For students, teachers, parents and the community, it was apparent that change was a must for the neighborhood’s local high school, West Philadelphia. In 2007, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s “School Report Card,” West’s eleventh grade test scores indicated only a 5.5 percent proficiency score in math, with reading proficiency scores hovering around 6.2 percent. This means that a large percentage of students were performing at a basic or largely below basic level in comparison to other Philadelphia District Schools. A mere three years ago, West was also a place where daily fires, teacher assaults and hospitalizations would occur. In light of the poor scores and incidents, the School District of Philadelphia placed West on the “Renaissance Eligible” list as one of the several potential schools to be revamped through the Renaissance Initiative.
The Renaissance Initiative program is designed to single out schools that are not likely to undergo a dramatic change without help. It also wishes to identify individuals and groups capable of turning around these failing schools, as well as implementing community ideas and support.
The “Renaissance Review,” an analysis of all of the eligible schools to determine if they should stay on the list, was conducted March 2-3. A team of five representatives of School Works and the School District of Philadelphia spent time visiting 27 classrooms, working 28 focus groups and reviewing documents to review if each aspect fit the requirements of eight key questions. The evidence that was collected on-site was used to identify areas of improvement as well as to identify strengths. On March 30, West, along with 13 other schools, stayed on the Renaissance Initiative’s list.
According to The Notebook, an independent Web site that assesses Philadelphia schools, West’s current math scores indicate that students are now at an 8.7 percent proficiency level and their reading scores jumped to 11.9 percent. Daily fires and violence issues are under control and there are currently a total of seven advanced placement courses available. The school has experienced success at the prestigious Automotive Academy, where students are building their own hybrid car to compete for the Progressive Automotive X Prize.
“I think that our behavioral problems now boil down to lateness, absences and things of that nature, normal high school problems you will find in any school,” claims Saliyah Cruz. She is the current principal at West who can be partially credited for the school’s slow, but immense turn around that began three years ago when she took the helm.
While admittedly the school is still performing with low test scores, all of the improvements occurred before the school was placed on this list. Though a change still needs to be implemented, both the school and the community are left wondering if the Renaissance Initiative is the right answer.
One concern for both teachers and students is the extended hours. Under the Renaissance Initiative, an extra hour of class plus a school day on Saturday would be spent focusing on the issues students are having with their studies. Summer classes are also rumored to become mandatory. Another concern is that already successful programs may be taken out of West because it may not accommodate the model the Renaissance Initiative may put in place. Much like the gossip that stereotypically surrounds the high school environment, many concerns are arising through general confusion and lack of information.
It seems that the biggest concern of students and teachers alike is the determined fact that at least 50 percent of the school’s teachers will not be returning to West undergoing the new Renaissance revamp. To ensure that all parties are capable of handling the changes in the best way for students, only up to half of West’s faculty will be welcomed back into the school; others will filter out into the Philadelphia School District.
“It is kind of a blow to morale,” Mia King, a social studies student teacher and longtime school volunteer, admits. “All of the uncertainties are hard, but while it is tough, we are all working hard to stay positive, stay focused and enjoying the year we have left. Every time a ‘next year’ conversation comes up between a teacher and a student, it can become pretty painful.”
Some in the community think that the inconsistent change that happens within the district is the part of the reason why West has struggled so much. Some fear that changing the teachers only adds to the inconsistency issues. With updates coming in on a daily basis, it is hard to be certain or positive about the school’s over all future. West’s community and the neighborhood community do know that their school will not be Promise Academy next year. Most likely, West will become a John Hopkins’ Talent Development school under the Innovation model. This is a reform model for high schools that face serious academic struggles, drop out rates and discipline issues. The model houses several components that focus on a variety of issues such as getting jobs for upperclassmen, working in teams and the extended class periods.
No one is delusional or jaded with school pride. Many officials, teachers and even students claimed that it was a known fact that you went to West by default, that the school needed help and could benefit from some change. Students in particular, who admitted change is a must, are members of the boy’s tennis team Christian Southern, Shajuan Lewis and Steven Wade.
Wade, a high school senior who will be returning to the his hometown for a college education at the North Park University in Chicago, is still concerned for the remaining students at West, like his younger sister. He maturely notes that while the school is in need of academic help it is “Up to yourself to succeed, and no one can do it for you.
Lewis, a junior, thinks that some of the changes will be beneficial. However, his concerns about the extra hours spent in school are far beyond adolescent laziness.
“It is not just because we will be in there for an hour,” assures Lewis, “ it is just that some kids don’t like each other. When you force another day for us to all be together, tensions rise and fights may happen again.”
Then there is Southern, who believes that a student’s voice should be heard. In collaboration with fellow students, Southern orchestrated a Facebook page to create awareness and spur conversation. He feels that the district has done a good job of keeping students and parents informed with meetings and constant updates. Logically, he understands that the school needs improvements. Even Southern, an AP student, admits that the hour after school and the Saturdays that are rumored could be useful, because “everyone needs a little extra help.” Above all Southern claims he simply wants to educate the underclassmen that this is their school and they need to take charge too.
“I used to attend a different school and heard a lot of bad stuff about West,” he reminisces. “They used to say, ‘man you’re gonna’ see when you get there…’ what I see is family. This school is like a family to me. That is why I don’t want certain teachers to go, I don’t want to be surrounded by strangers when I graduate.”
Southern is not the only one working to bring awareness about the changes. Community members have been working around the clock, attending meetings and starting programs like Parent Out-Reach to make sure their concerns and voice is heard. Some community members believe that the Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District Dr. Arlene Ackerman, is only including the community in the model selection process for show because of West’s proximity to University city. However most feel that their opinions are being taken seriously. Though opinions and suggestions are welcome, it will be the district that has the final say.
“Above all,” announces President of the Walnut Hill Community Association Isaac Barber at a local meeting, “we must make sure our children get the best education possible. It is our duty to represent our children and our community.”