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Activists seek more than a new building for West Philly High

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The groundbreaking for West Philadelphia High School October 27 was conducted in a driving rain, under a tent, at which officials, students and activists turned over shovelfuls of sand that was spread on top of a tarp. Nobody actually broke any ground.

The sand-shoveling exercise brought to mind the superficial makeovers that so many Philadelphia high schools have undergone over the last several decades – when promises inspired by new, state-of-the-art buildings quickly evaporate as the schools revert to their prior status as a troubled, low-achieving neighborhood high school.

Phillip Pearce remembers when he first heard Paul Vallas announce West Philadelphia was in line for a new building to replace the venerable edifice that opened in 1912.

“Everybody was excited,” said Pearce, then a sophomore at the school and active in the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU).

Students, however, quickly came down from cloud nine.

“I was sitting in a meeting and the older students were saying, ‘You will get a new building, but will anything really change except having brand new classrooms and polished floors?’”

The task, then and now, he said, is “to make sure it’s not just a new building but a facility that will really change the way our community envisions education for our students."

The story of the reform efforts at West Philadelphia is one in which students and activists decided to take charge of forging a new direction for the school, researching best practices elsewhere and presenting detailed plans for creating several smaller, themed high schools.

Those plans, however, were never fully embraced by the School District, and the new building design represents a “compromise” in which a fairly traditional building can be used to either maintain one large school or support three small learning communities with some common areas.

“We did some concessions to make it the design it is today,” said Althea Fogle, chair of the West Philadelphia High Community Partners and a graduate of the school. “There were things we had wanted to make sure that each learning community or academy was clearly identified. Ideally, we wanted four separate buildings. We wanted each school to have its own principal.”

But the District’s facilities team, wary that many school reform initiatives turn out to be fads and concerned about cost, demurred. And Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has been less committed to the small schools idea than her predecessor Paul Vallas, who led the District when West’s reform planning started.

“They said we couldn’t do that,” Fogle said. “But through the design they could make sure each learning community is easily identifiable.”

On the other hand, West Principal Saliyah Cruz and Michael Silverman, head of the new High School Region, are committed to maintaining small learning communities in urban leadership, business and technology, and creative and performing arts.

A fourth, the Automotive Academy, is located off-site.

Cruz and Silverman have also agreed that West’s leadership team will build some professional development around The Five School Study by Research for Action, which chronicles the ups-and-downs of small schools and small learning communities going back to the halcyon days of the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative. The report found that while the idea of creating academically rigorous small learning communities in large comprehensive high schools was pioneered here 20 years ago, the movement was swallowed up in politics and resistance from both the bureaucracy and the teachers’ union while catching on elsewhere.

“Understanding what happened in the past is a nice way to bring people from across roles, whether parent, student, SLC coordinator, principal, or classroom teacher, so they can discuss what they want to happen going forward and what their next steps need to be,” said Jolley Christman, one of the authors of the study.

Since Cruz became principal two years ago, West has significantly improved its climate and strengthened the small learning communities, which had withered away in the years before her arrival as the school virtually descended into chaos.

“She made the decision to move back to small learning communities and took themes from our community plan,” said Eric Braxton, formerly of PSU and now with the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF). A re-energized staff “did the hard work of developing them.”

A big help in this effort, he said, was Ackerman’s decision to create common planning periods for teachers in all high schools. In addition to giving teachers time to collaborate and discuss student work in depth, that decision required the hiring of new teachers, many of whom came with renewed enthusiasm.

The community is engaging for the work ahead before and after the new building opens in September 2011. But while Ackerman’s policies have been supportive in some ways, in others they could clash with the community’s vision. One major issue is the degree of curricular autonomy the administration will allow the school to have.

“We think we have a principal and staff doing dynamic things, and we need to give them flexibility,” said Braxton.

Another important issue is autonomy for hiring staff and controlling its own budget, something that Pearce said was a common feature in the successful small schools he and other students researched in different cities.

“What made these schools successful is the community’s ability to hire teachers, set its own budget, and have a really solid curriculum that’s based on what the school’s desires were,” he said.

Brian Armstead, director of community engagement for PEF, said that he and others are working with Germantown High and the two Olneys, East and West, on a process to shape reform in those institutions, using lessons learned from the West experience.

“We’re making a more concerted effort to bring [District] leadership and the community together earlier,” he said. “With West Philadelphia, even though attempts were made to [do that], it was an outside process. The community tried to bring the District on board later. Now, we want to begin the process in a more collaborative fashion.”

Pearce said that the community partners are meeting monthly with school officials to make sure the small learning communities stay strong, and especially to work on improving parental engagement in school.

“It’s definitely going to take work,” he said. “But we’ve been working on it for a long time and [school officials] know we’re not backing down.”

A musician with a year under his belt at Millersville University, Pearce is planning to return to Community College of Philadelphia next semester and eventually get a music education degree from Temple.

At the soggy groundbreaking, he was running around videotaping with a Flip camera. Despite his pivotal role as a Philadelphia Student Union leader when the reform project was conceived, he wasn’t asked to help turn the sand.

“I wish I was,” he said. “It would have been monumental for me.”