A small but earnest group of student leaders at West Philadelphia High School spoke out yesterday, calling for an end to "an overall culture of disrespect" at their embattled school.
At an after-classes news conference in front of the high school, about 15 students announced a petition drive to pledge better behavior among students and to call for other changes to quell the recent unrest at the school.
Seven West Philadelphia staffers were assaulted over a two-week period this month, and numerous fires have been set.
On March 7, two new principals were installed at the school, one to oversee safety; the other, curriculum.
Over the last week, the students said, things have calmed down. It's high time, they said, for those students who want to learn to be able to do so, unfettered by disruption.
"We are intelligent students that want to go to school, want to learn, and are open to growth," said India Kithcart, a senior. "We know that there are a lot of problems in the school, but there is a right way and a wrong way to deal with these."
The students urged their peers to stop the violence, but also urged construction of a long-planned new school building, which they said should be divided into four smaller, theme-based schools to promote better learning and less violence.
"Small schools create an environment where everyone knows everyone else and no students slip through the cracks," said Lawrence Jones-Mahoney, a junior. "Research shows that small schools also have better attendance, graduation and college entry rates, and better student-teacher relationships."
As some students spoke, others chanted and held signs with slogans such as "More Counselors, Less Cops" and "Only You Can Prevent West Philly Fires."
The students' initiative took root at a student union meeting last week, where leaders talked about the chaos and how to stop it.
"The problem is that there is an overall culture of disrespect," Kithcart said, adding that it goes both ways between students and staff.
Installing more security has helped, she said, but it isn't a permanent fix.
"The long-term solution is to give us activities to keep our focus away from violence," she said. "We need more guidance counselors and adults who care about students, not more punishment. . . . The long-term solution is a complete change in school culture, to create a culture of mutual respect."
Jones-Mahoney recommended more community involvement in decisions at the school, more hands-on and interactive learning, better-trained teachers, and an expansion of borders to allow students west of 52d Street to attend West.
But those suggestions mean little, he said, without a new school building, long-discussed by the school district but not yet funded.
"We call on everyone in the community to make sure the new West is in the budget," Jones-Mahoney said. "We want this new school for so many reasons. The main reason is that West is run-down and just dangerous," with students hurt by falling ceiling tiles, broken radiators, and other things.
"A new building also gives us a chance to start over education-wise," he said. "That can only happen if we change the school climate."