ASHLEY BIRTWELL is Head of School at Sewickley Academy.
LEADER OF SEWICKLEY ACADEMY SPEAKS EXCLUSIVELY TO THE NEW PITTSBURGH COURIER
What do the words “Sewickley Academy” mean to you?
Do they mean “prestigious school” with notable alumni like state Rep. Valerie Gaydos, who currently represents the 44th House District, which includes Sewickley?
Or do they mean “a place with a diversity and inclusion problem,” which, according to some of the school’s seniors, needs some immediate fixing?
Sewickley Academy, the oldest co-ed independent school in the Pittsburgh region, has been in the news in the past weeks —police were called to the school over perceived safety concerns following a group of students and their parents demanding to deliver a petition to the head of school, Dr. Ashley Birtwell, outlining changes they wanted to see at the school; and a student-led protest was held near school grounds the following day, March 4, demanding that issues related to diversity and inclusion at the school be addressed. A few students there held signs that read: “Whose voices are being heard?” and “You looked Black students in the eye and said, ‘Call the police.’”
After a few weeks of disappearing from the local news scene, on Friday, April 1, the New Pittsburgh Courier spoke exclusively with Dr. Birtwell, who leads Sewickley Academy’s approximately 530 students in PreK-12, 34 percent of whom identify as students of color. Dr. Birtwell said she held meetings in the days after the March 4 protest with the high school’s seniors, the high school’s underclassmen, and a meeting with the “core group” of seniors (and their parents) most closely tied to starting the petition, which had garnered more than 100 student signatures.
The petition from the “core group of students” demanded primarily that they would be more involved in the hiring of a new Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice director, monthly meetings between students, administrators and the school’s board, and removing a new policy in the student handbook which allowed Sewickley Academy to discipline students who criticized the school’s decisions.
“We’re a real community and that’s OK that sometimes we’re going to have disagreements and sometimes kids are going to express that in a variety of ways,” Dr. Birtwell told the Courier. “And that’s all part of the growing up, the development process. What I view my role as an administrator is helping kids to learn constructive conflict resolution techniques. How do we come together so we can have that open discourse. And it’s OK to disagree; what we need to do is treat each other with kindness, respect, honor and come together as one community so that we build a really wonderful school for the future.”
When asked if any decisions had been made by Sewickley Academy after the initial meetings between the students and Dr. Birtwell, she said that there is already a student representative and parent representative on the committee to help select the next DEISJ director, and she told the students “that I’d be happy to pass along that feedback (concerning contents in the student handbook) to the (school’s) legal review team.”
Dr. Birtwell said she looks forward to “continuing conversations with the students. It’s important that they feel listened to, they feel heard and we continue that open dialogue.”
However, Dr. Birtwell, who attended Sewickley Academy from the seventh through tenth grade, acknowledged her school’s perception problem. “If I’m going to be totally honest, I’m concerned that some of the recent media coverage that we’ve had will harm my ability to recruit and attract the best students in our region, and especially students of color,” she told the Courier exclusively. “My concern is that they will have concerns that we aren’t a welcoming and inclusive school. And that’s quite the contrary. The fact that our FAME (Fund for the Advancement of Minorities through Education) students, for instance, are eager to come back…I just hope people give us the chance to spend time on campus.”
FAME’s executive director, Darryl T. Wiley, announced on Feb. 17 that the organization had suspended its partnership with Sewickley Academy for the 2022-23 school year. FAME had questions about the “direction” the school was heading after the terminations of the school’s DEISJ director, LaVern Burton, and its director of admissions and financial aid, Douglass Leek, in July 2021. Burton and Leek are African American. Burton filed a federal lawsuit against the school a week after he was fired, alleging race discrimination and breach of contract. Sewickley Academy settled with Burton in October 2021. Terms were not disclosed.
FAME helps Black students pay some of the tuition to attend schools like Sewickley Academy, The Ellis School, Winchester Thurston, The Kiski School and Shady Side Academy. Two “FAME students” are graduating this year from Sewickley Academy, and four other FAME students will continue to attend Sewickley Academy with no change in FAME’s support.
Speaking of financial support, Dr. Birtwell was quick to point out to the Courier that she has substantially increased scholarship amounts as a whole in her first full year as head of school. In institutional, or need-based aid, “we’ll be giving out five million additional dollars” for students, she said. And for new students in grades six through nine, “I tripled the amount of merit scholarships that we give out on an annual basis,” Dr. Birtwell said.
“Sewickley Academy has been committed to diversity on our campus, and we continuously are striving to continue that commitment and stay at the cutting edge and being a welcoming and inclusive campus for all of our students,” Dr. Birtwell added. “The fact that I increased by such substantial amounts all of our forms of financial aid this year speaks volumes to the fact that I’m trying to remove any and all barriers for the best students across this region to have access to Sewickley Academy.”
One thing that can’t be removed, however, is what the people of Pittsburgh, especially the African American population, think of Sewickley Academy. Will African American parents want to send their children there? Will the children want to go there? Maybe there’s been no change in how many Black families view Sewickley Academy since the firings of the school’s only two Black administrators, Burton and Leek, were fired last summer.
Or maybe there has been a change of heart.
Only time will tell, and the clock began ticking weeks ago.
ANTHONY WILES, now a senior at Sewickley Academy.
Anthony Wiles, a senior at Sewickley Academy, spoke at a press conference on March 9 with his fellow students by his side. Wiles, who is Black, is part of the “core group of students” who have been pushing for the school to change its ways related to diversity and inclusion. Wiles, who has been recognized nationally for his work as a poet, had no problem speaking in front of the cameras for what he believes in.
“No matter what you might think, we all love the school, we all love Sewickley,” the soon-to-be Sewickley grad said. “Sewickley has made us into the young leaders that we are today, but now we’re fighting for our school — We are fighting to save our school.”