Nothing worth saving?
As the Promise Academy model is launched at the new West Philadelphia High, all signs of previous efforts are gone.
by Benjamin Herold
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.