This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Tensions were high Wednesday night as the District unveiled for local residents its plan to phase out Strawberry Mansion as a comprehensive high school. Inside the auditorium of the 54-year-old complex, Eric Becoats, assistant superintendent of the Turnaround Network, stood before about 40 community members, many of whom were alumni, to discuss the future of the struggling school.
To make better use of the building, which now serves fewer than 300 students, Mansion will host accelerated learning programs and an evening high school starting in September that could accommodate up to 500 students. Officials pointed out that the vast majority of students in the Mansion catchment area don’t attend there, choosing other options instead.
The District is also considering a new skills-based high school in 2019-2020 similar to the Workshop School, and/or YouthBuild, a one-year program for 12th graders that focuses on academics and construction skills.
In developing those long-term plans, Becoats said, the District will work with the community. There will also be space available in the building, which has a capacity of 1,800, for “expanded recreational” and other programs, he said.
However, this was all decided with minimal community input. It wasn’t until last week that selected community members were invited to meet with Becoats; Superintendent William Hite; City Council President Darrell Clarke, in whose district the school lies; and District administrators to discuss the coming changes. And now, about a week later, the District invited other community members to express their concerns and ideas for the new programming at the school.
“We are committed to working with the community in terms of the repurposing of this building,” said Becoats. “This is an important building in the community. One of the reasons we have this proposal in front of us is to make sure this building continues to be that way.”
However, seeing that the plan was already in the implementation phase, with no hope of slowing it down for their input, community members grew frustrated and their skepticism intensified. Exacerbating the situation was the absence of Hite and Clarke for this larger gathering.
One community member pointed out that Strawberry Mansion’s graduation rate increased markedly in 2017, the last year that Linda Cliatt-Wayman was the principal. According to District data, the four-year graduation rate of 36 percent jumped to 52 percent in 2017. Although still among the lowest rates of any high school in the city, Mansion had the biggest increase of any District school last year, besting the percentage point increase at Lincoln, where the District held its celebration marking the achievement.
There was no response from any of the District officials at the meeting to that fact. Later, spokesman Lee Whack said they aren’t discounting the achievement, but “there are other things we can improve to make the school a better resource for students and the community.”
Most of the attendees indicated that they felt blindsided and ignored.
“Too long, too often we’ve been told what’s coming into our community instead of being asked for input on what’s coming into our community,” said Emmanuel Bussie, a longtime resident of North Philadelphia. “For you to be in the implementation phase is unacceptable and it’s disrespectful. And it’s dismissive of the residents of Philadelphia for you to be implementing something in our community without our vote.”
The District didn’t give a specific time frame for how long the plan for Strawberry Mansion has been in place, but Whack said, “we are constantly evaluating all of our schools to improve academic outcomes.”
Tonya Sears, Class of 1985, vice president of the Strawberry Mansion alumni association, recalled how last year the District tried to move an alternative high school program run by Camelot Education into the complex without the community knowing. Camelot runs several so-called accelerated schools in the District.
Asked for an explanation of what she was talking about, Whack said the District had considered placing an accelerated middle school in the Strawberry Mansion complex, but decided against it. He said officials felt it was better to come up with an overall transformation plan to improve academic and community programs at the school.
For many community members, the incident sowed distrust.
“Now we’re being back-doored again,” Sears said. “You’re saying you want the input of the community afterwards. We don’t want to be a part of it afterwards. We wanted to be in the planning stages. We want to be a part of the continuation of Strawberry Mansion High School.”
Ameera Sullivan graduated from Strawberry Mansion in 2006 and returned to her alma mater as the freshman counselor 10 years later. She said the difference in the school from when she was a student to now is night and day.
“Our building was so full of life; now it feels like a ghost town,” she said before the meeting.
Her main concern is that students will have to travel to school through other neighborhoods that could be hostile for some of them, putting them at risk. Sullivan also said that if students must leave the school, for many it will continue a trend of unstable relationships with a caring adult.
“I don’t think it is a good plan to eliminate Strawberry Mansion as a comprehensive high school,” Sullivan said. “But I do support bringing in additional programs. We need all of the help we can get. And I think we shouldn’t be eliminating the school because this is a safe haven for a lot of students. And along with closing the school and phasing the school out, we’re going to lose a lot of good connections.”
About 90 percent of students in Strawberry Mansion’s catchment area are enrolled in other high schools. Becoats said a large portion of those students are in accelerated and evening schools. Adding these kinds of programs to the Strawberry Mansion complex will serve many neighborhood students and help with low enrollment, he said.
Christina Grant, assistant superintendent of the Opportunity and Innovation Networks, said this is a chance for the community of Strawberry Mansion to reassess the needs of their children.
“We want to step back and work with parents, students, and community members to say ‘What are the options that you want in a high school and how do you make sure those options live and breathe here?” she said. “Because right now, students that are choosing to go to high school are choosing all other high schools across the city and they’re not choosing Strawberry Mansion.”
Despite the coming changes, the current principal, Tony Oyola, said the school was on a positive trajectory. Since starting in April 2017, he said, he has made strong efforts to be open and transparent with the community. He said he even holds monthly meetings with community members to keep them informed about the school.
“The community is on the rise,” he said. “The community is not broken. The community is healing. It’s best to help them find a common goal.”