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Students, community to District: 'You broke it'

By Benjamin Herold on Oct 15, 2010 08:32 AM

The District’s handling of West Philadelphia High School has resulted in a sudden, dramatic return of the climate problems that used to plague the struggling neighborhood school, students from the school repeatedly told District officials during a community meeting held Thursday night at Kingsessing Recreation Center. 

“Our climate was fixed. But you’ve taken out everybody who fixed [it], so now we have to start from scratch,” said West senior Delaney Foxworth, one of four members of the school’s newly formed senior committee present at the meeting.

Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery said the District was focused on the present and was moving swiftly to address the climate issues at the school, including the appointment this week of John Chapman as the new principal.

The students enumerated a litany of climate issues that they say have deteriorated this year following Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s decision to remove former principal Saliyah Cruz last July.

"Ninth graders feel isolated and don't feel like they are a part of West Philadelphia High School," said senior Nigell Hester. He cited a new uniform policy, a new prohibition against 9th grades participating in schoolwide events such as pep rallies, and new physical barriers that have been erected in the building to keep freshmen in designated areas as the source of 9th graders’ discontent.

Two major fights last week – which ultimately led to the arrest of 11 students, all of whom are now facing disciplinary transfers – originated in West’s 9th grade academy.

Those types of serious incidents had all but disappeared under Cruz last year, said students.

“Everybody grew to love and respect Ms. Cruz,” said Hester. “We are the ones who are inside West Philadelphia High School, and we know that it changed last year.”

Ackerman initially replaced Cruz with District veterans Ozzie Wright and LaVerne Wiley, who were to serve as co-principals this year.

Six weeks into the school year, both are gone.

On Oct. 4, Wiley was transferred to Clymer Elementary School.

On Wednesday, the District announced that Wright, who is officially retired, would be taking an indefinite sick leave. His interim replacement, Chapman, 63, and also retired, was known as a “troubleshooter” under former CEO Paul Vallas.

During the community meeting Thursday night, students described the leadership turnover at the school as negatively impacting what had been strong, caring adult-student relationships at West.

“[The District] sends in new people from downtown who come right in and say ‘You gotta do this, you gotta do that,’ but they never take the time to ask how you are doing,” explained senior Shavona Hurd. “The climate was changed, but now they’re trying to change it all over again. Why fix something that was already fixed?”

District Deputy Superintendent Nunery disputed the positive characterization of Cruz’s tenure at West.

“The numbers don’t say everything was better,” said Nunery. “West Philadelphia High School is at the bottom of all the comprehensive high schools. West is in its 7th year of Corrective Action. Saliyah was the one who was there. These results are hers.”

During his remarks, Nunery referred repeatedly to West’s consistently dismal academic performance

Last year, fewer than 3 percent of 11th graders scored proficient on the math portion of the state PSSA exam, and fewer than 17 percent scored proficient on the PSSA reading exam.

“This is what Dr. Ackerman is reacting to,” Nunery told the students. “She cares about you.”

While students maintained that West's recent problems stem from the removal of Cruz, Nunery focused on the District's recent decision to add Chapman to the staff, a move he said was in the works even before Wright announced he was stepping down.  As explanation, Nunery referred to school climate data from this September, citing what he said was the high number of students at the school who have unexcused absences already this year.

Students and community members questioned both the accuracy and the relevance of that information, however.

“The problem with that [data] is that the ScholarChip [ID scanning] system didn’t work for the first month of school,” said Foxworth. “We had students who were in jail who were still on roll, and students who were in school getting charged with unexcused absences.” 

Principal Chapman agreed that the system for tracking attendance needed repair.

In addition, some in the audience asked Nunery why he would use climate data from the current school year at West to explain the decision to remove Cruz last July.

“For you to use that data and highlight those points and not look at those numbers from last year is not fair to the process,” said Greg Benjamin, who was representing the Kingsessing 5th Division Community of Neighbors, a block captain association.

“How can you come out in a meeting using inaccurate numbers?” asked Benjamin after the meeting. “If something good was happening [last year], you have to accept the fact that you made this problem. [The District] is really not astute when it comes to building a defense for what they are doing.”

Asked about the issue after the meeting, Nunery spoke about the “currency of now.”

“I can look back to the past - it’s prologue for the present,” said Nunery. “But we had to act right now, given what we were seeing [at West.]”

Afterwards, all parties expressed a desire to right the ship at West as soon as possible.

Chapman and Nunery both agreed to meet with the senior committee to hear more about students’ concerns.

Venard Johnson of the Southeast PA Network for Health, Education and Welfare and the Nu-Juice Foundation, which helped organize the event, said that his group would be facilitating a series of listening sessions giving parents, community members, and students in the West community the chance to air their perspectives on the problems at the school.

And as for those most impacted by the ongoing turmoil at West, the students?

Those present expressed satisfaction that their voices were heard, but concern for their future.

“I felt as though we got our points across,” said Hester. “But our next question is what happens when academics don’t change [under the new leadership.] What happens then?”

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Comments (24)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 9:08 am

Oh great. So NuJuice causes the problem and then gets paid to fix it. Conflict of interest much?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 10:27 am

I second that. Mayor Nutter, Senator Williams, Governor Rendell -- you have to step in. This situation is out of control and the current district officials don't realize that the community and students are smart enough to see through their talking points. NuJuice did in fact cause this problem -- it is like the fox guarding the hen house.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 10:12 am

Again, Tony Williams is evidently a cousin of Eric Ward of NuJuice Foundation. So of course he would collude with all of this. Bob Archie is a member of the alumni association, like Ward, McKinney Rainey, and Norman Brown. So is their friend Jannie. Vernard Johnson jumped on board with NuJuice for the access to contracts. Interesting to see how power operates sometimes isn't it?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 16, 2010 6:45 am

New Juice was hiring by the district last year to assist WPHS SAC, but what they did was conspired against the SAC throughout the entire selection process. The WPHS SAC was used as the escape goat, so that New Juice would be able to maneuver their way into the school. With programs that don't seems to be an asset to the school. There was never no conflict of interest. The bottom line was since the SAC wasn't on board with the system, the SAC had to be neutralized. If Johns Hopkins would have been selected as voted on, New Juice would not be in our school and our children would be getting the education they deserve . This is a sin and a shame our student are being left behind. I want to thank the students and teacher for doing their best to hang in there. How do we get our school back to the business at hand learning?

Submitted by Ms. Chips (not verified) on October 15, 2010 10:42 am

I have an idea: why don't we put CHILDREN FIRST? And then make parents our partners?

Submitted by Mrs. G (not verified) on October 16, 2010 8:49 am

That's the best idea I've heard yet. Let's just be careful not to turn it around and make it all about teachers and principals.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 10:32 am

The district keeps citing the test scores at West as the need for a change. Remember that last year's scores came during a time when the school was already in a state of turmoil surround the Renaissance process.

Students had been told all their efforts to fix West were for nothing. They had been told they were a failing school. Students were worried about what was going to happen next year.

While the test results were not good, it is unfair to not acknowledge that the district had already labeled the students and school very publicly as failures. Students were wondering: if all my hard work to help this school get back on track were just rejected by the district, what is the point of trying to do well on this test? They already think I'm a failure, they already rejected what I've worked on.

So let's put some context behind the numbers from last year when we bring them out as proof that West needed a huge change instead of further academic supports within the system that was already showing results.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 11:37 am

Don't think for one second they didn't know that the announcement of West on the list would have the exactly desired effect - producing results that would justify the interventions they wanted.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on October 15, 2010 1:15 pm

Remember, they want to get ahold of the brand new building they are working on as either a Promise Academy or a Charter. That is what this is all about. They made the students feel demoralized, and then wonder why the test scores are poor. Do any of them have any common sense??

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 2:32 pm

Furthermore, it is imperative that the public KNOW that Saliyah Cruz was brought in as principal to face two major issues: school climate, and academic performance. Cruz was at West Philadelphia High School for a total of 3 years. In those three years, she - along with the help of all the staff and building STRONG relationships with the students and parents of those students - took WPHS from the MOST dangerous high school in the state of PA to OFF the list of "Persistently Dangerous" according to the federally-mandated law No Child Left Behind. She did this in THREE years. Any one with a sense as to how education works, in order for learning to occur, a strong learning environment needs to be built. Of course you are not going to see DRAMATIC improvement in test data in a span of three years when dealing with the tumultous state of a high school. You NEED to fix climate FIRST, then you transition of academics. However, in order to push for an improvement in academics, you need to sustain consistency in the climate that has been proven to work for the past three years. BUT, if you remove that consistency, then logic tells us: climate is going to FALL APART! People, this is EXACTLY what happened to WPHS this year. Our consistency was removed because the people who built it were either (1) removed or (2) not listened to. Cruz was an effective leader because she worked smart, empowered those who got things done in an efficient manner, and built a team and made herself a part of that team. Yes, we need to focus on now, but we need to look back to our most recent past to understand what worked.

Again, the School District of Philadelphia made its biggest mistake in removing Cruz because with her removal came the turmoil. I am tired of hearing that the reason she was removed was because of the lack in academic performance. She, along with a strong team, dramatically improved climate. This year's focus was making a transition to academics.

Now, we are focusing on academics, but none of this is coming to flourish because our climate is now obviously an issue. This is all backwards. As much as I hate to say it, but the SDP is no longer competent to make decisions concerning WPHS' fate. Larger action is in need. We NEED to listen to the individuals INSIDE this school to understand what needs to get done and HOW to implement these solutions. TOO many outsiders are getting their hands on this situation when they do not understand the context of the situation.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 4:39 pm

Nunery's comments prove that he doesn't get it. As the previous poster stated, climate first, then academics. Cruz was doing a great job and should never have been removed. Nunery should go back to the private sector.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 5:28 pm

Ultimately Nunery's just part of the clean up crew. That's part of the district's strategy. By constantly shifting people into different positions they can consistently keep the community at bay by forcing us to interact with people who will defend themselves from accountability by saying that they weren't involved when these decisions are made. So there's no memory, no context, nothing. It's about the "currency of now". Nice catchphrase. Kind of like "putting children first" - and about as meaningless.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 6:04 pm

Nunery's comments are arrogant and show he knows nothing about running a school. He ran his company into the ground so now he will run the SDP into the ground. The conflict of interest with "No-Juice" (intentional spelling), Blackwell, Archie, etc. should make Nutter shutter. Then, they bring in Chapman - one of the most disrespectful, arrogant, corrupt administrators in Philadelphia. (Chapman had his office fixed when he was AP /principal at Ben Franklin in the mid 1990s. He ran his construction business out of the school.) Chapman ruined University City and now his arrogance and lack of any ability to "turn a school around" will ruin West.

Submitted by Teacher (K.R. Luebbert) (not verified) on October 15, 2010 9:06 pm

Anyone with any sense and long experience in schools knows this to be true. Climate NEEDS to be fixed before anything else can flourish. Cruz was doing this, but Arlene chose to get rid of her before she could finish the job. Now, they don't want to talk about the past, well no wonder. What kind of weird phrase is the "currency of now"???

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 9:02 pm

It all makes so much since, climate than academics, Ackerman moves people around at a whim. Like you said new building, new charter highschool, or promise academy. It wasn't broke why try to fix it, cleaning up a comprehensive high school takes time. Dam Ackerman you only gave her 3 years!!!! you should be removed, you have had 3 years also!!!

Submitted by BeenThereDoneThat (not verified) on October 15, 2010 11:15 pm

"The currency of now" = "We're selling it - you buyin' it?"

Submitted by OMG (not verified) on October 16, 2010 7:27 am

Once again, I must weigh in on this. It sorta made sense to Promise University City; we were a really confused school that had seen a series of ineffective administrators (including, people, John Chapman, who is truly the most disrespectful, incompetent, no-clothes-wearing Emperor of Influence ever and who left Uni in worse shape than he found it in - he leaves, no matter what the result, the minute the newspapers stop looking), but West!! West has tradition, dedicated parents, students and staff. West had a three-year principal, surely some kind of record for neighborhood schools recently, who had turned the school around. Let me point again to the data collected on all the proposed Renaissance schools by an independent auditor; West's data looked nothing like any of the other schools. True, test scores weren't stellar, but all other indices were showing a school on the way up. Shame on the person or people who destroyed this just to grab the new school and whatever glory they thought would attach to hitching a star to the rising West. And surprise! The progress West had made couldn't survive the District's interference. Is anyone in this city really still thinking the current leaders of the district have a shred of common sense, decency or a clue as to what they are doing?

Submitted by Mrs. G (not verified) on October 16, 2010 9:01 am

Join the Just Say No Movement
Just Say No to having our schools that meet 90 percent of the NCLB targets on the low performing list
Just Say No to ridiculous remedial programs that most of our students simply don't need
Just Say No to preparing students for a state test (that really doesn't measure anything) and start preparing them for college and career.
Just Say No to wasting valuable instructional time of useless Do Nows
Just Say No to putting test scores before children
Just Say No to the lack of support for our ELL and Students with Special Needs
Change starts with you. It's time teachers stopped compromising their integrity and started teaching again. It's time to stop doing what we know is wrong for our children. JUST SAY NO.

Submitted by Ms. Chips (not verified) on October 16, 2010 4:43 pm

And teachers are indeed trying!
This is hard to do when all the power is somewhere else. What is needed is a banner holder: some well respected group, parents, civic leaders, a university unafraid of controversy, to hammer at the issue of appropriate reform. Teachers & administrators have been told they must follow directives, that change cannot be made at school or regional level. Educational decisions seem to be made by publishers who are not unbiased, and indeed are using Philadelphia to gather data for their new "programs." Wonder why our curricula are not on line?
People fear for their careers in this district, and the examples (like heads on a medieval city wall) are well known: teachers forced from their schools, administrators shuffled like playing cards, leaving for other districts, retiring early, or like Heidi Ramirez, silenced. Until there is accountability at the top, the kids and the teachers...and the city...are trapped.

Submitted by New here (not verified) on October 16, 2010 11:23 am

The same thing is going on at Clemente (and most likely at all the other schools that experienced a staff exodus). The principals who took on these schools a few years ago (when they were at their worst!) were able to change the climate but it isn't an overnight process. It takes about three years to correct the climate of the school and to push out the ineffective teachers (principals inherit the staff members selected by their ineffective predecessors), both necessary for significant change in student achievement. But unfortunately, as soon as these changes are made and the school is ready for academic growth, either due to district politics or NCLB limitations, the principals get transferred, teams of staff members are disbanded, and the children are left feeling unanchored, creating total chaos and negating all of the hard work that the administrators, teachers and other staff members have performed. It is critical that the communities in these areas rally around their schools and advocate for their children. There are administrators and teachers who are willing and able to turn these schools around, but unfortunately school district officials cannot see the forrest through the trees.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 17, 2010 6:11 pm

About the only school that has dramatically improved, and is somewhat of a dark horse, is University City. The mass exodus of teachers was an issue at first, but the students and staff are working very hard to maintain a great new climate. Ackerman has nothing to do with this turn-around, though I bet she winds up taking all the credit anyway. And one of the reasons why the school is succeeding is because the principal feigns interest in Ackerman and does what he thinks is best for the staff and students. This is the one school to really watch in the upcoming months. What WPHS has experienced, is just the biggest injustice ever. One that Ackerman should be deeply ashamed of. One of the reasons why Uni is so successful is because the principal who joined two years ago, was kept ON (after a lot of the same problems at West). He started the uphill climb (after a disastrous previous administration like Irving's), riddle me this: if Stults was kept on, WHY not Cruz?

And it is upsetting that something that is so positive like Uni, is being overshadowed by one woman's heinous mistake.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 17, 2010 7:57 pm

What happened at Uni was not a mass exodus. It was a massive cut. Many teachers wanted to stay at Uni, but were not even give a real interview process. A small number chose to leave due to the hours which are not very family friendly. I wish for the sake of the students that Uni is successful. They deserve the best.

Submitted by Betsy Wice (not verified) on October 16, 2010 1:45 pm

A similar thing at Frederick Douglass: We had been assigned 7 different principals in 7 years. In spite of that we had a strong staff (a combination of dedicated veterans and energetic, capable younger teachers -- including Teach for America!) ready to make some measurable gains in school climate and in test scores (problematic as those scores are, as measurements of learning). We had traditions of successful projects that involved families, staff, and students (College Settlement Camp, after-school North Star, book projects, silkworms, championship chess). With a stable strong principal and with less micromanaging from the Region we could have been poised to bring Douglass back to its glories of the 1980s and 1990s. But all got washed away in a badly planned Renaissance move assigning Douglass (capriciously, counter to SAC wishes) to an inexperienced Young Scholars group who are now reported as struggling to maintain order. It hurts to hear rumors of Young Scholars staff telling students, "Your old teachers didn't care about you; that's why they left." or "Your old teachers had low expectations for you. That's why we're here to change things."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 17, 2010 10:02 pm

I feel horrible for the students and families affected by this. Anyone interested in further information about scams committed by Eric Ward of Nu Juice is welcome to contact me.

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