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Photo: Bill Hangley, for WHYY/NewsWorks

Bill Hangley / WHYY NewsWorks

Catching up with King High

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

by Bill Hangley, Jr.
for WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook

This story, a product of a reporting collaboration between the Notebook and WHYY, was produced for radio and featured on NewsWorks Tonight. Bill Hangley reports from last week’s annual Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Bowl” game in Germantown.

Philadelphia school officials have named a new principal for Martin Luther King High in Germantown. You may have heard the story of how a politically connected charter school operator almost took over King. Now the school has a new plan, but plenty of unanswered questions remain.

It’s just a few minutes before kickoff and William Wade is the picture of optimism.

"You can throw the records out the door today," said Wade, the new principal of Martin Luther King High in East Germantown. This day his King Cougars will meet neighborhood rival Germantown High for their traditional homecoming battle. The Cougars are underdogs this year, but Wade hopes teamwork and spirit will carry the day.

"As you know, King won last year, even though they weren’t expected to. We came in here with the cup, and we intend to keep it," he said.

For Wade, a win would be well worth celebrating. Last spring, King found itself embroiled in a controversy that helped reshape Philadelphia’s education landscape. A mayoral report detailing closed-door political pressure over a lucrative charter school contract was followed by a major shakeup at the School Reform commission. Former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said the King controversy was the beginning of her end. And for King itself, the collapse of charter plans meant months of turmoil. Now the school is in Wade’s hands, and he wants to do right by his students, including these players.

"I tell them every day that they’re my heroes. Because they were brave enough to stay through the transition, especially the seniors," said Wade. "They didn’t know what it would look like. But when I was able to meet them and tell them what it would look like, and follow up, they thank me, and I thank them."

Wade says the King Cougars got off to a uneven start this year, just like the school itself. But the team found its stride and won four of its last five.

Before it became a symbol of controversy, King was in most ways a typical neighborhood high school. It rated low for academics, attendance, and safety. Fights and other disruptions were common. Student Jasmine Lee says the school’s reputation has never been good.

"When you’re outside the school, they say, King, dirty King, don’t have good test scores, King students are dumb, but it’s not really like that," said Lee.

But Lee says Principal Wade has brought a new level of focus and stability. "It’s like the teachers, they care more. When they grading you and stuff," said Lee. "The classes, they try to get you to talk to the counselors – it’s the same as last year, but they’re really trying this year."

Her classmate Leonard McPherson agrees. "Some of my teachers I know from last year, so that relationship is still there," said McPherson. "But my counselor, moreso, she really do try and help. They’re more helpful than they were last year. It’s like they care more."

Ryan Baxter teaches science at King. He says Wade challenged the staff to build relationships with a student body that had fallen into some bad habits.

"Sometimes they use King as an excuse for bad behavior," said Baxter. "We’re really trying to change that."

Baxter is part of a new generation of King teachers. Since the District turned King into a Promise Academy, Wade was able to replace about 80 percent of the previous staff. But because of last spring’s controversy, most of those changes didn’t take place until the very end of the summer. Baxter says that made for a tough start to the semester. There were scuffles in the hallways and confusion over uniforms and other new policies.

"The first couple weeks were very much a transition. We were working full speed," said Baxter. "They always say when you run a marathon, you shouldn’t start with a sprint. We’re running a marathon and we’re sprinting all the way."

Baxter says King has settled down, and he has high praise for Wade’s leadership. King’s academic progress won’t be known until this year’s testing is complete. But one thing that’s clear is that the football team has room to improve.

The final score was Germantown Bears 43, King Cougars 0. Principal Wade had to hand over the cup to Germantown Principal Margaret Mullen.

Wade called this a tough loss and chalked it up in part to the charter controversy. Uncertainty about King’s future meant that the team couldn’t practice over the summer. But Wade ran off the field with his spirits undimmed.

"We’re going to be all right. This is the third year of her turnaround. This is my first year. Give me a whole year. We’ll be all right," he said.