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Process and promise at West Philly High

By Guest blogger on Feb 14, 2011 05:39 PM

This week we will have several guest blog posts. The first is from Drick Boyd, an associate professor of Urban and Interdisciplinary Studies at Eastern University.

We tend to think dictatorships only exist in places like Tunisia and Egypt, and when the masses rise up and force the dictators out we consider that to be a good thing. Well, there is a dictatorship in Philadelphia that is facing an uprising of its own, and as far as I am concerned, it's about time. I am referring to the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) and the series of community responses to the superintendent’s newest round of proposed reforms.

On Feb. 7 I attended a public meeting at West Philadelphia High School (WPHS), which had just been designated a “Promise Academy (Traditional)” school by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Two members from the District gave a brief presentation, and then the floor was open for questions and feedback.

The key to success under the Promise Academy model is the hiring of a new principal with a “proven track record of turning around failing schools” and the requirement that all teachers re-apply for their positions in the school with only a maximum of 50 percent being hired back for the next year. The goal is to “change the culture of the school” and to create an atmosphere of achievement and success.

Sounds great – who can challenge such a plan? No one at the meeting denied that WPHS is a school in trouble that fails to adequately educate its students. Nonetheless, many challenges were raised to the proposal - not about the desire to improve the school, but over the way SDP has disregarded the input of the WPHS community for several years. The objections were not over the promise of a renewed school, but over the way the decision-making process was handled.

A year ago the District named WPHS a Renaissance-eligible school. A year ago then-principal Saliyah Cruz led the school through a dramatic culture change. Discipline issues had dramatically decreased, a restorative practices model of discipline had been instituted, and 9th grade test scores and attendance had begun to show marked improvement. Students and teachers expressed great hopefulness for the future of the school as it prepared to move into a new building in 2011. Johns Hopkins University had consulted with the school and the University of Pennsylvania was also actively involved.

Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now was a potential turnaround manager for WPHS. The local community group of which I was a part, the WPHS Community Partners, recommended that WPHS be partnered with Johns Hopkins. This request was affirmed by a School Advisory Council made up of parents and community members. Despite calls for community input, the School Advisory Council’s recommendation was not followed. Superintendent Ackerman reassigned the principal and 40 percent of the teachers left the school. A caretaker principal team was installed (the first of three principals this year) and the school unraveled. Violent incidents increased and morale plummeted.

This year when the idea of the school becoming a Promise Academy was proposed, the School Advisory Council and the local community group for the school again asked to be a Renaissance School (that is, to be paired with an outside provider). And again, despite the request for community input, they were ignored.

These were the issues being raised by the group that Monday night. Three-quarters of the comments had to do with process, and the District’s continued dictatorial ways. Parents wanted assurance that there would be a commitment to real change. Community members raised questions about SDP’s commitment to working with the community and parents, given their actions in the past. Several folks raised concerns about the fact that after a 40 percent teacher turnover last year, why did there have to be a 50 percent turnover this year? Others wondered where this miracle-working “turnaround principal” was going to be found and whether the community group would have any input in selecting that person (the answer was “No”).

While the meeting was civil, there was a great deal of frustration. Thus, it was not surprising that at 1 p.m. the following Friday approximately 100 students walked out of school in protest of the fact that their concerns were not being addressed. Moreover, they objected to the fact that there was an atmosphere of repression in the school for teachers and students who spoke out against the process. All the while thousands of people were protesting in Egypt about a repressive dictator and demanding that their voices be heard.

I would have thought that this experience was unique to WPHS given its unique history with the District, until I read that a very similar reaction was being voiced in South Philadelphia, where Audenried High School was being told they were to be turned around as a  “Promise Neighborhood Partnership” school. From the reports the crowd reaction was much more vitriolic than at WPHS, and police had to be brought in to restore order. Parents, students, and community members were asking for data on why their school was being taken over and saying that there had been no opportunity for their concerns to be heard. So apparently the process was similar as to that in West Philly.

In a time when urban schools are failing to provide an adequate education, there is no question that change must come. However, so often school officials want to find a quick fix. The Promise Academy promises an infusion of resources, but in a time when SDP must trim its budget by $400-500 million, how long will this infusion of resources last? In a time when a Republican governor favors school vouchers over equalizing the playing field between urban and suburban school districts, how long until the money for the Promise Academy is diverted? In an environment where:

  • parents and community members are asked to give input, and then that input is categorically ignored,
  • a principal was initiating genuine cultural reform, and then was removed,
  • committed teachers who have chosen to work in a difficult environment are told they are not measuring up, and
  • students must contend with a revolving door of principals and teachers

isn’t it just possible that Ackerman should respond by listening to their concerns and truly engaging the community in the process?

There is no doubt that Ackerman is a reformer facing a difficult job of transforming a troubled school system in a time of acrimony and declining resources. However, as educator Paulo Freire warned in his classic work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, if reformers do not honestly work in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized people they are seeking to help, they will become as dictatorial and oppressive as the leaders they sought to replace.

Authentic social change comes when reformist leaders work honestly with the oppressed, rather than simply seeking to do things to and for them, and then expecting them to go along. Promises are not enough. Following an appropriate process brings meaningful and lasting change.

The mild “uprisings” in West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia are a sign that people in those communities care about education and their kids and they want an authentic seat at the table. The SDP can’t just make promises of some miracle transformation. Leaders need to involve the people they claim to serve in the process of leading that transformation.

Drick Boyd teaches courses on leadership, race and ethnic relations, and urban theology. He is a member of the West Philadelphia Community Partners representing his church, West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship.

The guest blog section is a place for people, other than our regular cast of bloggers, to share their views. (See our "About Our Blog" note at the top, right.) Got something you'd like to write about? Email us with a pitch, idea, or a completed post.

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Comments (18)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 14, 2011 8:41 pm

This is exactly right. I hope the students and families in these communities will stand up and be counted. Something needs to be done. For schools that had been making progress (like West) it is demoralizing to have everything fall apart. Reform does not happen in a vacuum, the school needs the support of the entire community, everyone needs to have a vested interest. Arlene Ackerman seems to continue to have the idea that reform is done "to the students," Teachers at empowerment schools are required to follow scripts and are not given the time or the encouragment to work with their students. Reform is done "to" the teachers as well. Teachers have never been asked by Ackerman to be a part of the "reform" conversation. There has been no time for teachers in their own schools to meet as a team this year because of required trainings during every PD day. Directives to 'empowerment' schools have been relentless. There has never been any real conversations about what works. All that seems to matter is that teachers keep "data binders" and put up useless posters. 440 seems to have forgotten that our data represents individuals, human beings. Last year when my school became and "empowerment school" I kept thinking "I ain't gonna let no body turn me around..." But our school's progress has certainly been pulled back almost to a halt. It is time for teachers and students to walk out to protest this 'top down' reform that has entirely removed the voice of the community and wasted tax payer money.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 14, 2011 10:04 pm

i totally agree with everything the writer said except one thing i was at the audenried meeting yes the police were there but they did not have to do anything to restore order because it did not get out of control the way everyone wants the readers to believe yes the people who were there were upset and rightly so. ackerman wants to give the school to a company whose ceo basically called the community disfunctional. He was quoted in the south philly review newspapers saying;"dysfuctional families lead to dysfunctional communities" and that he and his company were going to change this. so y would i want someone to teach my child that feels as though i am dysfunctional.

Submitted by 1nine (not verified) on February 15, 2011 10:09 am

I realized that after reading your comment I didn't really know the definition of "dysfunctional" so I looked it up and it means that it is something that is unable to fulfill its purpose. I frequently feel as if my family is unable to fulfill its purpose without help from others and am grateful when I receive help. I know nothing of the CEO you refer to, but I don't think the comment needs to be taken so negatively. If your family is doing well alone then great, but do you see other families in your community that currently are "unable to fulfill their purpose as a family?" If so, a school with good leadership can potentially be a part of the solution.

Submitted by Christina (not verified) on February 15, 2011 10:56 am

Dear 1nine,
While I am not the commentator above, I completely disagree with the idea that this process is about "bettering" school leadership to ultimately benefit families, functional or dysfunctional. Furthermore, I have a horrific, foreboding feeling about what Universal thinks "functional" families would look like. Did you hear what the commentator said, 1nine? In your haste to look up the word dysfunction, you might have missed the fact that the police were called to Audenried NOT to protect safety but to put in place an environment of fear and foment further the us versus them mentality, power versus powerless, voice versus voiceless.

Guess it didn't work, 1nine, because according to the Notebook, forty FUNCTIONING students from Audenried were in front of 440 this morning. Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Notebook. Interesting article about West Philly and I look forward to reading more...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 15, 2011 10:54 pm

let me ask u this when u feel as though ur family is unable to cope do u feel as though u would be alright if someone labeled u as dysfunctional. furthermore, what may seem to dysfunctional to some maybe functional for them. also as you stated u would be grateful for help but i am pretty sure that u would like to be able to add input to the person who is going to help u. as far as the people in my community who are as u put it unable to fulfill their purpose as a family" what does that mean i am sure if u ask 10 different people how to fulfill their purpose as a family u will get 10 different answers. one more thing good leadership comes when the leader asks thefollowers what it is that they need not assume what they think is best for them

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on February 15, 2011 12:21 am

Ackerman and the SRC (or whoever makes decisions at 440 N. Broad) have already chosen the principal for West - Mary Sandra Dean who is at Mastbaum. I don't know Dean's reputation at Mastbaum, but Mastbaum is a vocational school so students are "selected" and can be removed. It is not a neighborhood school, like West, which has to accept anyone in the "catchment." (Neighborhood schools also have a much harder time making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress for PSSA) because any student in the "catchment" counts for the school if they are placement, locked up, at an "alternative school," etc. All school with admission requirements - including vocational schools - don't have to "play" by the same rules.)

Considering the lack of an open, transparent and democratic process in "turning around" schools under Ackerman, I don't envy Dean.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 15, 2011 6:00 am

This article perfectly sums up the feeling in most schools across the district: oppressed. It's hard to be motivated to teach/learn when you're constantly being told that what you're doing is not enough. This administrative style isn't born of an interest in improving the quality of education in this city, however, but rather an interest in justifying their own jobs. I've come to the conclusion that just about everyone at 440 is only interested in their own careers, and unabashedly use the children, parents and educators of this city as fodder for their cannons. Ackerman is taking this entire city directly into an iceberg, and you better believe she won't be sticking around to watch it crash and burn in her wake.

Submitted by Whitney (not verified) on February 15, 2011 10:11 am

In my time of working with students, especially high school aged students, I've realized that even the best plans will not succeed if the students don't respect those in leadership. I've seem many classrooms run with an iron fist, but there still is chaos, as students are willing to stand up to what they think is unfair. When someone students values and respects disappears or is knowingly relieved, it often causes disastrous results (as I am sure happened in West Philadelphia High School). The point I'm trying to relay is that without the support of and leadership respected by students, I don't think these school reform plans will succeed. Even with the largest amount of resources, students still are aware of when they have no say in decisions made. When students are not valued and the importance of their opinion underestimated, students will feel as if they have been given the right to fail or act out.

Without the ability to give input and be taken seriously by those in leadership, students are also not being empowered or given a stake in their education. How many adults truly invest themselves into something without feeling entitlement? How can we expect children to do what we won't? On top of this all, the input of teachers, parents, and the community alike are just as important, as schools drastically impact the community climate. Those in authority must realize the nature of social systems and how their decisions can be dangerous when made from a viewpoint of "above" the community instead of "within" the community.

Submitted by 1nine (not verified) on February 15, 2011 10:07 am

High school students are children and must obey parents and other adults. This is in all places and has been the case since high school was first created (as I am aware of). I hate to think what decisions my 7-year old son would make if I left him in charge of my family's finances, so why in the world should students at West have a equal share in making decisions for their school as that of the district administration and parents of the community?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 15, 2011 12:55 pm

Quite honestly, your attitude is part of the problem. There is a difference between a 7 year old and a 17 year old. I'm sure you would learn a lot from your 7 year old son if you open yourself up to it. A 17 year old, however, is very much invested in and thinking about the world and their relationship to it. Seventeen year olds and teenagers in general should be taught that they have some measure of control over their own lives, in the context of caring and respectful supervision by adults who they have strong relationships with. When adults break these bond and take actions that hurt them, young people have the right to say ouch. This question is not one of young people "taking over", but young people standing up to say that their opinions matter and that what they want should be taken into consideration. That's a common practice at well-funded suburban schools, private schools, and other well-resourced environments. Telling poor kids that they have to put up or shut up results in poor adults who are still being stepped on by elected officials and so called leaders. And if you're one of those adults that is reinforcing that message then you really need to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you are really working on behalf of young people or if you are working against them on behalf of someone or something else.

Submitted by 1nine (not verified) on February 15, 2011 1:20 pm

I have no problem with schools that include the opinions of students concerning certain types of decisions. I suppose our biggest difference with each other is specifically which decisions students should be allowed to help make. For example, I heard awhile back some students (Philly Student Union or something like that) wanted to be a part of the teacher hiring process which I thought was absolutely ridiculous.

I am not one of those adults telling poor kids or any kid to put up or shut up. However, I think one of the trickiest things with teenagers and children is the balance between respecting them and leading them. And do not doubt that I have learned a lot from my son. Nevertheless, I am not going to negotiate with him about whether or not he needs to hold my hand across a busy street. Likewise, when he is a teenager he has no business choosing whom to hire as his teacher. In may not seem like it from certain views, but limitations on power can be a blessing.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 15, 2011 7:28 pm

I wouldn't put the reigns of a school squarely in students' hands, or even consult too strongly with them in making many decisions, since most adolescents are still struggling with how to balance emotion, long-term, and short-term reasoning.

HOWEVER, 15-17 years old are very good at identifying how NOT to run a school. I've heard more sensible critiques of schools from students of that age than from adults. They don't necessarily have the life experience or the context to figure out how to fix the problems or the maturity to rise above bad adult leadership, but they are very keen at detecting ineffective teaching and weak or disrespectful leadership. Inconsistency, lack of fairness, dishonestly, and disorganization will never go undetected by adolescents.

Submitted by 1nine (not verified) on February 15, 2011 10:56 am

I agree with primarily everything you said above. However, at the point where you reference Pedagogy of the Oppressed and thereafter I start getting confused. For example, the assumption becomes that those attending West are the oppressed and marginalized. This may be the case, but you did not make this argument. Also, are you actually arguing for students to be part of the school reform decision-making process? If so, then the argument is no longer about matching the standards of the suburbs and has gone off into a creative new place where 15 year old boys receive the status of men. I agree that the community should/must be a part of an HONEST decision-making process, but it seems like you are saying leadership and expertise are not factors at all. If your definition of a quality education is that it must be created to be consistent with Paulo's theories then you should no longer imply that this issue has anything to do with matching the suburbs. Rather, you are pursuing a completely new form of American (maybe global?) education and the associated risks that come with it. The idea, rather than the well-being of the child, seems to become the priority. Although, I am sure you would disagree with that.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 15, 2011 2:53 pm

The author of the blog is referring to the way in which reformers work with communities when bringing up Pedagogy of the Oppressed, not the curriculum or content of our schools. He is speaking of the attitudes and practices of those who "claim" to speak for and make decisions about the oppressed. So in light of that does your comment make sense? Do you think that West would be slated for turnaround if its students and families were not oppressed? MLK said to judge people not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. I would argue that in this context we judge people *not only* on their age, but also on the content of their character. Do our "leaders" make smart and meaningful decisions? Do they act with integrity? Can young people have the kind of character it takes to make meaningful and smart decisions? To act with integrity? And when they do, do you just dismiss them out of hand, because they're young people? And continue to obey misguided "leaders" just because they're "old people"?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 15, 2011 2:21 pm

1nine, your misunderstanding of the author's point seems disingenuous. I'm not sure where you got the idea that students participating in the governance of their school is a new or unusual or suburban idea. It certainly doesn't mean that students "run" the school, but it does mean that they are systematically listened to, their needs are treated with respect, and they are given enough guidance to learn to express themselves responsibly--a skill all adults need and that must be learned. Where else, if not school, are young people going to learn to solve complex interpersonal problems, negotiate with peers and authority figures, figure out how to stand up for their values, figure out what their values even are? High school students might not always act the ways we adults want them to act, but we need to support and guide them as they grow into adult roles. It seems at West the emphasis has been on controlling and suppressing students--in other words, oppression--rather than treating their concerns as coming from a sincere and legitimate place. Acknowledging young people's concerns is not capitulation on the part of adults; it's the foundation for respect.

Submitted by Veteran of the WPHS Renaissance (not verified) on February 15, 2011 6:49 pm

Some of the political leaders that are responsible for supporting this repressive administration were, in fact, protesters or sons of protesters or the inheritors of the protesters in the late 1960's who organized schools across the city of Philadelphia and marched to 21st & the Parkway (former address of district central office) to make demands about changing the curriculum of the public schools. What they learned through that protest was critical to their own political education and to mobilizing a community to elect new leaders to office. How they forget.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 15, 2011 10:14 pm

1NINE let me ask u this when u feel as though ur family is unable to cope do u feel as though u would be alright if someone labeled u as dysfunctional. furthermore, what may seem to dysfunctional to some maybe functional for them. also as you stated u would be grateful for help but i am pretty sure that u would like to be able to add input to the person who is going to help u. as far as the people in my community who are as u put it unable to fulfill their purpose as a family" what does that mean i am sure if u ask 10 different people how to fulfill their purpose as a family u will get 10 different answers. one more thing good leadership comes when the leader asks thefollowers what it is that they need not assume what they think is best for them

Submitted by GLENNORA WALKER (not verified) on June 22, 2014 3:28 pm
KEEP YOUR PROMISE TO your graduates, they are awarded a diploma, walk down the aisle, tassel, name on grad bulletin etc. Why are you treating YADEERAH CHISOM, in this Horrible manner, she has done what many others could or would not do, she MADE IT, do the right thing and fix this, do something special for her and her family---I'll be calling on other grads, alumni, and celeb grads to come together on this if you all will not try to rectify this PROBLEM---SHAME, SHAME, SHAME ON YOU--WEST PHILA HIGH !!!!!!!

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