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School of Hard Knocks

Cover.inddSchool of Hard Knocks

It’s been a tough year for West Philly High. But hidden among the many well-publicized problems are countless untold stories of determination, strength and courage.

PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY (JUNE 20, 2007)
BY KATE KILPATRICK
PORTRAITS BY JEFF FUSCO

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View cover illustration by Sara Green here.

It’s 9 a.m., and already the early June heat is growing oppressive on the third floor of the west wing of West Philadelphia High School at 48th and Walnut streets, where whispers of a breeze barely make their way past the open windows.

It’s a half day of school, which is why so few students have shown up. Most of the seniors have cleared out their lockers and gone home for the day. The few who’ve stuck around are talking about summer jobs or reminiscing on their class trip.

In the hallway a stenciled path of orange, blue, green and magenta footprints blazes a trail across the walls, lockers and classroom doors. Except for the occasional mural, little else decorates the school’s high-ceilinged walls. Several unused classrooms sit bare and broken-down, shut windows trapping stale air.

West Philadelphia High’s graduating class of 2007 will join the thousands of other Philadelphians who’ve passed through these aging halls on their way to achieving varying levels of success: people like Herman Levin (class of ’25), who went on to produce the Broadway show My Fair Lady, and William Smith (class of ’43), who became associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Business mogul and philanthropist Sidney Kimmel graduated from West, as did Negro League All-Star Gene Benson, legendary record producer Kenny Gamble, disco star Evelyn “Champagne” King, NBA hoopster Gene Banks and Olympic gold medal heavyweight Tyrell Biggs.

West: a Long and Bumpy Legacy

When West Philadelphia High School opened its doors in September 1912, it became the first district high school in Philadelphia and the first high school west of the Schuylkill River.

In 1917 the Navy had a secret wartime radio monitoring station in the school tower, manned by a dozen or so sailors working out of classrooms on the unused fourth floor.

The boys and girls of West were originally housed in neighboring buildings. A bridge connecting the facilities was built in 1926, when the school became coed.

The school’s clubs and teams regularly received media attention, from successful boxing, tennis and radio clubs in the ’20s to a popular aviation club in the ’30s, an offbeat aquarium club in the ’50s and a champion basketball team in the ’70s. The West Philadelphia Speedboys held the Public League title for five consecutive years from 1974 to 1978.

Today 98 percent of West Philly High’s 1,217 students are African-American, a racial composition that hasn’t changed since the late ’60s but that’s vastly different than when the school opened 95 years ago.

Cover.inddAt the turn of the 20th century West Philadelphia was a suburban retreat surrounded by wealthy estates. When the Market Street El began service in 1908, it made transportation to and from the city convenient, and working-class and lower-middle-class families began moving into row homes in the area.

Jewish, Irish, Italian and Armenian enclaves settled into the blocks west of 52nd Street, with clusters of African-American families dispersed among them.

Cover.inddAfter World War II there was a migration of African-Americans from South Philly to West Philly. But the decline of the city’s manufacturing industry in the ’50s resulted in widespread unemployment. Coupled with discriminatory housing policies, the city’s deindustrialization led to pockets of concentrated poverty in West Philadelphia.

Those pockets spread as neighborhood problems and gang violence escalated in the ’60s and early ’70s. Despite Penn, Drexel and the University of the Sciences developing blocks in the surrounding neighborhood—and a healthy concentration of community churches, libraries, large parks, and police and fire stations—West Philadelphia never made a full economic recovery.

West has seen its share of upsets and controversies over the years. Truancy has been a serious issue since the ’20s—and was superseded by overcrowding in the ’30s. Although the school was built to accommodate 2,400 students, by 1939 West claimed 5,800 students.

Many of the issues that kept West Philly High in the spotlight this school year weren’t unprecedented.

In 1937 students protested to remove Latin teacher Bessie Burchett after she’d attended a Nazi gathering near Sixth and Erie. And in October 1969 students boycotted their social studies class, arguing that the lessons given by their white teacher didn’t include black history and social justice issues.

Fires aren’t new either. Throughout the ’60s fires set in classroom closets and trash cans received several mentions
in the Philadelphia Bulletin.

Neither are teacher assaults. In October 1963 a 17-year-old who’d been told to leave the classroom instead clocked his teacher in the face, sending his glasses flying across the room—and punched the school’s brand-new $200 tape recorder.

West students have seen neighborhood violence infiltrate their school numerous times.

On the morning of Sept. 9, 1965, two students were stabbed in separate attacks before noon. One student was waiting for the trolley; the other was hanging out in the cafeteria. And on Jan. 27, 1970, 15-year-old James Moody was beaten and stabbed when 15 members of the Hoopes Street Gang jumped him on the building’s first floor.

But while there may be precedents for this year’s disruptions, few Philadelphians can recall an academic year at West as rough as this one.

Cover.inddBurning Issues: Fires and Assaults

“Mr. Boardman , there’s some chicks over my man-crib,” a student calls out as he tucks away his cell phone.

“Make sure to send them my regards,” the 60-year-old veteran math teacher fires back.

A female student approaches John Boardman with a stack of prom photos while another junior vies for his attention.

“Mr. Boardman, I’m gonna be on my grown-man tip next year,” one student promises. “I got all my young bol out. I’m going for all As next year.”

With the end of the school year near, spirits are high. But not long ago the mood here at West wasn’t quite so carefree.

By March 6 the school had reported 16 assaults against teachers and administrators since September—more than at any other high school in the city.

The most publicized case involved music teacher Ed Klein, who suffered broken jaw and concussion while trying to bring order to his classroom.

In response to the assaults, the School District removed principal Clifton James, who’d been assigned to West Philly High from Daniel Boone disciplinary school more than three years earlier. The district brought in two interim principals—Ozzie Wright, a retired Army captain reassigned from the Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds to be in charge of school climate and safety, and Ernestine Caldwell, who’d handle academic affairs and day-to-day management.

Cover.inddTaking advantage of the administrative instability, students rebelled by starting locker fires, intimidating teachers and disrupting classes. The media descended on the school, and news stories painted a picture of an institution in crisis. Some even dubbed the place “West Fireadelphia.”

“It kind of messed up our image as far as colleges looking at our school,” says graduating senior Seleta Vann.

“Everybody asks, ‘You be getting in fights?’ every time I say I’m from West. We’re normal too,” says Martika Lynch, another member of the graduating class.

“It was really ridiculous. We had reporters and cameramen there every day from every major news station. It was fires, but it wasn’t as serious as they made it—nobody was really in danger. I think it was more annoying than anything because it was a crucial time and we weren’t in classes like we needed to be,” says honor student Cynthia Byrd, another graduating senior.

Highs and Lows: “So Many Things Stick Out”

“Everybody in this school has a talent,” says senior Joseph Ingram, a dancer with Illstyle and Peace Productions.
“There’s a lot more talent here than at other schools. People just don’t hear about it because they hear only about the bad stuff.”

The bad stuff is what’s become expected from struggling inner-city high schools: failing test scores (75 percent of West Philly High students rank “below basic” on standardized tests), severe truancy (the school’s daily attendance rate was less than 70 percent just two years ago) and poverty (86 percent of the student body comes from low-income families).

Some students deal with incarcerated parents, teen pregnancies or the responsibility of caring for older grandparents or younger siblings.

And in a city where murder has become epidemic, violence can’t be ignored. Several seniors lost immediate
family members to the streets this school year.

Cover.inddBianca Junious, 18, was attending a peace vigil at 60th and Market this past April when a shooting broke out and she was shot in the back. The vigil was doubling as a memorial for Terrence Walker, 19, a former West student who’d been shot in the head two nights before.

There were better moments at West. The baseball, softball and track teams had good seasons, and the art students exhibited their work at the School District building and at the nearby Rotunda. The music department put together a successful choir and jazz band, and hosted a rousing gospel concert.

“So many things stick out,” says homecoming queen Emerald Hill. “Our senior brunch went perfect. Our senior trip to the Poconos was beautiful. Everyone took so many pictures. It was wonderful.”

Asked what they’ll remember or miss about West, most seniors speak of teachers who kept them motivated through it all, down-to-earth mentors intent on helping them graduate and land summer jobs or scholarships. They remember the teachers who acted like therapists, offering constant emotional support.

“I’ll miss my classmates, but I’ll miss my teachers more,” says senior Cynthia Byrd. “They’re the people I’ll really want to impress when I call up 10 years from now.”

Byrd will certainly miss Mr. Boardman, a favorite of many seniors. With 25 years experience, Boardman’s ability to educate and engage his students comes up big. Coming up even bigger are his plans to stay at West until he retires.
“I’m a child of the ’60s—I think the best teachers should be in the worst schools,” he says. “You’re gonna lose more than you win, but the little victories add up. It annoys me the kids here don’t get the same opportunities other kids get.”

Boardman says exceptionally motivated students at West receive the attention and nurturing they need to succeed.

But he believes the biggest factor in a student’s success is whether they have someone at home involved in their education. He says too many of his students are raising themselves and aren’t exposed to anything beyond what they see on TV or in the streets.

“Poverty is as much up here,” he says, pointing to his head.

Cover.indd

Francis Mans-Khanu: Class Valedictorian

When Francis Mans-Khanu moved from Sierra Leone to Philadelphia, he had to adjust to his new life quickly. The differences were drastic—even the weather. In Sierra Leone the temperature hovers around 80 degrees year-round.

Mans-Khanu also found his classroom environment had changed. “African schools have more discipline,” he says. “From the beginning you’re taught not to disrespect teachers or call them names. In America it’s very common to curse at the teacher or disrupt the class. But in Africa you get punished for that.”

Sierra Leone, a small country in West Africa just north of Liberia, is ranked second on the U.N. list of “least livable” countries. The country is best known for its extreme poverty and violent history of civil wars, sexual slavery, torture and conscription of child soldiers.

Mans-Khanu immigrated to the U.S. in 2003. The civil war—which lasted 11 years and devastated the country—had ended the previous year. “By 2000, 2001 everything was getting back to normal,” he recalls.

Mans-Khanu speaks calmly but deliberately, conscious of his accent and serious with his words. Though just 18, he already has a professorial air. Stories run deep inside his stocky frame, but he shares them cautiously.

Only when pressed does he reveal memories of the rebel attacks—being woken in the night by weapons and gunfire, having to run to surrounding villages for safety, reuniting with most of his loved ones later but losing several along the way. He tells the stories matter-of-factly.

Mans-Khanu says education has always been a priority in his life. His mother was an elementary school teacher in Africa; his father taught high school math and science. He grew up speaking English, Temni and Creole.

He remembers his home city of Makemi as a “very, very peaceful” place before the civil war. He plans to return after he completes his civil engineering degree at Temple, and hopes to use his education to improve conditions in his country.

“I’m a proud African,” he explains. “Most people when you say you’re African think about all the bad stuff, like AIDS. But I’m proud of the respect we have for each other and the love Africans share with each other. Everybody is family regardless of color or race. They always embrace you.”

After all, it wasn’t war but education that brought him here. Although the education system in Africa is good, a U.S. diploma can take him further. Knowing that, he says, has helped him stay on track.

“One of my major aims in terms of coming to America is to get an education,” he explains. “That alone has inspired me to stay very focused in school. Some of the things I experienced in life enable me to pay more attention in school and work hard.”

Emerald Hill: Homecoming Queen

“That’s your MySpace face. Stop giving your MySpace face,” jokes a senior boy as Emerald Hill poses for photos in the hallway.

Neck tilted and chin out, Hill smiles up at the camera, wispy bangs brushed across her forehead.

Hill bubbles with the sort of sass you might expect from a homecoming queen, a title she earned after raising more than $500 in donations from friends, teachers, neighbors and church members.

A transfer student from International Christian High School, a small religious school in the Northeast, Hill came to West her junior year after tiring of the long commute to private school. “I took a train and a trolley and a bus to get there,” she explains.

She says she had no problem fitting in at West. “It’s like any school—you relax and be yourself, and you’re not gonna get bullied,” she says. “I wouldn’t go here if I didn’t feel safe.”

Hill lives with her grandmother in Southwest Philly, but says it was her great-grandmother who raised her in the church, where for years she sang in the choir and took up the offering.

“Basically I’d get up and say, ‘What time is it?’ and the whole church would be like, ‘It’s offering time!’” Hill remembers.

These days she prefers her friend’s church, Monumental Baptist Church at 50th and Locust. “They have more teens there, and it’s more involved in teen life. You learn about God, but at the same time it’s still fun.”

Besides making sure Hill did well in school, her great-grandmother taught her life lessons. “She was pretty
strict and believed in things from back in the day,” says Hill. “She’d tell me about the silverware, ‘the fork is on the left’—and ‘hang up your coat,’ and ‘this is how you be a lady—with poise, keep your back straight, don’t put your elbows on the table.’ I guess you’d call it common sense.”

Such discipline might come in handy in the fall when Hill enrolls in a two-year college program at Valley Forge Military Academy & College, to which she’s received a $10,000 academic scholarship. Hill, who joined ROTC when she came to West, says she’s considering the Air Force or the Marines.

“At first my interest was that they’d pay for college,” she says. “And after a while what the recruiters were saying, it sounded kind of cool. I can pay for college and still have fun and still learn and come out with a degree and a military background.”

Though not thrilled about Iraq, Hill says she’d be prepared to go into combat. “I’d be a little nervous,” she says, “but I would do it.”

Stefon Rice: Jesus on the Track

“I’m known for being the fastest person in the building—some people call me Jesus on the track,” says West senior Stefon Rice.

This coming from a kid known to walk the hallways in his socks when his feet hurt, or to show up to school wearing his clothes backward or his sneakers mismatched—an orange-and-black sneaker on one foot, an all-white Air Force 1 on the other.

“My sister’s really ditzy—I get it from her,” Rice confesses.

But it’s not all fun and games with West’s speediest Speedboy and yearbook photographer. One thing he takes very seriously: track. “I use track to eliminate the negatives,” says Rice. It’s earned him a full athletic scholarship
to the University of Pittsburgh.

Rice says the best thing about going to West was that it was close to home—just a short walk each morning and afternoon. He says he’s had many mentors at West—from security guards who’d “snitch and tell the athletic director” if he wasn’t in class, to the athletic director who Rice says “always kept me on my rights.”

The worst thing about West, says Rice, were the times when there was nothing to do. He remembers going several months of his junior year without a math or English teacher, and having to sit around for two empty 53-minute periods. After his freshman year he says several after-school activities and regular classes disappeared.

“In ninth and 10th grade I had French. They took that away, and I had to take Spanish,” says Rice. “And I haven’t had gym class once.”

Rice says he wishes the school had a chess/checkers team and a drama club, or would revive the swim team or start a school newspaper. He believes not having enough outside activities contributed to the chaos earlier in the year. “They were reckless because they felt like there was nothing here for them,” he explains. “Sports isn’t the only thing people like to do.”

When the fires escalated, Rice says he would’ve transferred “anywhere that would’ve accepted me.” But now—barely two weeks before graduation—he’s decided it worked out okay.

“I’m glad I stayed because I’m around people I know. It’s better to start a new life in a couple months, and get to graduate with my friends and wil’ out.”

Cynthia Byrd: Teacher’s Pet

“This class was a strong class, and we made a pact,” says senior Byrd. “We were worried we’d be remembered as the class that started the fires and got the principal fired and all this drama. We didn’t want to be known for that, so we decided to stick it out and be as positive as possible.”

Byrd started West in 10th grade, after moving to Philadelphia from North Carolina. She quickly realized she was ahead of the curriculum and would be repeating material she’d already learned.

“It was hard to stay motivated and challenged when the other kids aren’t really on your level. The hardest
part is just staying focused and not getting arrogant,” she confides.

But there were other distractions—the metal detector and X-ray scanner at the school’s entrance, having to find a security guard each time you need to use the bathroom, and an administrative chain of command that makes it seem impossible to get the smallest goal accomplished.

“It’s just the little things that put a damper on your day,” says Byrd. “You’re feeling good, and then … ugh.”

For many students, she says, personal issues are a whole stress of their own.

“A lot of kids in school really have problems,” says Byrd. “They have problems at home or at work—serious problems—and it’s hard to focus on school when you have so many things in your personal life. And when you go to a school that’s not known for academics, it’s tough to be focused and proud to say you go there.”

But Byrd—who played softball and basketball, and participated in the student union, student government and the mock-trial team—didn’t let the obstacles keep her back.

In addition to an academic scholarship to University of Miami, Byrd also won the John T. McCafferty scholarship (awarded annually to a female West Philly High graduate with academic ability and financial need), which covers full tuition to the four-year college of her choice. She’ll receive an additional $1,000 scholarship from Taco Bell, where she works part-time.

Byrd admits the chaos earlier in the year was a wake-up call.

“At the time I was like, ‘Why am I here? I should be somewhere else where I can actually learn in a calm environment.’”

But despite her frustrations, she too is glad she stuck it out at West.

“Our whole class of ’07 is so motivated,” she says. “We didn’t let the publicity stop us from being on the right track.”

Kate Kilpatrick (kkilpatrick@philadelphiaweekly.com) is PW’s senior arts and entertainment editor.

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