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At West, students and staff say they fear reprisals for speaking out

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

West Philadelphia High School senior Marie Hines told the School Reform Commission on Wednesday that students are scared to speak up about the sudden return of the climate problems that used to plague the school.

“We feel as though no one can speak out, or you could be transferred,” Hines told the SRC in public testimony. “I was concerned about speaking today.” Hines came with a group of nine students from West who then met with District officials about a range of concerns about the school.

Her comments about retaliation for speaking out are being echoed by some teachers, who maintain that staff members who are vocal about the ongoing turmoil at West have been targeted for reprisal. In interviews Thursday, two District administrators who met with the staff last week denied this.

While District officials took pains to allay the students’ fears on Wednesday and to promise forums for students to air their concerns, they later reported that 59 students have been transferred out of West so far this school year. They disputed that the transfers were retribution for speaking out.

“I reviewed every credit profile of those 59 personally,” said interim Principal John Chapman, who said the school is focused on identifying over-age and undercredited students who might be better served in alternative settings.

Tomás Hanna, the associate superintendent of academic support, added that he had witnessed students at the school acting disrespectfully toward staff and authorized appropriate disciplinary action to be taken.

In talking to the media after the SRC meeting, three of the West students had a different view of the transfers.

“Some of [the transferred] students were over-age,” Hines told reporters. “But the majority was because they had a problem with the administration and they spoke up. Maybe it wasn’t the right way [for students] to go about it, but [school leaders] didn’t say, ‘OK, we’re going to talk about it.’ [They] took it as ‘OK, you disrespected me, so you got to go.’“

The concern about reprisals against those sounding alarm bells about West extends to teaching staff at the school.

Last week, both Neil Geyette, who headed West’s Urban Leadership Academy, and Laura Boyce, who headed the school’s 9th Grade Academy, were removed from their academy leadership positions.

“A lot of [teachers] look at the example of the two of them and draw conclusions,” said third-year history teacher Zoelene Hill. “You have two of our most vocal teachers who are opposed to some of the things that the new administration was doing removed from positions of power. It’s instilling fear. I know it’s because they were vocal.”

Hanna confirmed on Wednesday that there had been changes in staffing in West’s academies, but he offered a totally different explanation for the changes. He said the academy leaders were put back in the classroom full-time because they were among "the stronger teachers in the building." Academy directors don’t have a full course load.

"We were concerned about the level of rigor in the classrooms, so one of the recommendations was to have the academy leaders [given] full rosters back in the classroom,” he explained.

But some teachers aren’t buying it.

“That’s the answer that’s going to be out there,” said Hill. “But the removal from administrative positions was not done across the school. There is a sense of fear and skepticism [among some teachers] of what the District claims to be true.”

Contacted for comment, Boyce herself said she had received no information on the reasons for the change to her roster.

Apparently, concerns about retaliation stemmed from a meeting last week of the West staff with Hanna, Associate Superintendent of Schools Penny Nixon, and Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery. The meeting was called to discuss the announcement that interim Principal Ozzie Wright was going on leave as well as the larger problems at West.

During the meeting, say multiple sources, District officials strongly chided staff members for taking their complaints about the school to the press, saying that they “have a really good idea” about who had been sharing information with the media.

“I would characterize their tone regarding speaking to the press as threatening and their follow-up actions as vindictive,” said one veteran teacher, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

“There was no mention of a specific policy (regarding staff and press) other than [that] people should have gone to the District with concerns first and not the media," the veteran teacher continued. "[But] we had made our concerns clear from the start of the school year to Wright and Wiley, who are District-appointed staff. After five weeks of the District waffling or ignoring [those complaints], people reached out [to the press] to call attention to the situation.”

Nixon said in a phone interview Thursday that she talked to teachers about speaking to the media, but that "no threats were intended." Rather, she told them the administration should know about the problems first so they can help, she said.

"If anything, the tone was … none of us were saying you can’t reach out to the media, but give us a chance to handle" the issues at the school, said Hanna. "To read it the first time in the press, that’s what we were getting at."

Both students and teachers who spoke with the Notebook about the issue said the personnel changes to the academies were a “big deal” in maintaining a positive atmosphere at West.

“The academies helped the climate a lot” in recent years, said Hines. “Because there are no more academies, the climate has destructed. You need to work with students.”

Teacher Hill said that while top-flight classroom instruction is important, teacher leadership outside the classroom is also crucial to a school’s success.

“We needed more of [Geyette], not less,” said Hill. “He built relationships with some of our most troubled students, their parents, their parole officers. In a school that is so troubled, you need those kinds of tight relationships with students. He was able to do that because of a lessened class load.”

Hanna said that West’s administrative and counseling staff, including four assistant principals, is picking up the work previously done by the academy leaders. Last year there were three assistant principals and this year there are four – two for academics and one for climate. Chapman is also bringing in reinforcements for the leadership team, including Tilghman L. Moore and Clare Tracy-Stickney, both also retired District administrators.

“Change is difficult,” said Hanna. “Our work is to ensure that academic outcomes are improved. We’ve got a team of folks [now at West] who we believe are positioned to do that work well. We’re confident that we’re going to be in a much better place.”

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