This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
West Philadelphia High School might not be getting an overhaul next year, but its teaching staff will be.
District officials said Friday that 44 of the school’s 72 current staff have opted to return to West, leaving nearly 30 vacancies to be filled by September, depending on the school’s final staffing needs.
District spokesperson Evelyn Sample-Oates called it “wonderful” that so many teachers have decided to return. “[The returning staff] have a vested interest in the kids. It shows that they want to be there and they are committed to West Philadelphia High School.”
The 39 percent staff turnover is significantly higher than in recent years, however.
According to District data, from 2003 to 2005, West turned over between 26 percent and 30 percent of its staff each year. Beginning in 2006, West began to experience a marked improvement in staff retention, losing fewer than 20 percent in each of the next two years, the last for which data was available.
The increased loss of staff this year is the result of West’s twice-delayed and eventually deferred participation in superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative. Because West is now slated to become a Renaissance School in 2011-12, the school will almost certainly undergo similar staff churn next year, when all teachers will again be force-transferred out.
If West eventually becomes a District-managed Promise Academy or Innovation School, only 50 percent of those teachers can be rehired. If West becomes a charter school under outside management, its new charter provider will be free to hire whomever it wants, but returning teachers will lose their union representation.
Despite the short timeline for filling the vacant teaching positions at West, principal Saliyah Cruz remained upbeat.
"I am confident that there are good teachers out there looking for jobs and I believe, by September, we will be ready to open," said Cruz, who the District announced will be back at West next year, aided by a District support team. "We will all be very busy this summer … but we have a solid core, and I know everyone is committed to making sure we are ready by September."
Some have been pushing for West to be exempted from the districtwide hiring freeze because of the school’s unique circumstances, but Sample-Oates said that possibility was still to be determined.
In March, over the protests of some staff and community members, West was designated a Renaissance School slated for “turnaround” in 2010-11.
During the school’s contentious Renaissance selection process, however, there were two major delays, leading the District to eventually announce on June 2 that West’s involvement in the Renaissance initiative would be deferred until 2011-12.
The uncertainty over potential changes in management and working conditions at West led many teachers to enter into the District’s site selection process. When the second major delay in the selection process was announced on May 26, some teachers predicted that turnover next year could be as a high as 90 percent.
After the deferral was announced, however, District officials met with West staff to lay out their options. The 17 teachers who had at that point already site selected positions elsewhere were free to return without penalty. Although all the remaining teachers at the school had been automatically force-transferred as part of the Renaissance process, there were no limits placed on the number of staff who could return to West.
The teachers were initially given 24 hours to make their decisions, but the District eventually extended that deadline for many.
Last Friday, many West staff worked to rally their colleagues to stay on board.
"There were a bunch of us who lobbied teachers to come back, including many who thought they were leaving," said Neil Geyette, director of West’s Urban Leadership Academy. "We still lost 30 people, but there were some very talented young teachers who thankfully agreed to come back."
Among those who are not coming back, said Geyette, are some of West’s most experienced teachers.
"It’s unfortunate..[this year], we had a nice balance of experience and youth, but there’s not going to be a lot of experienced staff left," he said.