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Located just a few blocks from campus at 47th and Walnut streets, West Philadelphia High School is causing heated debate in the community.

The Philadelphia School District introduced its Renaissance Schools initiative in January. The program, which includes West Philadelphia High, is intended to revamp failing schools by allowing third parties to manage school operations. These third parties could include charter schools and education management organizations.

Two organizations are eligible to manage West Philadelphia High: Mastery Charter and Diplomas Now by Johns Hopkins University.

With Diplomas Now, Graduate School of Education professor John Puckett sees opportunity for flexibility with currently run programs. Charter schools, on the other hand, “come in with fixed templates,” he said.

Puckett and Urban Studies Program Co-Director Elaine Simon agreed that they would most likely discontinue their academically based community service course at West Philadelphia High if Mastery ends up running the school.

Netter Center for Community Partnerships programming would continue as normal, including mentoring, tutoring and after-school services, according to Samantha Foster, Netter Center site director at West Philadelphia High.

“Our obligation is to the school and the community here,” she said, adding that all programs are funded by grants.

Under the charter school, the work of current Principal Saliyah Cruz toward community building would be undermined, Puckett said.

Three years ago, West Philadelphia High went into “meltdown” when students began starting fires and even assaulting teachers, according to Puckett. “Students simply erupted in frustration at the poor conditions in the building,” he said.

But under Cruz’s leadership, the school received a grant from the Department of Labor, created small learning communities and built community relationships, Foster said.

Penn has contributed through programs such as the Netter Center and ABCS courses. This year, for example, 20 West Philadelphia High students have internships with Penn Medicine, Foster said. One student who interns in the maternity ward now wants to pursue a career in maternity and obstetrics.

“The primary thing is that folks feel like big improvements were happening here,” Foster said. With the Renaissance reform, “that’s been put on hold.”

Tough on Teachers

Additional measures under the Renaissance Program would include the requirement that all teachers currently employed by a Renaissance School resign and reapply for their jobs. No more than half are allowed back.

The school can’t begin hiring teachers until the decision between Diplomas Now and Mastery is made in May, at which time the teacher applicant pool is “pretty poor at best,” Foster said.

Teacher quality is the most important factor in education, Public Policy Professor Theodore Hershberg said.

Demand for teaching in West Philadelphia has been so low that recruiters have been sent abroad to find teachers, he said. In suburban public schools, by contrast, 40 applicants might compete for the same post.

Simon sees this as part of a greater national trend in education resulting from the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top Fund,” which gives grants to states to pursue education reform.

She said there is pressure on urban districts to convert its schools into charter or magnet schools, which often require standardized testing for admissions. This creates a “hierarchical” system, leaving unreformed schools to take the remainder of students, Simon said.

Renaissance designation was based primarily on test scores. West Philadelphia High saw drastic improvements in climate data, but Foster said three years is not enough time for the benefits to impact test scores. She added that the student population is fairly “transient,” so very few seniors have been at the school since ninth grade.

Diplomas Now vs. Mastery: Decision uncertain

The decision will be made by the School Reform Council after considering community feedback.

Diplomas Now was the only program to apply to provide for West Philadelphia High, but the school district added Mastery as a candidate in the interest of having multiple options, according to Simon.

Simon said she was “mystified” by the choice to include Mastery in the running. Many Penn professors, including Simon, are vocal supporters of Diplomas Now.

She added that now that Mastery was introduced, the outcome of the decision is uncertain.

Mastery Chief Executive Officer Scott Gordon did not return requests for comment Friday.

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