The Biggest Embarrassment in Philadelphia

Is sitting right in the middle of West Philly

If you want to see ground zero for this city’s biggest humiliation, visit West Philadelphia High School.

Yesterday it was reported that three guys in ski masks and gloves stole 60 laptop computers worth about $80,000 from the 98-year-old building at 47th and Walnut in the middle of the night.

And really, should we be surprised?

Things have been deteriorating steadily and dramatically at West Philadelphia High, one of the city’s oldest and most iconic educational institutions, for decades. [SIGNUP]

But for a brief time, just a moment ago but all but forgotten already, there was hope. Hope came in the form of Saliyah Cruz, a passionate principal who mobilized and inspired a troop of young and devoted teachers to her mission for three years at West Philadelphia High School until she was shown the door at the end of the 2010 academic year.

During her brief tenure at WPHS, Cruz instilled a sense of pride at the school. Teachers, parents, students and district officials all universally credited Cruz for restoring calm and creating an atmosphere of mutual respect at a school that had forgotten the meaning of both.

(This was no small achievement. I caught a glimpse of the pre-Cruz chaos at West Philadelphia High during a visit to the school shortly before she took over. When I stopped by the school’s office for my appointment, I found one administrator shouting into a phone and another sobbing loudly into her hands.)

When she removed the popular principal from West Philadelphia High, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman cited a lack of academic progress under Cruz’s leadership. And, in fact, the academic news was not good: Just 2 percent of juniors were at grade level in math and only 16 percent were meeting standards in reading on the school’s 2010 state standardized test scores.

But could Cruz really be expected to create an academic miracle in three years at a school that had been underwater for decades?

Making a school safe is a baseline requirement for learning. Cruz knew that, and under her leadership the school came off the state’s Persistently Dangerous List, a designation that had hung over the school like a black cloud for years. Those who were drawn to her mission believe academic achievement would have followed.

Here’s what’s happened since Cruz’s departure:

West Philadelphia High is now on its third principal since the start of the school year.

Some two weeks ago, the chaotic climate at West Philadelphia High was cited as one of the reasons that the Community School Student Partnerships—a program that sends Penn students to tutor at schools—decided not to continue tutoring at WPHS.

A little over ten days ago, reacting to a planned restructuring which calls for getting rid of half the teaching staff, some 30 students walked out of the school, demanding changes in security, discipline procedures and stability in the teaching staff.

And so now, stripped of its pride and dignity, no longer thought of by both students and teachers as a school anybody in the city cares about, West Philadelphia High is suffering the greatest indignity of all.

It’s being looted like the abandoned warehouse it’s become in the middle of the night.

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]), is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.