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An alarming move at S. Philadelphia High

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

The decision to name South Philadelphia High School a Promise Academy is an alarming move for a school community that deserved to go through at least one year without dramatic upheaval and chaos.

Southern arguably started its own turnaround process this past fall – one that was community-driven, supported by new school leadership, and backed by both federal and state agreements about addressing repeated civil rights violations against Asian immigrant youth. Otis Hackney, the school’s principal, had called on his staff to work with him to create a radically different school culture, a school culture that by all accounts has improved immensely.

The naming of South Philadelphia High School as a Renaissance School sends a bewildering message to everyone involved that the school isn’t on the right path after all and that it is the District, not the school, that holds all the right answers.

One of the reasons for concern is the process of this week’s announcement. Despite the active involvement of students, community members, and staff in the work of rebuilding Southern, no one from the District apparently thought it worthwhile to dialogue with either the school or broader community about its intentions. I would assume the decision to make Southern a Promise Academy wasn’t made overnight. Yet in multiple recent meetings about how the school would move forward both academically and culturally, not one District official ever made mention of the Promise Academy model.

It’s hard to make sense of why the District moved so urgently. For much of last year the District refused to make administrative changes and stood by disgraced then-principal LaGreta Brown on the basis that students couldn’t afford further instability during the year. One can hardly forget the superintendent’s complaint at around this time last year that South Philadelphia was taking up “a lot of my time.”

Now, at a time when students, staff, and community leaders express confidence and optimism about the school’s progress, the District apparently has its own plans – driven not by the overall health of the school, not by building up a culture which can support academic excellence, not by helping a community heal from years of racial division and abuse, but by test scores. The District’s selective sense of urgency couldn’t be more apparent.

It’s been suggested that this could be a way for new principal Otis Hackney, who will remain in his position, to rebuild his staff. But last year’s experience with Renaissance shows that extreme turbulence rules the period between the school’s designation and the early part of the following school year. Given the District’s clear knowledge of that reality, it raises serious questions about whether this was the only route the District could have taken at a school that already has teacher site selection.

Other concerns also demand answers:

  • Staff and student trainings were supposed to be a major focus of the school year, according to both federal and state settlement agreements around civil rights violations against Asian youth at the school. Those trainings are likely irrelevant now as staff restructures. Isn’t this a point of concern, given the settlement agreement reached with federal and state authorities?
  • Promise Academies are likely to be under heightened scrutiny to enact the empowerment model curriculum. This is a heavily scripted curriculum often involving whole classrooms with little if any differentiation among students. How will that work in a school like South Philadelphia High that requires skilled and diverse methods to work with the school’s significant immigrant population?
  • This year’s analysis of Promise Academies indicates that these schools have a high concentration of new, inexperienced teachers. Is that an appropriate model at a school like South Philadelphia High where violence and racial conflict have driven away plenty of teachers and students? How will the new teacher training program reflect the need for racial and cultural sensitivity and a commitment and familiarity with multiracial dialogue?

At the end of the day, one has to wonder what the District thinks its educational mission is at South Philadelphia High School. For years, groups of students acting often on a mob mentality beat up their fellow classmates based on race – a situation the school and District allowed through “deliberate indifference” so awful it was deemed to constitute “unlawful discrimination” and warrant federal intervention. The problems and resentments still linger among students and staff.

One would hope that when looking at this school, educators would see it through the lens of trying to understand our youth and helping them develop their sense of humanity. Don’t we need some time for our youth to be human with one another, or for us as caring adults, teachers, and mentors to better understand what’s going on with them as people? It’s stunning to think that of all the things this community needs, the District’s determination is that it wants new staff to enforce a generic curriculum so Southern’s students can pass a test better.

The District’s "my way or the highway" approach did not bode well for schools like West Philadelphia High, where engaged school communities have worked on reform issues over a period of time. Yet, here we are again with a District barreling through with its version of reform, on its timeline — all the while cutting off any communication with engaged and deeply invested communities. It’s the height of arrogance and is a huge problem for school communities looking for sustainable – not dramatic – change.

UPDATE: The District issued a statement from the Office of the General Counsel:

"The decision by The School District of Philadelphia to designate South Philadelphia High School a Promise Academy will not interfere with the District’s implementation of the settlement agreements reached between the District and the United States Department of Justice and between the District and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The District continues to move forward in fulfilling its commitments and obligations in accordance with the terms of the settlements. This includes student and staff trainings scheduled to take place this spring."