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Vaux Big Picture High School officially celebrates its opening

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

With an impressive group of national and local dignitaries and a pep rally atmosphere, one of the country’s most unusual educational experiments was officially launched Tuesday in a rough-edged North Philadelphia neighborhood.

Education and housing officials hailed the opening of the new Vaux Big Picture High School as a key to reviving the Sharswood area, better serving current residents, and attracting new ones.

“High-performing schools can help stabilize families,” said Kelvin A. Jeremiah, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), which is partnering with the School District of Philadelphia in reviving a school shuttered four years ago due to dwindling enrollment and low graduation rates.

“A child’s zip code should never, ever determine their future,” Jeremiah said. He predicted that the school would be a first step in making Sharswood “a neighborhood of choice.”

“Our neighborhoods have to be complete places,” said Ben Carson, the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as several dozen students who started earlier this month looked on from stairwells flanking the podium.

“This school is a starting point, and this 9th-grade class is the beginning,” said Carson, who made the school his first stop on a tour of the city.

“Good neighborhoods demand good schools,” added City Council President Darrell Clarke.

Although the exterior of the old Vaux High School is the same, the interior has already undergone major transformations since the School Reform Commission sold the building to PHA in December for $2 million.

PHA completed the first phase of renovation work over the summer, spending $5.7 million to rehab 10 classrooms, a multi-purpose room, administrative offices, the cafeteria, the gym, and other areas.

All told, PHA plans to invest up to $15 million at 2300 Master St., part of an overall $500 million revival project for the neighborhood, which is bordered by the Girard College campus, Cecil B. Moore Avenue and 20th and 27th Streets.

But less visible changes are equally dramatic. The District has hired the educational company Big Picture Philadelphia to manage the school, giving it a $23 million, six-year contract and a mandate to dramatically improve its predecessor’s 35 percent graduation rate. The firm’s CEO, David Bromley, has drawn wide praise for his work heading El Centro de Estudiantes, an alternative school in the Kensington section.

And District Superintendent William Hite stressed that the new school would not be a magnet or a charter.

“I’m proud to be able to say it’s a District neighborhood school, with open enrollment,” Hite said.

Although labor-management relations have often been contentious in recent years, Hite stressed that the project had the full support of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

PFT president Jerry Jordan agreed.

“This school is going to succeed,” Jordan said.

“I don’t think that anywhere else in the country there’s been a model like this.”

Eventually, the 1930s school building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, will also house a health and dental clinic, personal and financial counseling, and other social services for neighborhood residents.

The school opened earlier this month with an enrollment of 126 9th graders and is expected to grow to 500 by 2020 when it graduates its first class. All the students are from North Philadelphia.

Bromley said in an interview after the ceremony that the opening followed a two-year planning process that originally started without PHA.

But when he heard that the housing authority was interested in a partnership, he said, “I was really excited. It’s not just important, it’s vital.” The PFT also was part of the planning, he said.

PHA is providing an annual subsidy of $500 per student. The Philadelphia School Partnership, Lenfest Foundation, Barra Foundation, Centene Foundation and Santander Bank Foundation are also providing financial support for the first year of operation and T-Mobile is donating tablets to all students.

Asked what graduation rate he was shooting for in 2020, Bromley smiled and said, “Well, we’re only 11 days in. So I’d have to say 100 percent.”