Sameera Sullivan and Elaina Hunter first met in kindergarten at Richard Wright Elementary in the heart of North Philadelphia.
When they were little, Elaina would go over to Sameera’s house — and Sameera would spend time at Elaina’s, Sameera’s mom, Ameera Sullivan, recalled. They played games, read books, did whatever kids do.
As they got older, their educational paths diverged. Sameera lived for a time in Cheltenham. Elaina went to AMY Northwest for middle school. But both families remained anchored in Strawberry Mansion, one of the city’s poorest and most crime-plagued areas. As they got older, the neighborhood was steadily losing residents and Strawberry Mansion High School, once a sports powerhouse, saw a plunge in enrollment. In 2018, the school district announced a plan to phase out the school and use the building for specialized programs instead. It did not accept any new freshmen that year.
But the neighborhood fought back, the district reconsidered, and the school stayed open.
Sameera and Elaina are glad it did. They will graduate Wednesday from Mansion, with both ranked among the top five students in what was supposed to be the final graduating class. (Due to weather, Mansion’s graduation has been moved indoors.) They not only earned a diploma, but college credits through the Advanced Senior Year program, one of five dual enrollment opportunities the district offers.
Both plan to study nursing, Sameera at Lincoln University and Elaina at Marywood, a Catholic liberal arts institution in Scranton.
“People think because the neighborhood is bad, the school is bad,” said Sameera. “But in the school, you get the vibe of immediate welcome. It’s more than just a school, it’s a family.”
If it wasn’t for Mansion, Sameera said, she wouldn’t have the opportunity for dual enrollment. The ASY program accepts 40 students from across the district to spend their last year in high school taking courses at Community College of Philadelphia. Sameera and Elaina are the first two students from Mansion to participate.
Sameera had an unorthodox high school journey, leaving two selective institutions for a struggling neighborhood school. She started at Girls’ High, but when the longtime principal left at the end of her sophomore year, she transferred to Science Leadership Academy at Beeber. But SLA Beeber “wasn’t a fit,” she said, and in the middle of junior year, she enrolled in Mansion, where she knew she could qualify for the ASY program.
Barely a month later, “COVID happened,” she said. She found working from home frustrating. The work was “harder, and it kept me on my toes.” She took psychology, biology, two English courses, and one juvenile justice class.
“One thing I didn’t expect was COVID,” said Sameera, who turns 18 this month. “It came out of nowhere. But I’m glad it happened. This is the most confident and independent I’ve ever been in life. I had time to find myself and grow as a person.”
Elaina had a more traditional journey, attending Mansion for all four years. The family roots ran deep: Her two brothers had gone there and her mom urged her to follow their path.
She did not regret her choice.
“People automatically assume it’s a bad school, with students not learning and always fighting,” she said. “It’s nothing like that at all.” Instead, it is nurturing, with opportunities such as ASY.
“Me, I wanted to make my mother proud,” Elaina said. “I wanted to stand out.”
Elaina was a freshman when the district announced Mansion would close. At first, classmates thought it would be cool to be part of its last graduating class.
Now, she said, she realizes that impulse “was ignorant. I wish we never said those things. Mansion is home to a lot of people.”
Like Sameera, she said that doing her senior year at CCP was good preparation for college. “I had to get used to asking people I don’t know for help,” she said. “Nobody babies you.”
Elaina, 18, took classes in anatomy and physiology, statistics, nutrition, and history. “Even though I passed, I may take some of them again,” she said. “I need in-person teaching.”
Both Sameera and Elaina worked full-time while studying at CCP, Sameera as a cashier in a Center City Rite Aid and Elaina at the Homesense store in Radnor.
The experiences of the two girls and their success shows the value of a quality neighborhood school for motivated students, said Mansion principal Brian McCracken.
“This class is really important to me, it’s the class I came to Strawberry Mansion with,” said McCracken, who was assistant principal during the closure scare. Since being put in charge, he has led a transformation effort. He brought in Advanced Placement courses and made sure that all classes were rigorous. With a rebuilt staff, he changed the teaching culture, recruiting people who “circle around children and push them to success as if they were their own.”
Most significantly, he created new career track pathways in Media Arts, Music and Management that are now shoring up neighborhood enrollment and even attracting outside students. The incoming freshman class of more than 70 comes from 21 middle schools across the city.
The music program focuses on production and sound engineering. The management program is in hospitality, and includes a culinary track. Media includes visual art, graphic design, and photography.
“School should meet student interests and provide opportunities for post-secondary success,” he said. And, “it should be fun.”
He started regular school-wide town halls — in person before the pandemic and virtually afterward — at which students show off their writing, their art, their culinary creations.
The ethos is a combination of care and rigor. “I don’t want to see children fail, but I want them to know their diploma is earned,” he said. “I want them to know they’re capable and teachers see and nurture their capability and skill sets.”
The school’s small size — 30 members of the instructional staff, including 21 teachers, and fewer than 300 students — has been turned into an advantage. “They can’t hide,” McCracken said. “Even in the virtual environment, if a student is disengaged, we show up at their house.”
Ameera Sullivan, Sameera’s mother, is also the counselor at the school and a graduate of Mansion herself, class of 2006.
Her life story is deeply tied to the high school. She was a ninth grader there when she became pregnant with Sameera. Securing her daughter’s future “changed everything I wanted to do,” she said. “I finished ninth grade with no hiccups” and graduated on time. She enrolled in Penn State and received her BA from Temple.
Sullivan earned a degree in counseling from Eastern University the same year that the school district laid off all its counselors in an austerity move. So she pivoted again and started her own nonprofit to help students with college and career readiness. When the district started bringing counselors back, she was hired at her alma mater.
She knows intimately the struggles of neighborhood students and viscerally understood the need to keep the school open. She knew that many would simply give up on attending, not wanting to cross dangerous territory to attend a rival like Ben Franklin or Gratz. She wanted to be a role model to demonstrate the upside of academic success.
When Sullivan attended the school, it was much bigger – there were 289 students in her graduating class. “That’s the whole enrollment now,” she said. “The entire school would go to basketball games.” As recently as 2010, the Mansion boys basketball team went to the finals in the state championships.
Now, however, there are fewer sports programs and many students — who often have to work or take care of siblings — could not invest the time after school in any case, Sullivan said.
Still, the school’s basketball team during this difficult year won its division in the Public League, and several members of its track team placed in citywide meets. Because their numbers are so small, Mansion fields teams jointly with nearby Vaux High School. But the basketball team is still made up almost entirely of Mansion students.
One reason McCracken and Sullivan wanted to bring the Advanced Senior Year program to the school is to help the students feel good about academic success.
For too long, Sullivan said, Mansion students bought into the perception that they could not succeed. “When they are doing well in school, they don’t want people to know,” she said. “It makes them different, and they don’t like to stand out. It puts eyes on them.”
Sullivan worked to change that, saying “I wanted to make students feel comfortable being successful.”
McCracken was on the same page, and he says the school redesign has had a major impact. Now, 47 students will graduate on Wednesday and, the principal said, “there’s definitely a level of pride in academic achievement.”
Sameera and Elaina are prime examples.
Sameera, he said, “is really, really smart, and she always had a goal in mind.” Elaina, whom he has known since she was in ninth grade, has “always stood out as a leader. Every opportunity she encountered, she took advantage of it. It’s been a joy to see her blossom like she has.”
They are gifted students who prioritized family ties, community roots, and loyalty to an important institution, McCracken said.
“A neighborhood high school worked for them.”