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Strong reactions at West: Outrage, weariness

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

West Philadelphia High School is set to experience another dramatic shakeup, but there will be no repeat of last year’s tumultuous Renaissance match process.

On Tuesday, District officials announced that West will become a Promise Academy – an outcome that was bitterly opposed by some teachers, parents and community members during West’s ill-fated Renaissance experience last year.

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“All of the talk from [Superintendent Arlene] Ackerman about how she was going to take parents and the community into consideration didn’t matter,” said Joy Herbert, the mother of an 11th grader at West and vice-chair of West’s School Advisory Council [SAC]. “She knew exactly what she was doing. She wanted a Promise Academy, and she got it.”

Last spring, school-based teams at "Renaissance-eligible" schools were given the opportunity to apply to become a Promise Academy – an option West rejected.

The West SAC also rejected the opportunity to become a Promise Academy when Ackerman reintroduced the possibility as part of the group’s deliberations during the matching process.

This year, however, there was no process for parent, community or staff input in determining whether a school would become a Promise Academy.

A contingent from the West SAC spoke at a December meeting of the School Reform Commission in the hopes of entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with the District that would guarantee parents and community a role in deciding West’s future. The effort was unsuccessful.

A statement provided by District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs explained why the District designated West a Promise Academy this year:

The knowledge we’ve gained going through the first year of the Renaissance Schools Initiative has helped us fine-tune the program for year two. One of the main factors we considered when deciding which of the identified Renaissance Schools would be designated Promise Academies was similar school data. We found West Philadelphia had like demographics and achievement data to high schools participating in Year I of the initiative. Baseline data indicates that the similar schools are showing early indications of success as Promise Academies. Using this information the District determined that we have the capacity to turnaround West Philadelphia using the Promise Academy model.

As part of its transition to a so-called "Traditional" Promise Academy, West’s staff and leadership will be reconstituted – formally this time.

For the second year in a row, West will experience a turnover of at least 50 percent of its teaching staff. Interim Principal John Chapman will also be forced to reapply for his job, leaving open the very real possibility that West will open the 2011 school year with its fourth new principal in the past year.

Second-year teacher Amina Brown said she doesn’t plan on reapplying for her job at West.

“Its been a really rough year in terms of all the uncertainty. Teacher morale was already pretty low,” said Brown. “I just don’t think West will be the right place for me next year.”

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