a customer service associate at Wawa, I spend a lot of time working in the beverage area as well. Every Sunday afternoon, I “clock in” to my shift at the Philadelphia staple—Wawa. Working in the specialty beverage area brings me immense joy and peace. Although more secluded than the always busy hoagie, salad, and sides deli, the beverage area also involves more independent tasks. I first joined Wawa in the first place simply because I loved the coffee, and now I am the one making the coffee. Outside of the coffee I enjoy working at Wawa in my time outside of school because it is calming. Throughout the year and half that I have worked at the food and convenience store, I have been the youngest employee. Many of my coworkers are in their late 20s, so hearing about their career pathways has given me real-life world insight that I never would have had growing up in my Central High School and Philadelphia bubble. Although I enjoy making iced vanilla lattes, strawberry banana smoothies, and French Vanilla coffee (my mom’s favorite), my excitement for Wawa stems from the relationships I’ve made with the team. We also have many different customers who come into Wawa often. For example, Mr. Jeff is a “regular” who gets coffee multiple times a day and always says “Happy Sunday” as a greeting. My Wawa community has grown my evolving perspective of the real world and reinforced that good manners and customer service is necessary because I never know what others are going through.

6. In your opinion, what is the best thing about attending school at Central?

The best thing about attending Central is definitely the ability for student-led clubs. Our cultural showcases, as mentioned above, are the highlight of the student experience! As the first cultural club created at Central, the African American Student Union (AASU) has created and maintained a 20+ year tradition of celebrating Black talent in our school with none other than the highly anticipated AASU Showcase. The event is now established as one of student’s highlights of the academic year, and unifying all different cultures in Central’s community to watch Black Talent. The Central High School community continues to be advanced by these efforts for student expression.

Recently, during the week of February 7th we held advisory shows and a night show that featured a range of acts from AASU Groups (Music, Dance, Poetry, and Art), as well as Pep Squad (the Central step team), United Pan Africa, and various individual and small group acts. Whether it was Jadon Barksale’s original poem “Marathon,” to Rebecca Allen’s tear-jerking rendition of I’m Here from Tony Award Winning hit The Color Purple, or a shocking conclusion with Central’s very own Beyoncé, Saniyah Granger—the AASU Showcase had students and faculty on the edge of their seats. Topics of Black beauty, racial inequality, and microaggressions among peers in higher-level classes were all brought up as a means to ignite the “difficult conversations” that many Black students want to bring to the forefront. Specifically following the murder of Tyre Nichols, AASU works to create a safe space for Black students to feel valued.

Having the space as AASU President to audition acts and curate the show was impactful to celebrating Black culture and being able to elevate Black voices, in a way that perhaps would not have happened as vastly with a faculty member as the organizer. Furthermore, the creation of the AASU Showcase Night Show came from our AASU Executive Board last year, and this year due to student creativity to create bake sales, raffles, and merchandise sales along with ticket prices, we were able to raise over $4,000 in one night. At Central, student-led organizations promote creativity and welcoming atmospheres for student growth and support.

7. In your opinion, what is one thing that the School District could do to improve our service to students?

Specifically, as a Black student leader, I think that the School District of Philadelphia could put more emphasis on ensuring that students feel a sense of belonging in the schools that they attend. For my IB Extended Essay, I did a correlational analysis between the School District of Philadelphia’s resource deficits and the rise in homicides in Philadelphia. Even though I recognize that funding deficits is not necessarily a district-decided issue, and much of it has to do with outstanding factors, I believe that the district should be doing more, even with the lack of resources they may have, to support students, predominantly Black students. For example, this month I checked the School District of Philadelphia website and was excited to see Black History Month initiatives, panels, and events! I think that the disconnect is that many students do not know about these efforts, because the average student doesn’t check the district website regularly. Therefore, the substantial work that the district may be putting in to support students, is lost in the message of mere Google Classroom posts. I think that to be more beneficial, students should see the organizers behind these events. Furthermore, similarly to how I believe that seeing teachers who look like you will promote aspirations to learn, seeing school district officials who look like us would be influential. I think that programming has not been dedicated enough in the district to providing for Black students specifically and I think that work needs to be done to ensure that this district is addressing issues with equity and not simply equality.

Today in Philadelphia, we are in a homicide epidemic, and it is plaguing the lives of Black students the most. By providing school district conversations between Black students/predominantly Black schools and Black district officials, Black students will begin to see an example of themselves in power, and could become more motivated to succeed in school. Moreover, by having more specialized programming for Black students, I think the district will see larger success in providing support to Black students.