A sad reminder of what West Philly High almost was
News that the former West Philadelphia High School building will be developed into loft apartments is a sad reminder that the school nearly became a model for a community-centered approach to school transformation. Now, West Philly High is a traditional high school, and its former building yet another symbol of a gentrified neighborhood.
This outcome is the result of the defeat of an organizing campaign led by students from the Philadelphia Student Union to redesign West as a cluster of small learning communities. As Philadelphia moves toward developing community schools, I hope lessons from the successes and ultimate failure of West Philly High’s "small schools" campaign will be useful.
In 2004, when I was the director of the Student Union, the District announced that the school would move to a new building, part of Paul Vallas’ ambitious capital plan. After frequent fires broke out inside the school and a revolving door of principals came and went, the school community knew that West needed more than a new building.
Students from West immediately saw this as an opportunity — not only to get a new building, but also to radically redesign the way that education was happening. Model schools from across the country were researched and then visited. A multi-year process of bringing students, parents, teachers, and community together to create a plan for the new school was launched.
We always knew that part of the fight would have to be to ensure that the school’s old home would not be sold for market-rate apartments. We did community surveys to find out what the community wanted to see in that site and held meetings with District and city officials to try to get a community-benefit agreement put in place.
In the last years of the old building, under the leadership of principal Saliyah Cruz, the school had begun to transform. West was one of the first schools in the District to implement restorative practices to replace a punitive discipline approach. A huge decrease in violent incidents and suspensions followed. Themed academies, which came from the students’ plan, made them feel known and cared for. An urban leadership program engaged students in academics as well as issues from the neighborhood. Out of the planning process was born the West Philadelphia Community Partners, which brought volunteers into the school, took teachers on neighborhood tours, and organized parent outreach efforts.
Then the school was picked for Renaissance conversion, and chaos ensued. There was a fight between our community plan and then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s desire to make the school a Promise Academy that followed her preferred reform model. Eventually, the parents on the School Advisory Committee (SAC) voted for the community plan. But in a move reminiscent of the recent last-minute changes at Wister, just as the SRC was about to approve the plan, the vote was cancelled.
I had been working at the Philadelphia Education Fund supporting the small schools campaigns at West and Kensington High Schools and was accused of bribing parents (a few of them had received stipends from the parent outreach program, something they had disclosed at the beginning of the process). Ackerman asked that I be removed from working at West.
In the summer of 2010, Cruz was removed as principal. The West Philadelphia High School Community Partners fell apart in the chaos and, as a result, there was no one to fight against the building being sold to the highest bidder. The climate problems that had plagued West for years quickly came back.
I walk by the old and new buildings often, and it breaks my heart every time. So many people fought hard to make something different happen. We wanted West to be a model of how students, parents, teachers, and the community could turn around a school. It worked for a short time and then all fell apart.
There were a number of things that we did right. We followed the leadership of students, organized parents and community members, found a great principal, created a plan to improve teaching and learning, and held out for a transformative vision of what a community-centered school could be.
We came really close to doing something incredible, but made too many mistakes. District leaders were able to exploit divisions in the community. We did not sufficiently develop the leadership of parents. Mostly, we underestimated the forces we were up against and failed to build sufficient power. What we were trying to do was far more of a threat to the system than we realized and defending it would take more power than we were able to build.
I hope some of the lessons from West will be helpful as Philadelphia moves to create community schools. We made some big mistakes, but we figured a few things out, too. Coordinating services and engaging community members, as traditional community schools do, are important, but creating a plan to transform teaching and learning and school climate also need attention. Engaging school community members, developing their leadership, and building power to fight for and defend the school are also critical to long-term success. Community schools could become a powerful way to transform our schools, but there will be many challenges, and a true grassroots movement will be needed to ensure the kind of change that is needed.
Eric Braxton is the executive director of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, a national association of grantmakers and youth organizers committed to advancing youth-led social change. He is a founder and former executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.