This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
West Philadelphia High School has been in the news a lot in the last few weeks. The Inquirer did a story on the turnaround at West and Tuesday was the groundbreaking ceremony for the new building.
While West still has a long way to go, there have been some great strides made in the last two years.
The media reports, however, often miss the intricacies of what it takes to make this kind of change.
Channel 6 gave most of the credit to kicking out “bad kids.” Other reports have turned Principal Saliyah Cruz into the second coming of Joe Clarke, intimating that she has single-handedly whipped the school into shape (something that Mrs. Cruz herself denies). These kinds of stories are attractive, but they also obscure the truth about how schools change.
One of the best things that Principal Cruz had done is to empower her staff. She trusts them, she listens to them, and she lets them do their jobs.
The result of this has been a staff that really goes the extra mile for students. They collaborate with each other and create innovative ideas to support students. The fact that the School District allowed for common planning time in all the comprehensive high schools this year is helping to create this spirit of collaboration. Most teachers are willing to put in extra time and energy when they feel that they are being respected.
It is this staff that really deserves most of the credit for the changes that have occurred at West.
In addition to Mrs. Cruz and the staff, students and community members have played an important role in making this possible. The West Philadelphia High School Community Partners bring together students, parents, teachers, and community members to improve education at West. The Philadelphia Student Union has organized students at West since 1997. Members of the Community Partners and Student Union helped to hire Mrs. Cruz after the chaos that took over the school a few years ago. They also advocated for breaking the schools into small learning communities.
Students and community members especially advocated for the creation of the Urban Leadership Academy, which engages students in a rigorous academic program by getting them involved in organizing projects to solve problems in the community. Many people opposed the Urban Leadership program at first because they did not know what it was, but it has since become one of the strongest programs in the school. The hard work of making the small learning communities happen has been done by the staff, but students and the community played and important supporting role.
There are a number of other programs at West that are contributing to the change. The Community School run by the Netter Center at Penn offers a huge array of programs and supports for students. The Business and Technology Academy is run by a strong core of veteran teachers. The Automotive and Engineering Academy has long been a strength of the school. There is also a new 9th Grade Academy using the Talent Development model. In addition, the school has adopted a method of addressing student behavior called Restorative Practices that “focuses on repairing the harm done to people and relationships rather than on punishing offenders." It certainly doesn’t hurt that the school has received two major federal grants.
There are still huge problems at West.
Academic achievement has a long way to go, but the climate of the school has made a 180-degree change from a few years ago, and that is the first step. One challenge that the school is facing is that while the staff is coming up with new and innovative ideas to improve academic achievement, the bureaucracy and rules and regulations of the School District often get in the way of effective implementation. A major challenge for the District is how to hold schools accountable without stifling creativity and talent.
While big changes are still needed at West, there are many reasons to be hopeful. The media may try to reduce this story to one about a heroine principal and some bad students that needed to be kicked out, but the truth is much more complicated.
The true story as I see it is about an administration that respects and supports its staff, a bunch of innovative programs that support students, engaged students and community members, and a little bit of money.