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Students, community to District: ‘You broke it’

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

The District’s handling of West Philadelphia High School has resulted in a sudden, dramatic return of the climate problems that used to plague the struggling neighborhood school, students from the school repeatedly told District officials during a community meeting held Thursday night at Kingsessing Recreation Center.

“Our climate was fixed. But you’ve taken out everybody who fixed [it], so now we have to start from scratch,” said West senior Delaney Foxworth, one of four members of the school’s newly formed senior committee present at the meeting.

Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery said the District was focused on the present and was moving swiftly to address the climate issues at the school, including the appointment this week of John Chapman as the new principal.

The students enumerated a litany of climate issues that they say have deteriorated this year following Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s decision to remove former principal Saliyah Cruz last July.

"Ninth graders feel isolated and don’t feel like they are a part of West Philadelphia High School," said senior Nigell Hester. He cited a new uniform policy, a new prohibition against 9th grades participating in schoolwide events such as pep rallies, and new physical barriers that have been erected in the building to keep freshmen in designated areas as the source of 9th graders’ discontent.

Two major fights last week – which ultimately led to the arrest of 11 students, all of whom are now facing disciplinary transfers – originated in West’s 9th grade academy.

Those types of serious incidents had all but disappeared under Cruz last year, said students.

“Everybody grew to love and respect Ms. Cruz,” said Hester. “We are the ones who are inside West Philadelphia High School, and we know that it changed last year.”

Ackerman initially replaced Cruz with District veterans Ozzie Wright and LaVerne Wiley, who were to serve as co-principals this year.

Six weeks into the school year, both are gone.

On Oct. 4, Wiley was transferred to Clymer Elementary School.

On Wednesday, the District announced that Wright, who is officially retired, would be taking an indefinite sick leave. His interim replacement, Chapman, 63, and also retired, was known as a “troubleshooter” under former CEO Paul Vallas.

During the community meeting Thursday night, students described the leadership turnover at the school as negatively impacting what had been strong, caring adult-student relationships at West.

“[The District] sends in new people from downtown who come right in and say ‘You gotta do this, you gotta do that,’ but they never take the time to ask how you are doing,” explained senior Shavona Hurd. “The climate was changed, but now they’re trying to change it all over again. Why fix something that was already fixed?”

District Deputy Superintendent Nunery disputed the positive characterization of Cruz’s tenure at West.

“The numbers don’t say everything was better,” said Nunery. “West Philadelphia High School is at the bottom of all the comprehensive high schools. West is in its 7th year of Corrective Action. Saliyah was the one who was there. These results are hers.”

During his remarks, Nunery referred repeatedly to West’s consistently dismal academic performance.

Last year, fewer than 3 percent of 11th graders scored proficient on the math portion of the state PSSA exam, and fewer than 17 percent scored proficient on the PSSA reading exam.

“This is what Dr. Ackerman is reacting to,” Nunery told the students. “She cares about you.”

While students maintained that West’s recent problems stem from the removal of Cruz, Nunery focused on the District’s recent decision to add Chapman to the staff, a move he said was in the works even before Wright announced he was stepping down. As explanation, Nunery referred to school climate data from this September, citing what he said was the high number of students at the school who have unexcused absences already this year.

Students and community members questioned both the accuracy and the relevance of that information, however.

“The problem with that [data] is that the ScholarChip [ID scanning] system didn’t work for the first month of school,” said Foxworth. “We had students who were in jail who were still on roll, and students who were in school getting charged with unexcused absences.”

Principal Chapman agreed that the system for tracking attendance needed repair.

In addition, some in the audience asked Nunery why he would use climate data from the current school year at West to explain the decision to remove Cruz last July.

“For you to use that data and highlight those points and not look at those numbers from last year is not fair to the process,” said Greg Benjamin, who was representing the Kingsessing 5th Division Community of Neighbors, a block captain association.

“How can you come out in a meeting using inaccurate numbers?” asked Benjamin after the meeting. “If something good was happening [last year], you have to accept the fact that you made this problem. [The District] is really not astute when it comes to building a defense for what they are doing.”

Asked about the issue after the meeting, Nunery spoke about the “currency of now.”

“I can look back to the past – it’s prologue for the present,” said Nunery. “But we had to act right now, given what we were seeing [at West.]”

Afterwards, all parties expressed a desire to right the ship at West as soon as possible.

Chapman and Nunery both agreed to meet with the senior committee to hear more about students’ concerns.

Venard Johnson of the Southeast PA Network for Health, Education and Welfare and the Nu-Juice Foundation, which helped organize the event, said that his group would be facilitating a series of listening sessions giving parents, community members, and students in the West community the chance to air their perspectives on the problems at the school.

And as for those most impacted by the ongoing turmoil at West, the students?

Those present expressed satisfaction that their voices were heard, but concern for their future.

“I felt as though we got our points across,” said Hester. “But our next question is what happens when academics don’t change [under the new leadership.] What happens then?”

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