West students walk out

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Celeste Lavin and Raquel Ronzone

[Updated, 8:30 p.m.] As many as 100 students at West Philadelphia High School walked out of their classrooms at about 1 p.m. Friday. Borrowing a tactic from the long history of student activism, students say they organized a walkout as a statement to the District about their disappointment and concern with the ongoing reforms at the school.

Junior D’atwan Nelson, an organizer of the event, said students’ voices were being ignored at the school.

Students chanted, "No education, no life."

Students and staff have both expressed frustration at the constant changes at their school and their perceived inability to speak out without facing negative consequences.

The walkout comes after months of tension between the school community and the District. The District is moving forward with plans to convert West into a "Traditional" Promise Academy. Students said that with West’s history of high staff turnover, the Promise Academy model’s requirement that no more than 50 percent of teachers can be rehired would once again throw the school into upheaval.

But the constant churn of faculty was not the only problem students took issue with. Their list of demands distributed to the media said that no student should get arrested for "minor infractions" and that staff should respect the students’ property.

Students who walked out complained that they are required to take off their coats in school, even when the building’s heat is off, that their cell phones are taken away without any guarantee that they will be returned, and that they have gender-segregated lunches.

"I’m not in jail. I come here to learn," said student Muhamed Tall.

At the start of the protest, about 40 students walked out onto the Walnut Street side of the school and others walked out onto the 48th Street side. School security came out of the building, and some students ran back inside. That made some of the students remaining outside frustrated at their classmates.

"If you don’t stand up for something, you gonna fall for anything," said senior Courtney Comer.

One parent joined the students in solidarity. "She called me, she’s like, ‘Mom, we’re having a walkout,’" said Consuela Harper, mother of Cinquire Dalton, a senior at West who was transferred from Mastery Charter this year.

"Every day she comes home, and it’s always something about the school, so I can pretty much understand" why they walked out, she said. "I think it’s great, actually."

The protesters spoke to one another and the press about what they described as prison-like conditions at their school, and pointed to police cars arriving at the scene to prove their point. They walked across the street from the school when the police came.

Students emphasized that their action was a peaceful one, and Nelson referenced Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha, the philosophy of nonviolent resistance.

A student teacher leaving the building said that the administration knew the walkout was happening and "went on the loudspeaker and said, ‘We expect you to stay in school.’"

Nelson was confident that the students would eventually be heard.

"The next [walkout] may be tomorrow, or Monday, or maybe three months from now. But one day, it’s gonna happen again. And next time, the whole school is gonna be out."

Here is a list of demands distributed by the students:

We students at West Philadelphia High School want an EDUCATION NOT INCARCERATION. We’re tired of sitting around and watching teachers get fired and students being arrested. We have three demands:

NO STUDENTS GET ARRESTED FOR MINOR INFRACTIONS. This week a student got arrested for wearing a sweater. That’s one of many arrests, suspensions and expulsions over minor rule violations. That takes away from their education and it’s not helping anyone go to college and have careers.

NO MORE TEACHERS FIRINGS. 40% of the teachers changed from last year to this year. With the Renaissance initiative, 50% will be changed between now and last year. That’s a lot of change over two years. We want stability and want to build relationships with our teachers. We saw the chaos from the beginning of the year with staff changes. Why would we do that again?

RESPECT OUR PROPERTY. We trust staff with our personal property. We give them very valuable property we need. But the lack of attention and respect disrupts our day and takes away from our learning experience.

We want the following things to happen:

  1. We want teen court back and a better process of handling minor rule violations, like uniform, truancy and electronics violations.
  2. We want to have the teachers we have now to be our teachers next year.
  3. We want a better process around protecting property and a guarantee that items we give to staff are returned to us.