This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Barely two months into his tenure as principal at West Philadelphia High School, Ozzie Wright is stepping aside, taking an open-ended sick leave for unspecified health challenges.
“He sent us a letter yesterday to let us know he had to go out on sick leave. He is hoping to return,” said Penny Nixon, the District’s associate superintendent of schools.
John Chapman, 63, has been named interim principal at West. Chapman, who, like Wright, is officially retired, most recently served as interim principal of Daroff Elementary last spring. Previously, Chapman had been identified by former District CEO Paul Vallas as a “troubleshooter,” serving as interim principal at both Overbrook and Benjamin Franklin High Schools at times of turmoil there.
“John’s role is to make sure we hold [West] together,” said Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery. “It’s been an up and down couple of days, but I think if you saw the reaction to him, you’d be impressed that we have someone who knows how to handle the wheel. We don’t expect any disruption in climate or instruction at the school.”
The move comes just nine days after Wright’s co-principal, LaVerne Wiley, was reassigned to Clymer Elementary School.
Together, Wright and Wiley were assigned to replace Saliyah Cruz, whom Superintendent Arlene Ackerman removed in July, but only six weeks into the school year, both are gone.
The decision to transfer out Cruz came on the heels of West’s contentious Renaissance selection process, which ultimately resulted in the school’s intended overhaul being delayed by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in response to an alleged conflict of interest on West’s School Advisory Council (SAC).
Joy Herbert, the parent of an 11th grader and co-chair of West’s School Advisory Council (SAC), was one of the parents at the center of the allegations, which a District “investigation” has yet to resolve.
Herbert described the move as another in a series of blows to the struggling neighborhood school.
“There’s not one aspect of the school that is not in chaos at this point,” said Herbert. “Our kids’ education is going up in flames, but there’s just nothing you can do, no matter how loud you scream, no matter how dedicated you are.”
Some West teachers have expressed frustration with what they describe as the school’s rapidly deteriorating climate.
After three years of steady reductions in the number of serious incidents at the school under Cruz, West has recently experienced a chaotic day of multiple fights leading to the arrest of eleven students and seen the schedules of students in its 9th grade academy change three times.
District officials countered the teachers’ characterization of West as a school moving in reverse, however.
“What Ozzie inherited was not in fact a school that was in any way, shape, or form a strong school,” said Nunery. “If you look at the stats, like we do, West needed a lot of work.”
Last year, fewer than 3 percent of West 11th graders scored proficient or advanced in math on the state PSSA exam.
Nunery stressed that a plan is in place to turn West around in advance of the school’s move to a new building, currently being erected at 49th and Chestnut Street.
“This is a critical point,” he said. “We’re going after this full guns, working with teachers together. We don’t want to take an old and dysfunctional culture into a brand-spanking-new place.”