Annette John-Hall | Sweet voices at W. Phila. High

Posted: March 23, 2007

Members of the West Philadelphia High School choir came by to sing for me the other day. Listening to their angelic voices belting out a gospel standard, it's hard to believe these are the same teens who go to school in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Their school has been in the news lately. A lot. Out-of-control students assaulting teachers. Troublemakers setting fires. Students being led away in handcuffs. You'd think 1,400 hooligans were running around wreaking havoc with a can of kerosene and a balled-up fist.

No one can explain away the troubling teacher and staff assaults. One assault is too many.

But now in the aftermath - TV cameras and politicians gone but the special police task force still patrolling the school, cruisers parked on all sides - the students have a few things to say.

It's not fair, they insist, that the police-blotter actions of a few have negatively reflected on the entire student body.

"We are organized young people," says Seleta Vann, 17, a senior choir member. "We respect ourselves and respect authority."

School as refuge

Although so much is said about kids not wanting to go to school, truth is, for many, school serves as a refuge from the dysfunction of home. Too often, teachers and administrators are forced to play mother or father, a role many are unequipped or unwilling to assume.

Which is why many students still miss former principal Clifton James.

James was that father figure, the choir members said. He was the guy who called everyone by name, who walked students to their bus stop, and who brought a box full of sweaters to choir member Devrakei Webb after her house burned down in November "so I could stay in uniform."

"Every day, Mr. James would ask if I was OK," said Webb, 17. "He did a lot for me and my family."

Some of the students have reached out to the new principals, Ozzie Wright and Ernestine Caldwell. But they say it's going to take time to build a trusting relationship like they had with James.

The students insist that restoring morale and a positive learning environment at West begins with respect, which in their world, is everything.

This means respect from the administration, from the students and, yes, from the teachers, too.

Although the students don't condone violence, "people feel as though they're being disrespected," says Sheliah Minor, a junior who helps direct the choir. "To get respect, you have to give it."

"Most of the teachers are really nice," she said, but choir members and other students also affirmed that teachers were known to hurl slurs, some calling students a "joke," "monsters," and other incendiary terms. A few students say that they reported the offending teachers to school authorities but that nothing was done.

Conflict resolution

Students also need to find more productive ways to resolve conflicts.

"Some kids are raised with no home training, some kids aren't raised with discipline, so they react to things with no discipline," said Andrew Williams, 18.

The teens say they can't wait until school settles down. But you can't restore order by treating the school like a correctional facility, where armed police patrol the halls and "cops threaten to arrest me for disorderly conduct just for sucking my teeth," says Yisa Johnson, 17, a senior.

They're also eagerly awaiting a new building that was promised three years ago. Outdated textbooks and shabby interiors need to be replaced as well.

For the 30-member West Philadelphia High School choir, restored order means a restored rehearsal schedule. James used to allow them to practice after school, something that isn't permitted now with the security crackdown, which also has quashed other extracurricular activities.

For now, they are eager to prepare for an important competition next Friday at the University of Pennsylvania, and to get back to performing in the style that has given them citywide acclaim. It means serving as an inspiration not only to the community, but also to their own classmates.

"People ask me all the time, 'When y'all gonna sing again?' " Vann says. "The violence here is minute compared to the love we have."

Contact staff writer Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or To read her recent work, go to


comments powered by Disqus