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October 2011 Vol. 19. No. 2 Focus on School Turnarounds

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Nothing worth saving?

As the Promise Academy model is launched at the new West Philadelphia High, all signs of previous efforts are gone.

By by Benjamin Herold on Sep 21, 2011 09:17 PM

Neil GeyetteIt 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 DeanMary 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.

About the Author

Contact Notebook/NewsWorks reporter Benjamin Herold at Intern Katrina Morrison contributed reporting for this article.

Reporting on West Philadelphia High School has been supported by a grant from

Comments (13)

Submitted by Ryan Keating (not verified) on October 21, 2011 3:59 pm

It is very sad for me to have read this article. This is but another example of a good teacher being ousted in favor of "the process" that is suppose to lead to better and more grand things for education. The sad thing is that this story represents very much so the state of public education in the country and especially urban areas. Bright, well to do teachers, who are great role models or people to fellow teachers and students get cut for teachers who push more of the accepted status quo within education that has to do with test taking, achievement gap jargon, and the bureaucratic process.

Neil Geyette is a great teacher and he has been removed from a school that needed him very much. These types of teachers are on staff at every school. The teachers themselves know they are good, most of the faculty knows who the good teachers are, and the students and parents overwhelmingly know who the good teachers are too. Why can't the state get it together and give more of these types of teachers (Neil Geyette and company) more of a leadership role within education? Nope, instead, they get seen as the problem and moved physically, along with their ideas, out of the picture. How long will the school districts and the bureaucratic powers that be keep looking in the wrong direction for positive change? Maybe they'll just do it long enough for all the Neil Geyettes to quit and move onto other professions that actually appreciate and value them more.

Submitted by Wendy Harris on January 26, 2012 2:32 pm

Hi Ryan. Thanks for your comment. We are in the process of gathering comments for a section of our paper called "From our readers". It's a compilation of letters to the editor and comments that visitors to our site make on blog posts and edition articles. We are interested in using your comment on this article in Oct. edition in our From our readers section. I wanted to see if we could have your permission to use the comment since it is written much like a letter to the editor would be written. Please let me know ASAP as we are putting our paper to bed over the next couple days. If  you could send me an email at which I could contact you that would be great. My email is Thanks and hope to hear from you soon.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 27, 2012 8:12 am

I am hearing all about the urban leadership academy, but I am not hearing about the Auto Academy that Ms.Mary Sandra Dean single handedly dismantled. After all that was accomplished that I have read in the papers and the huge amount of money(MILLIONS!!!) that was invested into the program before she tore it apart and left it in ruins.
Google West Phila Auto Academy and all of its positive press and see if anyone can understand how she could destroy incredible learning and innovation that was done by the students.(building incredible 100+MPG vehicles using kids idea's and skills that where second to no one).NOT ONE PENNY CAME FROM THE DISTRICT. All moneys raised by students and faculty.
The group of dedicated teachers at the Auto Academy worked hard and on their own time (without Pay!!!)staying after school and making great strides with these at risk kids.
The Only Positive Press the school ever got was from the auto academy for the most part. The EVX team helped to save some of the most at risk kids in west and sent them on to College to be successfl professionals who will contribute to the success of our country.
The job of the teachers at West is to fix kids that need more than reading , writing ,and Math. They ,most times need an extra parent to teach morals , and basic manners that were never taught to them at home. LETS COMPARE APPLES TO APPLES!!!
These kids need to learn first and foremost why it is important to learn when they can make a living on the street by selling drugs or whatever they can steal.
It is quite clear that the focus is not on our kids success, the focus is on Ms Dean being a tyrant who only cares how she looks in the Media.You just do not mess with something that is working well.
In closing,it seems that if something is working, tear it down quick, If it is logical and makes perfect sense don't do it, why save a buck when you can waste millions and get away with it. This is and has been the code of the Philadelphia school district and needs to be changed.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 27, 2012 10:07 am

When is the School District going to do something about Mary Sandra Dean? She ruined University City and was removed from her position there by Paul Vallas because she was so bad. She caused a mass exodous of teachers and support staff from Mastbaum, and now she is destroying what West's school community worked so hard to build.

There have been more complaints and grievances about her than any other administrator in Philadelphia. When she took over West she wiped out West's dedicated staff under the guise of "reconstitution." There are issues at West with staff members who are afraid to speak up because they will be written up.

Yet they allow her to continue her ridiculousness with impunity.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 27, 2012 11:08 am

Ms. Dean was an excellent principal at Mastbaum, and she is sorely missed by students and teachers alike. I worked under her for several years, and can attest that she did what every good administrator should to do: demanded accountability from everyone. No wonder, she alienated a fraction of teachers who were not up to the task. She does have communication issues every once in a while, and there were cases when I did not like what she said or did. She is a human and can make mistakes. But I have a great respect for her, because her main motivation is to do the best for the sake of the students. After she left, the school quickly went downhill.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 27, 2012 12:19 pm

I worked there, too, and I guarantee you that is not the opinion of the vast majority of people who worked there. She alienated more than a fraction of the teachers.

Three of her AP's left because they did not agree with her about the way people should be treated. One of them had a major confrontation with her before leaving during the school year.

She stated point blank to me that it was not about the students. The morale was dismal. There were many excellent teachers who left because of her. Many of them left in the middle of the year. A few said they could no longer stand the "tension in the building." Those teachers who left were replaced by incompetent subs who could not even control a class let alone teach.

The major issue when I was at Mastbaum was that she never had anything positive to say about teachers.

The other major issue was that she forced teachers to constantly interrupt teaching for test preparation.

She was not demanding accountability. She was managing by threat and intimidation and writing people up incessantly without just cause. She wrote up people she did not like or who raised issues.

Even a student representative from Mastbaum went to an SRC meeting last year and asked if the students could have a voice in choosing their new principal.

Ask Commissioner Dworetzky. He told the student that they would be given a voice in choosing the new principal.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 27, 2012 1:21 pm

Well, I had a very different experience. After she left, people are telling me that they did not think they would miss her, but they do.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 27, 2012 8:05 pm

Call it what it is---Mary Dean is a bully! And, the teachers at West now are afraid to speak up against her in fear of getting written up. The atmosphere is strained with teachers working in fear. Perhaps you were one of her "buddies". Trust me, people are not happy with her.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 28, 2012 9:30 am

I was not a "buddy", I just quietly did my job. I did not see anything worth "speaking up against". Does not mean, I always liked what she was doing, but if you look at the final result: the school was running smoothly, violence was minimized, school made AYP two years in a row, she did something right. There are always people who are unhappy with the principal. There are many more unhappy people right now at Mastbaum, after Ms. Dean left.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 28, 2012 12:46 pm

Of course, everyone else was accountable, just not her. Were the teachers at University City also a problem? is that why Vallas had her removed? Hiding behind the children seems to be the main dodge that incompetent administrators use. "I did it for the children!"

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 28, 2012 1:11 pm

Mastbaum was always a good school. It always, for years and years, had a large number of very good teachers who care about the students and each other.

It also is a "select school" which screens its students before they are admitted. As to AYP, we need not go there, but let me just say, there are some really good teachers who do the teaching. If AYP was properly earned, it was because of the teachers.

Mastbaum was, is, and will be a good school because of its teachers and the students who go there. If they had no administrators at all, they would be just fine.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 28, 2012 1:43 pm

"Mastbaum was, is, and will be a good school"
Check this out:
Come and see what the school turned into in a short 8 months.
I maintain that good administration is crucial, and, by design it cannot please everyone.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 28, 2012 2:47 pm

There were always fights like that at Mastbaum and there are fights like that at most high schools every year. It is how the discipline team handles those situations in the short term and the long term which matters.

There were fights like that during every year. I'll bet they jumped right on it. When I was there, the AP's and the school police were outside everyday after school and went all the way down to the El Station. The teachers in the discipline room would stay late to deal with any and all situations.

The teachers who did the handling of the discipline situations, gave up their time without compensation and did whatever was necessary.

When Mastbaum was accredited by the Middlestates Evaluation Team, they raved about the teachers and support staff. They noted issues with the administration.

Mastbaum has been acknowledged by the state for its CTE program which was put in place many years ago. They went through a state evaluation while I was there, too. The state evaluators spent days in the school. The teachers created that program.

The state evaluators thought the school and its staff was commendable.

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