This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It was 2006.
Neil Geyette was a 23-year-old, first-year teacher standing outside a bathroom filled with smoke at West Philadelphia High School. He had just extinguished yet another of the 31 small fires blamed on students at the school that year.
An administrator, he says, walked up, took in the scene, and then walked away, all without saying a word.
"There’s nothing worth saving here," Geyette recalls thinking at the time.
But the earnest, easygoing social studies teacher hung tough through West’s darkest days. Painstakingly, he helped bring one of the city’s most historic high schools back from the brink.
"I wanted [West] to succeed. There was nothing that would make me stop," Geyette says now of the long hours he poured into the school.
By 2009, West had enjoyed two consecutive years of relative calm. Geyette was part of a stable, dedicated staff led by popular principal Saliyah Cruz. He was also the head of the school’s Urban Leadership Academy, where he was intent on implementing his vision of a social justice-oriented curriculum built around hands-on community improvement projects.
"Nobody could deny that the school felt different," he says.
The change, however, did not extend to improved state standardized test scores. In 2009, only 9 percent of students scored proficient in math and 12 percent in reading.
The School District of Philadelphia decided West needed something dramatically different.
Two years later, Geyette – and any traces of his work – are gone.
Earlier this month, amid the excitement of a ceremony inaugurating West’s new $66 million facility, that period of the school’s history was barely acknowledged.
As politicians and District officials cut the ribbon on the gleaming new building, they celebrated the school’s rebirth as a Promise Academy – a District-run turnaround school in which just about everything, from principal to teachers to academic program, is new.
Dramatic turnaround of persistently low-performing schools is now the law of the land. The U.S. Department of Education is requiring districts across the country to systematically overhaul their toughest schools, often by wiping the slate clean and starting over.
Former superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative is one of the most aggressive district-led turnaround efforts in the country. Over the past two years, the District has converted 13 struggling public schools into charters. Nine other schools, including West, have been transformed into Promise Academies.
In almost every instance, the formula has been the same: the principal is replaced, the teaching staff is reconstituted, and the school receives a highly structured academic program focusing tightly on the basics.
It’s an educational theory of change predicated on replacing, rather than building upon, what is already happening in schools. It allows for no distinctions between dysfunctional schools and those, like West, where there may be something worth saving.
During the initial Renaissance process at West, a team of educators, including Geyette, developed a proposal to turn around the school, based on the work they had already been doing. District officials rejected it out of hand.
Then, when the volunteer body of parents and community members charged with recommending a new manager for the school selected a group already working in West, the District shut down its own process.
Despite the controversy that has sometimes accompanied the District’s hard-line approach, the early returns at Philadelphia’s first cohort of 13 Renaissance Schools – the group West was supposed to be a part of – are encouraging. They have received much-needed new resources, test scores are up, and climates are generally better. Parents, by and large, seem satisfied.
But perhaps more than at any other school, the saga of West offers a cautionary tale for the turnaround movement.
For two years, the school got caught in the middle of a philosophical, cultural, and political clash over the best type of education for poor, inner-city students of color.
As a result, the school’s 700 students ended up collateral damage, losing the better part of last year to chaos and disruption [see box].
And for better or worse, "starting over" at West has also meant a complete repudiation of the former reform vision guiding the school – one that many still hold on to as the best hope for lasting and meaningful change.
A few days before the festive opening of West’s new building, Geyette was across town, preparing his new classroom at Franklin Learning Center (FLC), one of Philadelphia’s selective magnet schools.
Up on the walls went a poster of Malcolm X; an inspirational quote from Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve in Congress; and lyrics by hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.
Such choices might not fly in a Promise Academy. There, the District mandates posters detailing things like how to respond to open-ended test questions.
Geyette believes strongly that students learn best when they are engaged in activities that will have an immediate and meaningful impact on the world around them. He also believes that "real" turnaround takes years and needs to be built from the ground up.
"You can’t force change on schools, and real change cannot happen overnight," he contends.
As far back as 2004, a reform effort based on these principles had taken root in the West community. Led by the Philadelphia Student Union, a coalition of activists, academics and nonprofit reformers began advocating for small schools and themed academies where the instruction was personalized and student-centered.
In fits and starts, they made progress with these ideas. The school’s previously horrendous climate improved.
By 2009, Geyette believed West was ready to take off academically as well.
As head of the school’s Urban Leadership Academy (ULA), he had students making documentaries and analyzing hip-hop lyrics. One semester, they developed an extensive proposal to redesign a nearby vacant lot for neighborhood use.
"Whatever [I] could do to get students active and involved out in the community," said Geyette.
Khalif Dobson, a 2010 graduate of West who was a student in ULA at the time, felt like he was finally getting an education.
"I was in an Advanced English class. I had my first statistics class. I had my first Black male teacher ever," said Dobson. "My school was making strides."
But the school’s standardized test scores remained atrocious.
Given more time, Geyette is convinced that the progressive approach would have impacted the bottom line.
But District officials weren’t willing to wait.
Mary Sandra Dean is the new principal of West Philadelphia High.
Her disdain for the model Geyette was trying to build is evident.
"I don’t know what [the Urban Leadership Academy] is. No one can tell me," said Dean.
Dean never spoke to Geyette himself about ULA; during last year’s tumult, he remained at West but was removed as the academy coordinator.
In order to change West, she said, she has to focus on what she knows will work now – not something that other people hope might work in the future.
"If a program is not working, and people can’t articulate what it is, then why would I [continue] that?" she asked.
Dean believes that for a school like West to succeed, instruction needs to be structured, consistent, and predictable in every classroom.
When she became principal at Kensington’s Mastbaum High in 2005, she said, students were lagging far behind, in part because the school had too many teachers with poor classroom management skills who failed to regularly check for student understanding.
Her response, she said, was to "make sure students knew what to expect when they went into the classroom."
Dean demanded that all teachers submit lesson plans in a specified format. She also began a schoolwide focus on teaching "eligible content," the material likely to appear on state standardized tests.
"One of the things I believe about education – and anything else – is that if you want to do well at it, you have to learn the game," she said.
That’s not the same thing as "teaching to the test," stressed Dean. While at Mastbaum, a citywide admission vo-tech school, she focused on getting all students to do original research and on helping teachers find ways to make their lessons interactive and engaging.
"But you can’t go in and do project-based learning if you haven’t taught them the skills necessary to process," Dean explained. "You have content, then you have process, and then product. They have to go through that whole scenario for learning to take place."
She got results.
Between the 2005-06 school year, when she started, and 2010, the percentage of Mastbaum students scoring proficient or above in math rose more than 29 percentage points, from 13 to 42 percent. There was a similar jump in reading, from 19 to 43 percent.
"I can’t speak more highly of her," said Joel Boyd, the District’s assistant superintendent in charge of Promise Academies.
At West, Dean’s charge is not to innovate, but to implement the Promise Academy model. Everything from the lessons to how students will be expected to move from classroom to classroom has already been decided centrally.
Rather than surveying vacant lots or making documentaries, students will receive intense drilling in the basic skills they are lacking.
For Dean, it’s a matter of first things first.
"If you struggle with reading," she said, "you cannot be successful."
Proponents of Promise Academies, including Dean, tout the model as bringing a private school experience to poor children of color in struggling inner-city schools.
But it’s not the kind of program that you see at FLC, the magnet school where Geyette now teaches. There, parents would likely recoil at the regimented Promise Academy model.
Eventually, says Boyd, Promise Academies will have the option to emulate the freedom of an FLC. But they have to first earn that right.
At chronically failing schools, says Boyd, autonomy for principals and teachers can be a reward after successfully turning around a school – not a means to achieving the turnaround.
"We believe a school moves through a series of stages," said Boyd, who cited KIPP charter schools and Harlem Children’s Zone schools as examples the District looked to in developing its own turnaround model.
"We believe we can bring this to scale."
As the District tries to do just that, there have been echoes of the heartache that resulted at West.
Audenried High, for example, saw a similarly passionate group of teachers and students fight a losing battle last spring to preserve what they viewed as positive reforms already in place. Like West, Martin Luther King High was thrown into chaos after intense political infighting about its future management.
"It does hit a nerve," Geyette said of those examples. "It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten to a point where there’s no longer rational discourse over decisions being made."
Despite the way things played out at West, Geyette is rooting for the school to succeed. But he remains skeptical that the Promise Academy way is what his former students need.
"In the short-term, remediation shows some gains, but in the long-term, it damages our kids," Geyette argued.
For now, he is speaking from the sidelines of the turnaround effort, far from the school where he left his heart.
Some day, he hopes to return.