This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A chaotic day at West Philadelphia High School ended Tuesday with 11 students under arrest – including one girl who assaulted the school’s parent ombudsman.
The arrests, which stemmed from two separate incidents that originated in West’s 9th grade academy, included eight boys and three girls. In addition to the student charged with assault, ten students were charged with disorderly conduct. One of those students was also charged with possession of unidentified "contraband." No injuries were reported. All of the students have been suspended, and disciplinary transfers are pending for each, according to District officials.
"What happened today was totally out of the ordinary," said West Principal Ozzie Wright. "We had students who were arrested because we can’t stand for that kind of thing in the school. Any incident that happens will immediately be addressed."
The climate at West has been a hot-button topic for years. But after 2006-07, the number of serious incidents – especially assaults – declined sharply, as did student suspensions. Staff and community largely credited the leadership of former principal Saliyah Cruz, who implemented a restorative practices approach to discipline and oversaw the implementation of a 9th grade success academy by the Talent Development program.
During Cruz’s tenure, however, PSSA proficiency rates, especially in math, remained dismal. As a result of the continued poor academic performance, the District declared West Renaissance-eligible and slated for dramatic overhaul last spring. After a contentious selection process, however, West’s participation in the Renaissance initiative was deferred.
In July, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman replaced Cruz with co-principals, District veterans Ozzie Wright and LaVerne Wiley. In addition, the Talent Development program was eliminated, and West experienced a roughly 40 percent turnover in its staff from last year. Then, in a move that came as a surprise to some staff members, Wiley was reassigned last Friday to become a support principal at Clymer Elementary School in North Philadelphia.
Some teachers say they are fed up, citing examples of a chaotic environment at the school.
"For [the climate improvements] to be dismantled so quickly is pretty shocking," said one veteran teacher, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
Despite the signs of turmoil, however, Wright said that the new school year is going "very well."
"We are trying to make an environment that is conducive to education. I don’t want people to get the opinion that this is causing the climate to go downhill," he said.