February 14 — 6:39 pm, 2011

Process and promise at West Philly High

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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