Phila. School District, PHA partner up to reopen Vaux High

Kelvin Jeremiah, housing authority CEO, said the new Vaux would help transform Sharswood into a "neighborhood of choice."

North Philadelphia is getting a new high school in 2017, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority has promised millions of dollars to make it happen.

The School Reform Commission on Thursday approved a plan to sell the old Vaux High School to PHA for $2 million. After that, PHA has said, it will commit up to $15 million to renovate the building at 2300 W. Master St. in the city's Sharswood section, and make it available for the School District to reopen Vaux as a neighborhood high school in September, with education company Big Picture Learning as its operator. PHA will also provide the district with $500-per-student subsidies annually.

The new Vaux, which came together after nearly two years of planning, will have social services - a health and dental clinic, emotional and financial counseling, and other offerings - inside the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Kelvin Jeremiah, Housing Authority CEO, said the new Vaux would help transform Sharswood into a "neighborhood of choice."

PHA is dedicating more than $500 million to redevelopment in that section of North Philadelphia, which was hit hard by the closings of Vaux and other schools over the last several years.

"We and our partners are building hundreds of homes, creating a commercial corridor, and moving our headquarters to the neighborhood, but this innovative school will provide the glue that binds the community together," Jeremiah said in a release.

Kirk Dorn, a spokesman for PHA, said the school was a crucial priority for the agency.

"The neighborhood just would not be complete without a high-quality school," Dorn said after the project was given the go-ahead by the SRC.

Vaux will have 500 students, with automatic admission offered to those who now attend Morris and Meade Elementary Schools. The remainder will be made up of North Philadelphia students selected by lottery. If seats remain after that, a citywide lottery will be offered.

Students will be accepted regardless of achievement levels or behavior record, officials said.

Outreach has already begun to fill September's freshman class.

Vaux will be a part of the district's innovation network. Though it will be run by Big Picture, its staff will be district employees, represented by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators.

"High school students often travel across the city to find high-quality schools that meet their needs and interests," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said. "As we work toward our goal of great schools close to where children live, the district is proud to provide more educational opportunities in the growing Sharswood neighborhood."

The district is paying Big Picture $23 million over the next six years to manage Vaux.

The PFT's cooperation with the project was crucial, officials said.

Jerry Jordan, union president, said in a statement that the PFT welcomed the opportunity to help build a strong school.

"Our experience with Penn Alexander proves that partnerships between educators, administrators, parents, businesses and city agencies are the key to building great schools," Jordan said in a statement, referring to the West Philadelphia elementary school established in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania and the school system.

Big Picture, which operates an alternative program in Philadelphia, is well-known and respected in national education circles. It focuses on small classes, strong relationships among students and staff, and learning centered on students' interests. Vaux students will have internships, engage in project-based learning, and stay with the same advisory group for four years.

Giancarlos Rodriguez, a student at El Centro de Estudiantes, Big Picture Philadelphia's alternative school, hailed the opening of a new Vaux. The model will serve North Philadelphia well, he said.

"I owe El Centro a lot," said Rodriguez, who dropped out of school for a time before returning to El Centro.

Though officials touted the approval of a new Vaux as a positive, some in the audience raised objections.

Retired Philadelphia teacher Karel Kilimnik suggested the district was "creating a separate system of schools that are funded, while others are starved of resources."

Vaux, as a district-managed school, was closed in 2013 over declining enrollment and poor academics. It will reopen managed by an outside provider, and will likely draw some students away from Strawberry Mansion High School, a district-run school whose enrollment has plummeted in the last decade.

SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson said the commission was acting in the students' best interest.

"This is one of those projects that allows us to leverage resources that would not otherwise be available to the district," Wilkerson said.

kgraham@phillynews.com 215-854-5146 @newskag www.philly.com/schoolfiles