West Philly community responds to ‘Renaissance’ label
Thursday evening I attended the Renaissance Community Meeting at West Philadelphia High School. About 50 people attended. Most of them were parents and community members with a few students and teachers in the mix as well. The message they sent was incredibly unified: our school has already started the turnaround; don’t lose that progress.
Several students spoke about the changes at West in the last few years. Senior Khalif Dobson recalled the fights and fires that consumed the school during his 9th grade year. He said the school is completely different now, and that students are excited about going to class and learning.
Isaac Barber, president of the Walnut Hill Community Association, said that he lives across the street from West, and the changes in the school are obvious to neighbors who appreciate the calm way that students now arrive at and leave the school. He also recognized Principal Saliyah Cruz for the way she has reached out to the community. Mr. Barber noted that before Ms. Cruz arrived, the school had gone through a series of principals and that the constant change created chaos. He urged the District not to make a change now that the school has steady and qualified leadership.
Carla Jackson is the parent of a 10th grade student and now sits on the school’s leadership team. She appreciated the ways that the school has reached out to parents. She noted that last year, when the school’s goal was to reduce violence, they had the largest reduction in serious incidents of any comprehensive high school.
She said that now that climate is under control, the school has turned its attention to improving academics and that the District should allow the school time to improve. In addition, Ms. Jackson noted that the school has only just started the implementation of the $6 million Department of Labor grant. She said that changing the administration and staff now would be a waste of that funding.
District officials responded by saying that there are two ways that West could continue under its current leadership. First, the school could be removed from the Renaissance list during the school review process if it can demonstrate that it is making significant progress on its own. Second, the school leadership could apply to lead an Innovation School. If this were to happen, the administration at West would stay and would be given additional resources and flexibility to make change in the school. However, no more than 50% of the teachers at West could return.
Khalif Dobson said that he liked the idea of the school getting more control over its curriculum, but that he did not think that the school should have to replace 50% of its teachers. He said that so many of the teachers are new anyway that changing them now did not make any sense. Other community members said that they liked the idea of becoming an Innovation School if Ms. Cruz and the core staff could stay, but that they were concerned that if the school stays on the Renaissance list there would be no guarantees about what would happen.
While it remains uncertain what will happen to West, what is clear that the school has strong support from students, parents, and community members and that one way or another they want the current team at West to stay in place.