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An unprecedented partnership

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

Tymeer Washington held a gold marker above his white mug and considered his identity.

After a moment, he drew his name in silver and gold next to a large “24.”

“It’s where I’m from,” Washington explained. “24th and Lehigh.”

Ahleem Beltran showed off his mug, with his name written minimalistically in black on one side and his Instagram handle on the other. His writing resembled a popular font for graphic designers rather than the typical handwriting of a high school student.

“I’m basically Instagram famous,” Beltran said of his 17,400 followers. “When other students come into the class, I want them to see my Instagram.”

The 18 students in Danina Garcia’s class at the brand new Vaux Big Picture High School will start each school day with these mugs in their 90-minute advisory period, drinking hot chocolate or tea. It is a chance for students and their adviser, who are expected to stay together for all four years, to bond with each other.

Each advisory has the freedom to make it their own, so each one looks different. They can include restorative circles, writing in journals, field trips, student-teacher meetings, and fun activities. One of the other groups starts the day feeding their fish and tending to Hazel Gabriella Johnny II, their pet gecko.

This new school is an experiment, an unprecedented partnership between the Philadelphia School District and the city’s Housing Authority, as well as the teachers’ union and Big Picture Learning, a national organization known for anchoring high school education in students’ interests and career goals. It sits in a historic Art Deco building that started out as a junior high, then became a middle school, then a high school that was increasingly abandoned along with its neighborhood, Sharswood.

It was shuttered in 2013.

Hopes for the new Vaux Big Picture school are high – that it will anchor a renaissance in one of the city’s most battered enclaves and help make it a desirable place to live once again.

The mug-decorating is part of a larger goal for Garcia, one of seven teachers on the inaugural staff.

“I had a talk with them about it, and we worked very hard to create a space that feels safe and comfortable and at home,” she said.

As important as that is, Garcia has other objectives as well. Next year the students will go out into the real world through internships.

“I’m trying to help them get used to feeling like adults and acting like adults,” Garcia said. “Some of that includes just the basic responsibility of coming into a space in the morning and I can make myself some hot chocolate or coffee if I want to, but I’m ready to work."

So far, so good.

“I’ve never cleaned a dish yet in this room,” she added.

Student Goddess Wiggins’ favorite part of advisory period is the weekly field trips, which at Vaux are called “real world learning events” and are meant to be a precursor to their internships.

Wiggins, 14, is setting her sights on being a videographer and already has extensive video-editing and YouTube skills. For high school, Wiggins was looking at other options – in Philadelphia, the neighborhood school is generally seen as the last resort in a multi-tiered system. But then a representative from Vaux came to her middle school, describing the internships and explaining the potential for her to expand her videography skills through her classwork.

It was a whole new approach to what she always understood school to be. She was sold.

“It’s good because I don’t want to just stay inside the school and just work, work, work in a classroom all the time,” said Wiggins. “When we go on these trips, they are learning trips, so we are learning outside to enhance our [education].”

Like the old Vaux, the new school has an enormous auditorium and a state-of-the-art gym. But besides the different instructional model, it boasts a medical clinic, a meditation room, and resilience specialists on staff.

Yet in one key way, it is exactly the same: It is meant to be a neighborhood school, open to all.

Darryl C. Murphy

Sharswood has been a frequent destination for Kelvin Jeremiah, the president and CEO of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, since he arrived in the city in 2012. On several of those jaunts, he shed the shirt and tie, and the entourage, and just walked around to get a flavor for what the place was really like.

He particularly remembers one such visit a few years ago to what was then called the Sharswood-Blumberg neighborhood, named for what had been its main landmark: the Norman Blumberg high-rise towers, part of a massive eight-acre public housing complex — a “superblock” — built in the 1960s.

The ugly, formless, forbidding buildings rose into the sky. There were no kids at the playground, no one around at all until, he remembers, a “local entrepreneur” accosted him.

“I left there like a bat out of hell,” Jeremiah recalled.

The towers had long been the stomping ground of a drug dealer and his minions, many of them teens. “It was almost like this development was under siege. … No family should have to live under those conditions,” said Jeremiah.

He knew from data that less than a quarter of the households in the neighborhood were employed, the adult population had educational attainment at 3rd- and 4th-grade levels, and the community was located in the 22nd Police District, which has the highest poverty level in the city. These factors, along with rampant crime, made for a toxic, spiraling combination.

Jeremiah made plans for Sharswood. The towers would come down – the implosion was in March 2016 – and be gradually replaced with townhouses. Edward Stinson was arrested and charged with dealing drugs in February 2017, ending what federal authorities called a “stranglehold” on the neighborhood, particularly on people who were poor, or addicted, or young, or a toxic combination.

But there was something else. Schools that were once the anchor of the community stood vacant, including the majestic building at 23rd and Master Streets named after one of the founders of public education in Philadelphia, Roberts Vaux.

On March 7, 2013, the School Reform Commission voted to shutter 23 Philadelphia public schools, half of them in North Philadelphia, amid a funding crisis and an exodus to charters. Almost 10,000 students in the District were affected, and families were left with few choices: apply to charter schools, apply to District schools in other parts of the city, or go to the next closest neighborhood school, which could be a 30-minute trip by foot. All that provided an additional barrier to attendance in a city where truancy was and is a major problem. At the time, the School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos called the process "heart-wrenching," but necessary.

Two of the schools that were closed were Reynolds Elementary and Vaux High, which served the Sharswood neighborhood.

“So often people talk about food deserts, particularly in poor neighborhoods, and this really just felt like an education desert because so many neighborhood schools were closed,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The closest neighborhood high school left for students was more than a mile away.

Jeremiah saw the potential of the Vaux building. The neighborhood needed a school. And not just any school, but one that would engage students and prepare them with 21st-century skills.

Harvey Finkle
Harvey Finkle

Around the same time, David Bromley, executive director and founder of Big Picture Philadelphia, was looking to start a new school. His organization is the local arm of Big Picture Learning, a national network of schools where the education model is student-driven and project-based.

The first Big Picture school was The Met in Providence, R.I., and the model attracted notice when the first class, in 2000, had a 96 percent graduation rate and 98 percent of those were accepted to secondary institutions. The school quickly gained national attention as a success story. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded two grants for replication throughout the country.

In 2000, Bromley, originally from Philadelphia, went to Oakland to co-found MetWest High School, Big Picture’s next big project. In many ways, Oakland resembled neighborhoods in Bromley’s hometown that were plagued by poverty, violence, and high dropout rates. Like its East Coast predecessor, MetWest outperformed other schools in its district in graduation and college acceptance rates.

Following the motto “one student at a time,” Big Picture has spent the last 20 years attempting to reinvent public education around the country, specifically targeting communities that suffer from severe academic underachievement. The model uses a student-centered approach and individualized project-based learning. They use data gathering and analysis to monitor the model and their outcomes.

According to their data, they have a network-wide 95 percent graduation rate as of 2015, and a 95-100 percent acceptance rate at two- or four-year colleges. Three-quarters of students who went to work directly after high school were connected to those jobs by their high school internships, and 88 percent of students who are not in college have “a full-time job or career position.” There are now 65 Big Picture schools in the United States, many of them located in some of the largest urban districts.

After five years as a teacher at Met West, Bromley was hooked on the Big Picture model, but was ready to move back home to Philadelphia.

In 2005, he helped found MetEast in Camden, across the river, but he was itching to open a Big Picture school in his hometown.

Bromley submitted a proposal to the Philadelphia School District in 2009 to open El Centro des Estudiantes, a new accelerated and alternative school that would cater to Kensington’s predominantly Latino population and help kids who had disengaged from high school earn their diplomas.

El Centro works to make sure each student has an adult mentor outside of school and cultivates relationships between students and teachers inside the classroom through a strong advisory program. Each student is given an adviser who spearheads an individualized curriculum and generally serves as a manager of the student’s needs; this includes everything from instruction and internship coordinating to, perhaps most important, being an adult advocate for the student at the school. This advisory model has been, in large part, replicated at Vaux.

While the rest of the District had a 65 percent graduation rate overall and a 35 percent graduation rate for re-engaged dropouts, El Centro showed 88 percent graduation rates with the same population. Since 2009, El Centro and, by extension, Big Picture Philadelphia, has developed a strong local reputation as a data-backed success story of an innovative education model.

Bromley had seen how the model had worked in both a traditional high school and an accelerated school. He had been able to mold the vision to work within the context of big and small districts on both coasts. El Centro seemed to show that if implemented effectively, their approach could not only get kids who had dropped out or been kicked out of school to come back, but it also could push them to graduate at higher numbers than their peers who had never disengaged. He wanted to reach more students.

About two years ago, Big Picture Philadelphia received the green light from the Philadelphia School District to open a new Big Picture school, this time a comprehensive neighborhood school based on the same set of values that had made El Centro a success. Serendipitously, Jeremiah was simultaneously searching for an education model that would prepare Sharswood children differently than the schools that had failed their older family members.

Jeremiah is a visibly deliberate man. He chooses words carefully, but with the air of being thoughtful and precise rather than evasive. His plan to redevelop Sharswood-Blumberg, inspired by that fateful Saturday evening when he encountered the “local entrepreneur,” has reflected this quality, taking PHA into new territory along the way.

As Sharswood-Blumberg was plagued by drug busts and hyper-concentrated poverty, the surrounding neighborhoods were thriving. Fairmount, to the south, has seen property values rise and new restaurants pop up, attracting residents who like the neighborhood’s proximity to both the Art Museum district and the Broad Street line. To the west, Brewerytown has been hailed for a decade as one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods for its mix of classic brownstone and modern architecture and down-to-earth vibe.

Sharswood had remained stuck in disarray, a victim of misguided 1960s urban planning and a lack of investment. The sprawling, walled-in Girard College campus acted as a barrier between neighborhoods that stood as stark examples of two different Philadelphias.

While the downsides of gentrification have hit Brewerytown, gentrification is not what Jeremiah has in mind for Sharswood. He concluded that Sharswood had no place to go but up in providing livable spaces and desirable amenities for all of its residents, with priority given to those who had lived in the Blumberg towers.

He also saw that the neighborhood’s proximity to Center City and the removal of the towers made Sharswood ideal for private-public partnerships that could spur economic development.

“The towers represented a particular stigma. Private investors would not be willing to come into that community absent PHA doing something with it,” Jeremiah said. “So all of the economic activity that was surrounding the Sharswood-Blumberg area suggested to us that opportunity exists for partnership.”

More than 70 percent of the neighborhood properties were blighted and abandoned, leaving PHA with lots of available land to work with.

“Our low-income families are desirous of the same things you and I are desirous of,” Jeremiah said. “… What are the amenities in that community? How is the crime? Where am I going to get my groceries? Is there a park nearby?”

PHA is leveraging its own resources and catalyzing with private-public partnerships. PHA is building a $45 million headquarters in the neighborhood as an anchoring institution. It is partnering with Save-A-Lot to bring a grocery where the only nearby option has been two corner stores. Private business interests have started to revitalize a Ridge Avenue commercial corridor with barbershops, nail salons, internet providers and other enterprises.

“We are not just building houses. We are going to use that as a platform to address other issues that our families were confronting that served as an impediment to their finding social and economic mobility,” Jeremiah said. But perhaps the biggest engine of social mobility, in his view, was something normally out of PHA’s control.

“What would motivate families to want to live in Blumberg Sharswood was also confronting the absence of a high-performing educational institution,” he said. Without it, Jeremiah’s vision for Sharswood would be largely irrelevant.

Jeremiah had gotten both the PFT and the School District on board – not a small feat given that the two were still locked in what would become a five-year battle over a teachers’ contract. But he also wanted “an institution that understands not just education, but that understands some of the social ills that impact a student’s ability to learn.” Big Picture fit the bill.

PHA would buy the building from the School District for $2 million, spend $10 million-$15 million refurbishing it, and help bring outside partners to create a resource center and green space for the community and the students. PHA alo agreed to pay $500 per pupil on top of the amount paid by the District.

“I thought to myself, ‘are you kidding me?’ That’s the dream. Nobody has capital for the building, but here they were offering to do it,” said Bromley.

Gabriel Kuriloff was brought on as principal. Kuriloff has spent the last few years as principal of Newark Leadership Academy, a YouthBuild accelerated school. Before that, he had a brief and ultimately unsuccessful stint as principal trying to rescue a floundering charter school in Philadelphia created to serve foster children.

He certainly understands the need for schools to go beyond the classroom in serving student needs.

“I am very proud to be part of Vaux, because we ought to be thinking about schools in a much more holistic way. And that was what Kelvin and David have really done,” said Kuriloff, “in a way everyone is putting their money where their mouth is.”

He said the “real answer to school equity is that we need to be thoughtful and holistic.”

The unprecedented collaboration that led to the school’s founding, plus PHA’s decision to invest in the school, move its headquarters and promote local business, coupled with the “passion-based learning” endorsed by Big Picture, represents such a “thoughtful and holistic” approach, he said.

Now, almost two years after Bromley and Jeremiah agreed to merge their visions, the historic building has opened its doors once more. The school has 126 9th graders, taken entirely from the surrounding neighborhood; priority was given to students from Meade and Morris Elementary Schools. It plans to add a grade each year to reach an enrollment of 500.

It is deliberately not a charter. Although run by Big Picture, the teachers are members of the PFT, and it has a set catchment area.

But it is funded similarly to a charter school because the District will give it a lump sum per student and school leaders will have the autonomy to manage that money and pay teachers directly.

“This is about trying to innovate from within … the District has invested a ton of time thinking through this,” said Bromley. “The goal of the contract school is to provide us with more autonomies, but stay a part of the District.”

One model has been the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, which has adopted a “cradle to college” approach to coordinating services for students who attend its school and their families.

Starting in October, the ground floor of the building will house a health clinic, an afterschool program, and a place where students can learn to rebuild and refurbish computers. The school is also partnering with Temple School of Nursing to come up with individual health plans for Vaux students. This year, these programs will be available exclusively to Vaux students, but starting next year, many of these services will be open for community use as well.

“[We wanted] the kind of model that looks at kids from pre-natal to college that provides all of the additional supportive infrastructure for that student to excel academically because we are also in their homes,” said Jeremiah. "… We have to stabilize the housing situation so they are not transient. All of those things are, I think, critical. We’re dealing with families who have criminal histories, who have income and unemployment issues, who have drug and other medical issues. All of those things we need to address in order to help that child.”


Everett Benjamin is the adviser to Goddess Wiggins, the budding videographer. One flaw in the traditional high school, said Benjamin, is that students aren’t always aware of the “connection between what they’re doing in the classroom and the significance and impact outside of those doors.”

What he values about Vaux Big Picture, he said, is “the assumption that creative teaching and creative methods of instruction are not against the norm, they’re the expectation.”

So he has structured his group field trips around a year-long exploration of how to start your own small business, using each of the student’s professional interests as a guide. Benjamin said he came up with the idea when he learned more about PHA’s revitalization efforts for Ridge Avenue.

“My thought is, what if the community was able to reap financial benefits from that redevelopment … by actually participating, possibly as a business or couple of businesses, on the newly developed Ridge Avenue?” said Benjamin, adding that there is no reason why some of his students, after graduation, can’t be those business owners.

During the second week of school, they went to talk to the founder of La Colombe Coffee about what it was like to start a business in Philadelphia. Eventually, he will have the students participate in the trips in ways that further their interests. Maybe Wiggins will film the visits and put together a video. Another student who is interested in journalism may prepare interview questions and write an article.

In these opening weeks, teachers and students feel the excitement and energy inside and outside the building. They talk frequently about how their Vaux T-shirts inspire conversations with people on the street asking about the school, most often because they attended it in one of its former iterations.

“I loved walking around the neighborhood in my Vaux shirt and just getting into conversations with people who had gone to the school,” said Danina Garcia, the teacher whose students start their day with hot drinks in their personalized cups.

Her advisory had stopped to talk to a group of Vaux alums about the school’s former reputation as the home of an award-winning chess team. Additionally, Garcia says, most of the parents of her students previously attended Vaux.

“There’s a really interesting dynamic for us physically,” she said.

“On the one hand, we are this very new and innovative school. And on the other hand, we are also a neighborhood school coming back to a neighborhood.”

This story is part of a project on innovative high schools funded by a fellowship from the national Education Writers Association and reported and written by freelancer Melanie Bavaria. Additional project stories are coming soon to thenotebook.org.