Breaking Ground on a Better Education: Students’ Work Pays Off at West Philadelphia High School

Shovels dug into the dirt, sand thrown to signify something incredible. As the dust settled I felt it deep down. It had happened, Philadelphia Student Union’s (PSU) West Philadelphia High School chapter had come to a major milestone in our organizing. An almost six year process lead to the ground breaking of West Philadelphia High School on its new site at 49th and Chestnut Streets. It had been a long time coming.

In 2003, then CEO Paul Vallas announced that West Philadelphia High School would be getting a new building. Immediately, students at West started a process of figuring out how to change not just the building, but to improve the quality of education and the school culture.

We traveled to schools in the Bronx, NY, and Okaland, CA, that had successfully educated students coming from the same backgrounds and communities of the West population. When I joined PSU in 9th grade I remember having to go to the School Reform Commission to demand that they put West back in the capital budget after our school had been taken out. It was a struggle to get to this point where I can stand on a construction site and say “I was a part of the process that made this happen.”

The process up to this point has included over 200 people—community members, faith based organizations, parents, local representatives, and politicians—and was spear-headed by students. So the opening of the new school is a testament of the power of student voice, and the ability of a community to take an active role in transforming a whole school.

The fight for a school that creates critical thinkers and not test takers still continues however being that we have the building stage complete we are now working on the education. The Community Partners—the community body that supports the school—is working closely with school leadership and the community to bring in a number of things.

Parent and community volunteers are fighting the truancy issue by making phone calls to absent students at the school, we are helping to organize a community walk to engage the faculty in the community in which they work, and thinking of ways to really involve a higher percentage of parents in the school. We will need the help of everyone that has supported us and ask that you continue your hard work.

Although it has been almost one hundred years in the making, the new building will be more than just a building. It will be the stage for our actors to perform, a podium for our orators to speak, and a track for our race to academic excellence. •

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Timeline of student organizing around a new building

2003: CEO Paul Vallas announces a new building for West Philadelphia High School.

2003-2005: PSU students lead the community process to design the new building & create a research-based educational vision.

2005-2009: PSU students continue to influence construction & design of the new building.

2006: West is removed from the District’s captial budget. Students fight successfully to get $81 Million put back in the budget for West.

2006-2007: PSU surveys students to name & design four small learning academies that are then implemented in the school: Automotive, Business, Urban Leadership, & Creative and Performing Arts [now 9th Grade Academy].

2009: Groundbreaking. Construction begins on new West Philadelphia High School.


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