This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Bill Hangley Jr.
The head of the national teachers’ union was at West Philadelphia High this week to ask, “How can I help you?” For many of the teachers at West, any help she provides may come too late.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, believes classroom instructors are unfairly scapegoated for the failures of school systems. She visited West to learn more about the “community school” model that offers the kind of diverse services and resources that the national No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law neither requires nor rewards.
Teachers and staff at West told Weingarten that despite significant improvements in school safety and a dramatic expansion of its community partnerships, West landed on the list of Renaissance Schools slated for “turnaround” because of poor scores on state reading and math tests, the PSSA.
The reliance on test scores as the primary measure of progress has left their staff’s future uncertain.
As a Renaissance School, West will lose at least half its teachers for next year. All of them will be transferred out and no more than half can be hired back.
To Weingarten, this kind of “turnaround,” embraced by the Obama administration as its leading school reform strategy, amounts to little more than “teacher-bashing” – holding teachers accountable for test scores, but giving scant consideration to what else they might do to improve schools.
“I’m very uncomfortable with the fact that you see this public rhetoric, born out of political expediency, that essentially is targeted against the group of people in America that have opted to make a difference in the lives of other Americans,” she said.
Demanding such a drastic change in personnel at this stage of West’s reform efforts is not only premature, but indicates lack of appreciation for what has been achieved, staff members said.
“Any way you can define dysfunction, it was here,” said West’s principal Saliyah Cruz, who arrived three years ago. “It was pretty much a shell of a school. We had an environment where people could do some pretty horrible things to each other. The place is so big, nobody knew who anybody was.”
Now, staff members at West say the atmosphere has dramatically improved. With the help of a $6.3 million, three-year grant from the Department of Labor – awarded because West had landed on a list of “persistently dangerous” schools – West has afterschool programs, tutoring, internships at outside organizations, and even stipends for students working on special projects.
The money also supports a staff of eight who run the school’s Student Success Center, where any of the school’s 900 students can get connected with a wide range of special classes, projects and internships. In academies, students can learn about culinary arts, automotive science, filmmaking, art, medicine, and more.
Senior Raynita Williams told Weingarten that she forgot about West’s bad reputation once she found out how much the school had to offer. “I had heard stories,” she said. “But there’s nothing like West. They’ve got sports, arts, drill teams, stuff like that. It’s about your personality.” Her success in the classroom earned her a full scholarship to LaSalle University. She plans to be a lawyer. Weingarten also heard from students striving for careers in cooking, zoology, nursing, and obstetric medicine.
The head of West’s community school programs, Samantha Foster, says that West wasn’t getting credit for the many individual success stories and a dramatic drop in school violence.
“They’re looking for numbers on the state standardized test,” she said. “But if you consider where this school was at, you couldn’t possibly teach kids with a couch burning in the basement."
Foster called it “strange” to assume that the staff at the school is not equipped to impact the academic results, given its success in making such dramatic improvements in climate.
Foster and the other Success Center employees are safe in their positions for now; because they are grant-funded, they are not subject to the “forced transfers” that will require West’s teachers to reapply for their jobs if they want to stay.
And while the District has yet to make a final decision about exactly how the Renaissance shakeup will change West’s administration, she worries about its possible impact. “The strength of our program is our staff,” she said. “So obviously there’s a concern. These student-teacher relationships are the core of what we do.”
Weingarten promised to lobby Philadelphia school officials on behalf of West, in order to ensure that its community programs can continue no matter what the Renaissance initiative brings. It’s part of her broader goal of diversifying the way schools are evaluated, so that places like West get credit for innovations and community partnerships as well as test scores.
As Congress and the Obama administration gear up for reauthorization of NCLB, which is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the AFT is pushing to reduce its punitive measures and increase the support it offers to struggling schools.
Weingarten was in town to speak to this year’s National Forum on Community Schools in Center City. The term refers to schools that offer more than just instruction, but also tutoring, counseling, internships, health services, and extracurricular activities. Community schools typically work in partnership with outside organizations. Many offer longer school days and resources for parents and families as well as students.
Weingarten told an audience of hundreds of educators that urban schools need to be more than test-prep factories. She said that the community school model can help compensate for the narrow focus of NCLB, providing the social supports and real-life work experience students need to compete for jobs and scholarships in a demanding economy.
“We’re set in an old system that presumed that if you graduated, that’s nice, but if you didn’t, you could be a homemaker or work in a factory. But look at our economy now,” said Weingarten. “We have to give [urban students] all the things that suburban parents can give and will give.”
Weingarten was joined by Dennis Van Roekel, head of the National Education Association (NEA), who said that while NCLB was well-intentioned, its focus on reading and math scores has had unintended consequences. “What we’ve seen is this incredible narrowing of the curriculum,” he said. “And we’re not reaching all the kids. We’ve forgotten the purpose of education. We’ve forgotten the student. It’s much more than math and reading – it’s about citizenship and being a member of a democracy.”
Both educators told the convention that they’d push hard this year to expand federal support for community schools.
West is an example of how the community school approach can bring major change. After arriving at West, Cruz moved quickly to follow its blueprint . “There weren’t really any partners when I came here three years ago,” she said. She started developing a leadership team and looking for external partners. Soon West was part of a network of schools working with the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
Weingarten told the staff at West that she’s committed to revising NCLB and the state testing it requires so that schools like West can have more flexibility to experiment with curriculum. And she reiterated her belief that teachers are being unfairly blamed for the problems of urban schools. “What the demagogy does is strips us of our moral authority in the classroom,” she said. “If you keep on banging and banging away at the people who are helping kids, then what are you saying to kids about their school teachers?”
Cruz, the principal, said she’d welcome Weingarten’s help. And while she’s hoping for more support for West’s community school initiatives, she’s not holding her breath for the end of the era of high-stakes tests.
“We have not had that magic number, that PSSA number, to legitimize all the things that we’ve done,” said Cruz. “So at the moment, our efforts are being a little bit dismissed. When you hear that the only kid [from Philadelphia’s public schools] who made it to Moot Court nationals is from West, or the first-place science fair winner is from West, the answer still is, ‘What does your PSSA look like?’
She added: “We have to do all these things,” she said. “But we also have to get that score.”