It’s been a long time since politicians and educators in this city have found occasion to stand together smiling. However, this was exactly the case on Tuesday at the new West Philadelphia High School.
Mayor Michael Nutter, acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery and School Reform Commission boss Robert L. Archie — for the last two months major players in the soap opera-like ending to the tenure of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman — were all in attendance for the ribbon cutting at the brand new West Philadelphia High School to kick off the beginning of the 2011–2012 academic year for the School District.
The $66 million building, home to 800 students, is a glistening structure that stands in stark contrast to the old building — West Catholic High School for Boys — that once stood at 49th and Chestnut streets.
“Yes, there have been challenges, and yes, quite frankly, there has been drama. A little too much drama,” Nutter said. “But if you want drama, watch TNT!”
The old West Philadelphia High School building, located on Walnut Street between 47th and 48th streets, opened its doors in 1912 as the first high school in the city built west of the Schuylkill River. In 2003, it was targeted by then-superintendent Paul Vallas as one of 17 proposed new school buildings — part of a $1.5 billion construction initiative.
In the time since then, it seemed as if the school might never be built. West Philly became a fixture on the list of state schools deemed persistently violent. There has been almost complete staff turnover, and at one point the school went through three different principals in the span of a month.
However, on Tuesday all of these things were forgotten, replaced instead by celebratory smiles on the faces off all who entered the building. A DJ was on hand playing music, and in general it really didn’t feel anything like the traditional first day of school.
“This is what I’m talking about!” said a smiling Sen. Vincent Hughes, straining to be heard over music blaring from the speakers. “Here we are about getting an education. This is a fresh start. All the old stuff is over and it’s about moving forward.”
Four colleagues who would become friends while working at West Philadelphia High School met for dinner 10 years ago and tinkered with the idea of starting a school that would help students “unleash their creative and intellectual potential.”
An assistant professor who works with preservice teachers, a former Marine intrigued with creating stimulating environments for teachers and students, a math and science teacher who builds hybrid vehicles, and a senior researcher who advocates for children combined their strengths to become founders of a dynamic workshop that engaged students with real-life problems.
Based at the Philadelphia Naval Base, the project-based school became known as The Sustainability Workshop, and Michael Clapper, C. Aiden Downey, Simon Hauger, Matthew Riggan were at the helm. Their teaching philosophy was informed by “three simples”: make work the priority, trust students to make their own decisions and learn from mistakes.
Mayor Michael A. Nutter challenged the workshop founders to cut energy costs by 10 to 30 percent, and it became a class project and a model for other group projects.
The four left their jobs at West Philadelphia High School to start working on their own two years ago, under a memorandum of understanding with the public school district. They set up instructional programs for public school students, raising their own money to rent space and compensate teaching staff.
After a two-year trial, the data is in, with “amazing results,” said Fernando Gallard, spokesman for the School Reform Commission, which is now rehiring the four educators and bringing the school-based project into the fold and rehiring the four educators to work at West Philadelphia High School again, starting in the fall.
With support from a $1.5 million grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership, the four buddies will develop academic curriculum for the Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering, which has risen to national prominence over the last decade. Under Hauger’s leadership and performing under the name of West Philly EVX Team, students from West Philadelphia have entered national competitions with hybrid vehicles they built.
The specifications were to build a safe vehicle capable of reaching speeds of 100 mph, using gasoline and other alternate fuels, such as biodiesel or electricity.
In 2008, West Philadelphia High School’s automotive program received the prestigious National Automotive Technician Education Foundation Training Certification, which was a major boost to students pursuing automotive-industry careers.
Principal Sandra Mary Dean did not immediately return calls for comment on Thursday.
Currently, automotive students work in the shop and take academic courses in a separate annex. In the fall, they will be mainstreamed, attending academic courses in the main building. “We believe that the synergy that is going to be created is going to be very powerful,” Gallard said.