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Photo: Benjamin Herold

Benjamin Herold / The Notebook

No exceptions for West on ousting of staff

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

The revolving door of teachers and principals at West Philadelphia High School is set to keep spinning.

As part of its transition to a District-run “Traditional” Promise Academy, West will open next school year with its fourth new principal in less than 12 months, as well as a teaching staff that is at least 50 percent new to the school.

“Our kids are going to get lost with all the newcomers,” lamented Teri Gaines, the mother of a West 9th grader who attended an informational meeting about the changes at the school Monday evening.

Parents and community members at the meeting pressed District officials to consider West’s recent history before moving ahead with plans to reconstitute staff and denounced the way the Renaissance Schools process has played out at the school.

The overhaul will come less than a year after popular principal Saliyah Cruz was removed; West also lost 40 percent of its teachers following its ill-fated involvement in the first year of the District’s Renaissance initiative.

Despite the pleas from those in attendance, District officials said West will receive no special considerations.

“We are aware of what happened last year, but we also have to move the school forward,” Assistant Superintendent Penny Nixon told the crowd of about 50.

Later, Francisco Duran, the assistant superintendent in charge of the Promise Academies, explained that the District must formally reconstitute the West staff this year – replacing at least half – in order to be aligned with the requirements of a $2.2 million federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) the school received last year. Duran said that the grant requirements precluded the District from designating West as an “Innovation” Promise Academy that would be free of limitations on the percentage of staff that can be retained.

Yet a document announcing the grant indicates that West is to undergo the "transformation” model of school turanaround, which does not mandate reconstituting a school’s teaching staff.

Duran also said after the meeting that the District will be naming new principals at West and six other new “Traditional” Promise Academies “hopefully within the next two weeks.”

“We have to be able to announce them very soon because the new principal will be integral in hiring [new] staff,” said Duran.

“The big lesson that we learned last year was that the [hiring] process needs to start much sooner.”

West’s current principal, John Chapman, is technically retired and is serving on an interim basis.

Chapman said before the meeting that he had not reapplied for his position.

Throughout the meeting, members of the West School Advisory Council, who voted against becoming a Promise Academy last year, were vocal in questioning the District’s Renaissance process. The SACs were created last year at Renaissance Schools to provide a channel for parent and community input into the turnaround strategies.

“You have made a decision without consulting parents or community. Why wasn’t the decision made by the SAC last year respected?” asked SAC co-chair Joy Herbert.

“I really can’t speak to last year because I wasn’t involved in that process,” responded Nixon, who was promoted to assistant superintendent in July.

That answer seemed to frustrate some in attendance.

“Whoever these people are, they need to be more sensitive to history,” said Dawn Chavous, the vice president of the Walnut Hill Community Association and a member of the West School Advisory Council [SAC.]

“This process has not been successful for West. You can’t treat people like this and expect them to remain engaged.”

Duran did confirm that West’s SAC would not be reconstituted; those currently on the council will still have a role, he said, although new recruitment may be done in order to ensure a minimum of 51 percent parent representation.

He was unable to provide an update on the status of the so-called “investigation” into an alleged conflict of interest on the West SAC last year, which – despite coming from an unnamed source and never having been deemed substantive – derailed West’s involvement in the Renaissance initiative.

Other concerns raised during the meeting included the future of West’s learning academies and sports programs.

Nixon said both would be enhanced rather than replaced.

Despite the sometimes contentious tone of the meeting, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell expressed optimism for West’s future.

“Hopefully it will help to bring the school together,” said Blackwell, who supported the delay last year.

“I feel more comfortable because the superintendent herself will be directly overseeing the school. It’s a new beginning so the community can feel comfortable moving forward.”