September 5 — 1:52 pm, 2011

Let’s remember the struggle that made the new West Philadelphia High a reality

This guest blog post is by Elaine Simon, a West Philadelphia resident and the director of the Urban Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania.

The ribbon-cutting for the new West Philadelphia High School will take place Tuesday in a formal ceremony that will feature the mayor, the new interim superintendent, the new principal, and other dignitaries whose participation marks the significance of this event.

I hope the ceremony and the mutual congratulations will give full credit to the story of the people and groups who struggled to assure that the promise of a new building would be realized. The history of the community organizing effort that kept the West project alive when threatened with removal from the capital budget should be remembered.

The story begins when Arlene Ackerman’s predecessor, Paul Vallas, first proposed a new building for West Philadelphia High School. Vallas wanted 17 new high schools throughout the city and in 2003 proposed a capital budget of $1.5 billion for construction and renovation.

Coming early in his tenure, this proposal contributed to Vallas’ popularity, particularly among the business community and the press. The prospect of a major investment in community facilities spurred different efforts to bring sense and rationality to the plan, since an opportunity like this comes about very rarely in Philadelphia. Penn Praxis and The Inquirer collaborated in a public process to consider issues important to building and siting new schools.

Thus began an unprecedented discussion among a wide range of people about what new school buildings should look like and where they should be located. We discussed the potential impact on different city neighborhoods, how residents could maximize the benefit of new construction to the whole community, and how citizens could re-imagine education as connected to urban revitalization. It was an exciting moment.

Central characters in this story are two youth education organizing groups in the city – one in West Philadelphia and one in Kensington – that saw in the promise of new facilities an opportunity to bring about fundamental change in the kind of education they would get. The mantra of both the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) and Youth United for Change was, “We don’t want the same old failed program in a brand-new building.”

The two youth organizing groups engaged adult organizations including CDCs and neighborhood associations to help think through what type of program would best serve their communities. Students fired their imaginations and sense of self-determination by traveling to other cities to learn about innovative and successful educational models. They came to favor the idea of small schools-within-a-school guided by themes that would come to life through project-oriented learning.

They worked on West’s transformation. PSU staff and student leaders, with funding from the William Penn Foundation and in collaboration with the Philadelphia Education Fund and its community engagement program, brought a range of organizations and residents to a planning process that began in the spring of 2005 and continued throughout the 2005-2006 school year, facilitated by a New Orleans-based Concordia LLC, architects that specialize in community-oriented school design. Out of this inclusive process came a plan for WPHS that put forth principles for the nature of the education program, physical space design, and the role of the community.

From all this emerged West Philadelphia Community Partners (WPCP), an inclusive and diverse group that promoted the plan to the District administration. WPCP continued to flesh out the plan, eventually settling on themes for the small schools. The plan was to complement West’s long-time, renowned automotive academy with three new programs: business and technology, creative and performing arts, and urban studies (or urban leadership). There was plenty of disagreement, but the lively discussion helped to air concerns and build consensus.

But as the West blueprint was being refined, there emerged talk of scaling back the ambitious plans for new school facilities in Philadelphia, and West’s building was among those that would be sacrificed. The work of the community partners in 2006 and 2007 shifted to keeping the school in the capital budget.

The momentum and strategy for this effort came largely from the Philadelphia Student Union. WPCP organized for community members to attend SRC meetings, closely monitored budget documents, and worked to gain political support. Ultimately the new building would not end up in the location that WPCP had wanted, but the commitment to a new building for West was secured as a direct result of the persistence of the West Philadelphia Community Partners, and much of the credit goes to the PSU for leading a group of highly distracted adults and keeping their eyes on the prize.

PSU has not been invited to speak at Tuesday’s main media event, although the group will tell its story at a community gathering afterwards.

WPCP also succeeded in getting the School District and the chosen architects to involve them in the design of the new school to insure that it would reflect the program goals of their plan, which had been adopted quickly when the school erupted in violence in spring 2007. District officials dismissed the principal and in the absence of its own ideas, adopted WPCP’s proposed themes for academies in the coming year. While the architects’ plan did not go as far as WPCP hoped in differentiating space for the schools-within-a-school, the new building actually was designed to house three distinct academies.

I had the chance to tour the new building the other day, and indeed its hallways are color-coded to create a sense of place within the building for different learning communities, and the facilities are designed to accommodate a performing arts academy – with a dance studio, state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems in the auditorium, and facilities for visual arts and crafts-making.

Unfortunately, the dignitaries who will be photographed cutting the ribbon on the first day of school in 2011 and the majority of those in the audience who will clap for the speakers and gush about the shiny new building may not know this history. They won’t know about the grassroots effort that forced the District to live up to its commitment to build a new West Philadelphia High School. They won’t know that the design and outfitting of the school was intended to support schools-within-a-school with particular themes agreed to through an inclusive community planning process.

I hope that they will read this and remember the people who deserve credit for this ribbon-cutting – former and current students involved in PSU and a persistent group of community members who volunteered countless hours in a good-faith effort to contribute as citizens to the future of their neighborhood.

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