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The real story at West Philly High

By Eric Braxton on Oct 30, 2009 03:57 PM
Photo: Greg Benjamin

Members of the West Philadelphia High School Community Partners at the groundbreaking for the new school.

West Philadelphia High School has been in the news a lot in the last few weeks. The Inquirer did a story on the turnaround at West  and Tuesday was the groundbreaking ceremony for the new building

While West still has a long way to go, there have been some great strides made in the last two years. 

The media reports, however, often miss the intricacies of what it takes to make this kind of change. 

Channel 6 gave most of the credit to kicking out “bad kids.” Other reports have turned Principal Saliyah Cruz into the second coming of Joe Clarke, intimating that she has single-handedly whipped the school into shape (something that Mrs. Cruz herself denies). These kinds of stories are attractive, but they also obscure the truth about how schools change.

One of the best things that Principal Cruz had done is to empower her staff. She trusts them, she listens to them, and she lets them do their jobs. 

The result of this has been a staff that really goes the extra mile for students. They collaborate with each other and create innovative ideas to support students. The fact that the School District allowed for common planning time in all the comprehensive high schools this year is helping to create this spirit of collaboration. Most teachers are willing to put in extra time and energy when they feel that they are being respected. 

It is this staff that really deserves most of the credit for the changes that have occurred at West. 

In addition to Mrs. Cruz and the staff, students and community members have played an important role in making this possible. The West Philadelphia High School Community Partners bring together students, parents, teachers, and community members to improve education at West. The Philadelphia Student Union has organized students at West since 1997. Members of the Community Partners and Student Union helped to hire Mrs. Cruz after the chaos that took over the school a few years ago. They also advocated for breaking the schools into small learning communities. 

Students and community members especially advocated for the creation of the Urban Leadership Academy, which engages students in a rigorous academic program by getting them involved in organizing projects to solve problems in the community. Many people opposed the Urban Leadership program at first because they did not know what it was, but it has since become one of the strongest programs in the school. The hard work of making the small learning communities happen has been done by the staff, but students and the community played and important supporting role.

There are a number of other programs at West that are contributing to the change. The Community School run by the Netter Center at Penn offers a huge array of programs and supports for students. The Business and Technology Academy is run by a strong core of veteran teachers. The Automotive and Engineering Academy has long been a strength of the school. There is also a new 9th Grade Academy using the Talent Development model. In addition, the school has adopted a method of addressing student behavior called Restorative Practices that “focuses on repairing the harm done to people and relationships rather than on punishing offenders." It certainly doesn’t hurt that the school has received two major federal grants.

There are still huge problems at West. 

Academic achievement has a long way to go, but the climate of the school has made a 180-degree change from a few years ago, and that is the first step. One challenge that the school is facing is that while the staff is coming up with new and innovative ideas to improve academic achievement, the bureaucracy and rules and regulations of the School District often get in the way of effective implementation. A major challenge for the District is how to hold schools accountable without stifling creativity and talent. 

While big changes are still needed at West, there are many reasons to be hopeful. The media may try to reduce this story to one about a heroine principal and some bad students that needed to be kicked out, but the truth is much more complicated. 

The true story as I see it is about an administration that respects and supports its staff, a bunch of innovative programs that support students, engaged students and community members, and a little bit of money.         

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Comments (5)

Submitted by Chris Lehmann (not verified) on October 30, 2009 7:10 pm


Thank you for telling a more nuanced version of this story that, in my opinion, more deeply honors the work that Ms. Cruz and the teachers and students of West are engaged in.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 31, 2009 10:36 am

The Philadelphia Notebook...The Feel-Good Paper...

"Test scores are up...violence is down...students are playing violins in music programs"...and, yet, no more than 50 percent of the students ever graduate...from these schools...

Give me a break...

Submitted by Frank Murphy (not verified) on October 31, 2009 10:07 am

Schools that are truly accountable are schools that respect, honor, and empower all members of the learning community. You cannot mandate the success of a school. Educators who trust each other and collaborate in a common effort will provide the best learning environment for their students.

Ms. Cruz is a school leader who clearly grasps the concept that leaders empower and support teachers. I would hope that the many school reformers who preach the merits of the "Turn around specialist Model" would pause and consider the wisdom of a "stay around model” of school leadership.

School leaders such as Ms Cruz who are given the time and the trust of their community will eventually have a profound impact on the success of the long too ignored and disempowered schools that they lead.

Submitted by nikki123 on October 31, 2009 6:29 pm

I'm thrilled that West Philly High has garnered attention and praise. It used to be on the news for regular fires started by students. Talk about turnaround. The big point is that these changes took time and dedication by all parties with a stake in the outcome: parents, students, teachers, administrators and the larger community.

Submitted by struck a nerve (not verified) on October 31, 2009 9:03 pm

Wow! A principal who respected teachers and students. And it raised test scores. Does Ackerman know this? Showing respect to teachers and principals, how dare they? I'll bet Mrs. Cruz's job is in severe jeopardy.

Respect, I didn't even think the school district could spell that word.

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