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Community Transformation: Building a Better West Philadelphia High School

The Philadelphia Student Union has been involved in building the educational vision for West Philadelphia High School for six years now – ever since we learned that West was going to get a new building.  Our ultimate vision is independent theme based schools housed within one building, with the Auto Academy in a seperate building.  Sometimes when we talk about “schools within a school,” people think we’re talking about making West smaller or more exclusive. Just the opposite.  We’re talking about a plan for the same students who go to West right now – who can’t wait any longer for transformational changes.

For the past two years our school has had academies – one milestone in our progress.  The themes for the academies are ones that students have asked for, and continue to desire.  Our plan is not only a way to create good “academies”, but to completely change the school.  To take the students currently in the building, and give them resources that will transform their educational experience into one where students can excel.

West chapter members have been involved in establishing a community based transformation of our school. We’ve looked at most of our problems in our school.  Among them are that students constantly miss out or remain unaware of college opportunities because we don’t have enough counselors and students fall through the cracks.  When class sizes are too large, teachers can’t intervene with disruptive students because they don’t know their students well enough as individuals.

Students suffer when teachers don’t have time to create stimulating assignments because they can’t grade a large body of students. Instead, teachers end up relying on multiple choice tests and worksheets. The problem with this type of teaching is that there is no sense of community.  If our plan is implemented, it will eliminate this problem. Personalization is the key element in our fight to transform West.  We need to give the school and its community the resources it needs to accommodate their students directly.  These include autonomy to deal with staff in terms of hiring and evaluation. The ability to budget money more freely will give the school and its administration the opportunity to benefit the school by being innovative with the budget. For example, if climate improves drastically, then security can be reduced, leaving flexibility to hire more teachers and further reduce class size.

This also opens the door to advance the rigor in our school. Many of our community members are concerned that the course work isn’t as rigorous as some other schools in our district.  We need to begin to offer this rigor, so that our students can step up to the plate and do what we know they are capable of doing. If it’s good enough for Center City schools it’s good enough for West Philadelphia High School. 

PSU members from West have visited some small, community-centered schools, including South Bronx High School and Bushwick Academy, which have over 90% graduation rates. The reason that these schools do so well is because they are small and diverse within each learning sub-community. Every academy can suit the interests of the students based around whatever trade or study the theme of that academy may be. Also, they function as one big progressive school. This doesn’t lock the student into that academy, because all “small schools” are capable of sending their students on to four year institutions, or other post secondary education. Students have something worthwhile to be in school for, that will help segue them into their career.

We will continue to fight for our school and we need your support.  We can’t rest until we see West Philadelphia High School become the vanguard school it was in its past.  We have a history and a responsibility to make this school what the community needs it to be. •


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