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The damage may be done, say West teachers

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

The two-week delay imposed on West Philadelphia High School for choosing a “turnaround” provider under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools process could result in the loss of the some of the schools’ best teachers, according to nearly a dozen faculty members.

The result of Monday night’s final vote by West’s School Advisory Council (SAC) to select their preferred turnaround team will not be made public until Wednesday. The options were Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now, Ackerman’s own Promise Academy, and Mastery Charter.

The 62 teachers at West – and all 500 teachers at the District’s14 Renaissance Schools – have been “force transferred” out and guaranteed jobs somewhere in the system. The vote’s outcome will not change that.

If West goes with Diplomas Now or the Promise Academy, up to half can be hired back. A charter can hire whomever it wants, but the teachers have no union representation.

Six Promise Academies have already been named, and seven other schools were assigned providers on May 12.

But Ackerman pushed back West’s decision-making, reportedly because of concerns about adequate parental involvement in the West SAC and because of a perceived shortage of viable options for the school.

Prior to the delay, nearly half of the school’s teachers were actively seeking ways to stay at West, said Neil Geyette, coordinator of West’s Urban Leadership Academy.

But, he added, “Things have changed dramatically in the past week and a half. A core of about 27 teachers who wanted to come back is down to about seven. West’s best staff has essentially been lost.”

According to Geyette, the probable losses include all the school’s academic coaches, both 9th grade team leaders, and at least two of the school’s three academy leaders.

“This was [supposed to be] about failing schools needing the best teachers. But other schools have been taking the best teachers from the Renaissance Schools,” said Adam Furlong, a first-year math teacher at West.

Even though Ackerman specified that Renaissance teachers who accept positions at other schools had the “right of return” once they knew with whom the school was matched, some West teachers said at this stage it might be difficult for them to do so. Reneging on job offers elsewhere is not appealing, they said.

“Once I started getting interviews, I started picturing myself at other schools, and it became harder to say I would come back here no matter what,” said third-year history teacher Laura Boyce, who reluctantly accepted an offer to teach at the Bodine High School of International Affairs.

Geyette said he has heard similar sentiments from other teachers.

“The chances of teachers who have signed on for a position elsewhere reneging on that agreement and coming back to West are small,” he said. “These are not the kind of people who go back on their agreements.”

The site selection process, through which school leadership teams can directly interview and hire teachers without having to go through the District’s seniority-driven centralized placement system, began in early April. The best positions and best teachers tend to go fast.

Principal Saliyah Cruz says she has been busy fielding calls about her most outstanding staff members.

“Other schools are going to inherit our most valuable teachers,” she said. “The teachers who are most needed at West are the ones being offered the most positions.”

Months ago, observers of the process at West began warning that this might happen.

Blogging for the Notebook in early February, Eric Braxton, the Small Schools Project Coordinator at the Philadelphia Education Fund, wrote:

“Site selection begins April 15…but staff won’t know who the [Renaissance] managers are till May. Even if staff wanted to apply to come back to their old school, they will have to start applying for and accepting other jobs before they even know what will happen to their current school…Renaissance Schools will be the last schools to hire and therefore may be left with the least qualified teachers.”

As predicted, teachers have found themselves in a bind.

Although it would have been hard to believe just four years ago, West has become a place where teachers want to come – and stay.

“This is the best place I’ve seen,” said Matt Rogerson, a math teacher who has also done stints at Potter-Thomas, Barrett, and Alcorn. “Everyone is positive, and the staff is very cohesive.”

Indeed, in the evaluation of West conducted by SchoolWorks as part of the Renaissance process, reviewers found “a culture of accountability and sustainability,” a “climate of collaboration,” and a “focus on community.”

The collegial atmosphere that has developed at West has been instrumental in improving the school’s climate, teachers said.

But test scores are still low, and the District rejected both the staff’s plan to take over the school themselves and its organizing efforts to remove the school from the Renaissance list.

During the two-week delay in the SAC vote, Ackerman personally pitched the Promise Academy model to the council. According to Geyette and others, this resulted in a widespread fear among faculty of West becoming a Promise Academy and exacerbated the teacher exodus.

“The issue [with the Promise Academy model] from teachers’ perspective is that there is no clarity regarding coursework, what the day-to-day will look like, or how students will be supported,” said Geyette.

Boyce agreed. “We have no information on what a Promise Academy is, and what we do have is not impressive,” she said. “If I had known for sure [earlier] that we were going with Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now, I wouldn’t have even started [looking for other positions.]”

As part of a last-ditch effort to retain the school’s current teaching talent, Geyette and others worked with staff from Johns Hopkins, which is currently supporting the Talent Development Program in West’s 9th grade, to arrange “conditional interviews.”

“Teachers felt insecure, but they had an interest in having a position here,” Geyette said. “Conditional offers would probably have been reassuring to many who wanted to stay,”

Leo Jones, the Northeast Regional Manager for Talent Development High Schools at Johns Hopkins University, was receptive to the idea.

“We did begin discussions with faculty with an eye towards being ready to make offers when the [Renaissance] decision was ultimately made. There are some very good teachers here we would love to keep,” said Jones.

But the District, citing concerns that the process would be seen as District-approved, asked Johns Hopkins to put a halt to the preliminary interviews.

That development led even the energetic Geyette, a former Lindback Distinguished Teacher who founded the Urban Leadership Academy he now coordinates, to grow weary.

“I have a lot invested here, so it will be hard to walk away,” he said. “But there is just nobody left.”

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