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Turning around West: A lost year

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

As part of the Notebook’s upcoming print edition, we took a comprehensive look at the tumultuous school turnaround process at West Philadelphia High. Read more about the competing visions of school reform at West in part I of this series.

Five different principals in the span of a year.

A serious spike in assaults, incidents of disorderly conduct, thefts, and arsons – all of which had been steadily declining.

And a teaching staff that turned over by 40 percent one year, then almost 90 percent the next.

All of this, was part of the price that West Philadelphia High School paid to be “turned around” during a dispiriting 2010-11 school year.

“It was a lot of chaos,” said D’Atwan Nelson, a current senior at West who helped organize a student walkout to protest conditions at the school last year.

While the new brand of federally mandated school turnaround seeks to shake things up by design, what happened at West during its painful, protracted involvement in former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative took disruption to a whole new level.

After the turnaround process was set in motion, District officials rejected the recommendation of the volunteer panel it had created to help choose West’s future. Instead, the District launched a questionable investigation into four of the parents involved on the volunteer panel. In the resulting fallout, District officials then removed West’s popular principal and dismantled much of what she had built at the school, replacing her with a series of retired former principals.

Though these decisions severely hampered West’s ability to function for much of last year, officials now refuse to account for them.

“We feel the school community only deserves specific answers about where West is heading,” said District spokesperson Fernando Gallard.

The problems at West began in earnest in spring 2010, when Ackerman and the School Reform Commission convened a volunteer School Advisory Council of parents and community members to recommend a new manager for their school.

Despite contention, the SAC had made its choice. But at the last minute, on the word of an anonymous tipster, the District shut the process down and announced that its Inspector General was investigating four parents on the SAC for an alleged conflict of interest. The parents had accepted small stipends to drum up parental engagement in the school from a local nonprofit that had worked with the approved provider.

Almost a year and a half later, the District still has not released the full findings of that “investigation” or revealed the identity of the tipster. In response to continued requests from the Notebook, a District spokesperson said only that the inspector general had found “that there was ‘no violation of the Pennsylvania statute on conflicts of interest’” at West, but that “there was an appearance of impropriety.”

Reached by a reporter with word of those findings, Jennifer Funderburg, one of the parents involved in the controversy, initially had a one-word response: “Whatever.”

Still disillusioned by her experience, Funderburg says she was never contacted by the inspector general during the investigation, and the District never informed her of its outcome.

“I’m still hurt from the whole fiasco,” she said.

Following that turmoil, there was an exodus of teachers at West.

Then, in July, Ackerman removed Cruz, reneging on an earlier promise made to the community. The internal systems that Cruz and her team had worked for years to put in place were scrapped. The District appointed two people, including a retired educator who had served at West before, as “co-principals.”

As the 2010-11 school started, the wheels were falling off, according to District data obtained by the Notebook.

Between September and December, West experienced 69 “serious incidents” – up 60 percent from the same period the year before. The number of assaults during those months nearly doubled from the previous year, from eight to 15. There were 16 incidents of disorderly conduct, compared to seven the year before.

There were even three student-set fires. Such arson, a huge problem at the school in years past, had been all but eradicated under Cruz.

The worst incident was a huge melee in October. Eleven students were arrested.

Shortly afterwards, co-principal LaVerne Wiley was reassigned. Just weeks later, the other co-principal, Ozzie Wright, suddenly stepped down.

Ackerman replaced him with another retired principal, reputed “fixer,” John Chapman.

Chapman got the serious incidents under control – largely by employing mass suspensions. In December 2010, Chapman’s second full month on the job, West students received 142 out-of-school suspensions – nearly as many as were handed out in the entire 2009-10 school year under Cruz.

“Chapman is definitely the opposite of Ms. Cruz,” said Kyhare Moore, a junior at the school last year. “She would actually talk to you. Chapman didn’t listen to anything you said. You would get sent to a room and they would be like, ‘What’s wrong with these kids today? Send ‘em home.’”

Both Cruz and Chapman declined multiple requests to comment for this article.

Wright, however, talked with the Notebook.

“That’s one of the reasons you don’t want continuous change,” he said, referring to the chaos at the beginning of the year. “Students have to get acclimated to a new administration, again.”

Wright identified Ackerman, then-Assistant Superintendent Tomás Hanna, and current Assistant Superintendent of Schools Penny Nixon as the District officials most heavily involved at West after Cruz’s removal.

Ackerman and Hanna are both gone. The District refused to make Nixon available for an interview.

“We’re not going to rehash decisions that were made in the past,” said Gallard.

Last winter, the District unilaterally declared that West would become a Promise Academy.

According to Joel Boyd, the District’s new assistant superintendent in charge of Promise Academies, new principal Mary Dean’s first task will be to “establish the preconditions for learning” – things like procedures for how students move to and from class and policies regarding student discipline.

In other words, rebuilding much of what was already present in the school two years ago, before the process of “turnaround” began.

Notebook intern Katrina Morrison contributed reporting for this story.

Coverage of West Philadelphia High was made possible with community support from Spot.us. To support more of the Notebook’s in-depth reporting, become a member today.