In one Philly neighborhood, critics ask: Is gentrification closing our high school?

Committeewoman and School Advisory Council Chair Tanya Parker speaks during a protest last month to call on the School Reform Commission to halt plans to phase out Strawberry Mansion High School.

Is Strawberry Mansion High School closing? It depends whom you ask.

The Philadelphia School District says no. Officially, it describes what is happening at the hulking complex at 31st Street and Ridge Avenue as a “gradual phase-out” of a neighborhood high school program that “is no longer sustainable.”

The building will remain open, with alternative programs locating there beginning this fall, and others landing in 2019 that will give the 2,000-plus high-school age young people in the neighborhood a viable educational option close to home.

Don’t tell that to Tanya Parker, a neighborhood resident who shows up at events in a black “Forever Mansion” T-shirt. She’s among a group of activists who believe the school has been deliberately ignored, starved of resources, and then blamed for failing to attract students.

Now that the neighborhood is showing signs of gentrification, drawing white and middle-class people, some longtime residents say the community is being asked to give an eleventh-hour blessing to a plan they say was hatched by officials, designed to please others, and kept from them for too long: that a building with some new  programs is more palatable to new residents.

“They always wanted to close Mansion, and now they’re closing it,” said Parker, who graduated from the school. “This was systematically done. It’s about gentrification.”

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Demonstrators protest to call on the School Reform Commission to halt plans to phase out Strawberry Mansion High School.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. dismisses that idea wholesale.

“This is all about making sure that the 2,267 children also have an option in their neighborhood,” Hite said. “This did not just start last year or the year before that. This has been going on for some time.”

The fight over Mansion

Mansion, which opened in 1964, is often the last stop for students who carry many burdens. Nearly all of its students live in poverty, and some have returned from disciplinary schools, incarceration or mental-health placements. It was spared from closure five years ago, after supporters, including City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, fought hard to keep it open. Diane Sawyer and a camera crew then spent a year chronicling turnaround work at the school.

But the school, rapper Meek Mill’s alma mater, still sits in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. And in many ways, it symbolizes some of the school district’s struggles: a needy student body, low academic achievement, a tough reputation, enrollment eroded in part by competition from charter schools, and, lately, encroaching pressure from a changing city.

Ninety percent of the 2,267 high-school age kids who live in the Strawberry Mansion catchment area, or attendance zone, already think the school isn’t their best option; They attend charter schools or other public schools farther from home. Over 1,000 opt for night-school programs in other parts of the city, the district says.

Built for 1,700, the school now enrolls just 235. Come fall, there will be no ninth grade, a plan unveiled only in March. The School Reform Commission will vote to shrink Strawberry Mansion’s grade span this month; initially, officials said the plan was for the SRC’s successor, the Board of Education, to continue to remove grades until the last class graduates from Mansion in 2021.

Those officials now say what is being phased out is the school as it currently exists, and that traditional graduating classes will resume again in 2023. But some in the community are confused — and not convinced. North Philadelphia remembers the fate of the old William Penn High School, which “temporarily” closed in 2009 with promises to re-tool and re-open. Instead, it was sold to Temple University and demolished.

With home prices rising in the neighborhood and new businesses and developments cropping up on the edges of Strawberry Mansion, Parker and others say they believe that the district is taking their school away and remaking it to attract newcomers, cutting them out.

Former principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman, whom Sawyer’s coverage vaulted to prominence for her frank talk and personal investment in students, said the plan to pause admissions doesn’t make sense.

“This plan would only be brought to the table for poor African American children,” said Cliatt-Wayman, who said she would be an evangelist for changes if she believed in them. “But there is no concrete plan. How can they move forward until they have a plan that educators and people who know the Strawberry Mansion kids come up with?”

On Cliatt-Wayman’s watch, Mansion added or strengthened programs — sports, culinary arts, building maintenance, an honors program. The rapper Drake donated money for a music studio. Kids went on field trips and attended proms and pep rallies. The school came off the federal “persistently dangerous” list — schools with a high rate of serious incidents — and saw its test scores, graduation rate, and college-bound rate inch up.

But even with a charismatic leader and some progress, Mansion still struggled. It scored just a 5, 4, and 7 out of 100 in the three most recent years of the district’s internal report card for schools, based on factors including test scores (just 10 percent of students met state standards in reading, and 4 percent in math) and attendance (more than half of students attended school less than 80 percent of the time).

Its enrollment plunged 40 percent in three years, and its last principal, Tony Oyola, was removed after complaints about his stewardship. (District officials confirmed his removal, but said they could not discuss the personnel matter.)

Hite said Mansion, which was put in a special district program, the turnaround network, to give it more support and scrutiny, had more resources per student than other schools in the district.

But those who were there in the last five years say that designation meant little, and Mansion needed more.

“It gets the students that they put out of charters and other schools,” said Jacquelyn Fritz, who taught at the school for several years and left in 2017. “The population has so much else going on other than school, and we never got the resources for that type of student.”

No one’s first choice

Fritz and Cliatt-Wayman say Mansion fell off a cliff when she retired in March 2017.

It has the fancy music studio, but no full-time music program. It has no culinary teacher, no building maintenance program. Substitute teachers staff some classes. Entire floors of the building are now unused.

This month the senior class — about 50 students — will graduate in the un-air conditioned auditorium, because there’s no money for a better venue.

The district and Clarke, who is on board with the plans for Mansion, say what’s coming will be an asset to neighbors, even the ones who now protest it.

“To not do anything is unacceptable, given the significant decline in population,” said Clarke. “There was too much effort put into keeping that school to let it wither.”

But during the same years that Mansion seemed to be faltering as a neighborhood school, the community, like other pockets of the city, showed signs of being on the upswing. Between 2012 and 2017, no neighborhood, at least defined by zip code, showed stronger sales growth. In 2017, more than 540 properties were sold in Strawberry Mansion’s neighborhood, up from 217 five years earlier, the data show.

Now that home prices are rising, and new businesses and developments are cropping up on its edges, residents are wary of the district’s promises and avowals that their plan has nothing to do with a changing neighborhood.

“Have any one of you ever even spent any time in Strawberry Mansion High School or community?” one skeptic, Mansion graduate Shirley Hooks, asked the schools commission this spring. “The community is on the rise, and so is gentrification. Is this all part of the plan, as well, to phase out the school and make room for the new and improved upscale community?”

For now, the building will remain open — it is even slated for extensive physical upgrades beginning this summer — and neighbors will be consulted as possible options are considered for the 2019-20 school year.

Among those that have been mentioned as contenders are programs for workforce development programs and those patterned after the district’s Workshop School, which encourages project-based learning. YouthBuild, which re-engages students who have dropped out, has also been suggested. The school system has not said whether the programs would be run in-house or by outside providers, as was done at nearby Vaux Big Picture High School.

The fewer than 50 incoming ninth graders who had listed Mansion as their first-choice school this fall will be routed either to Ben Franklin High, about 2.5 miles away, or Roxborough High, more than 4 miles away.

The programs the district has said might eventually come to the Mansion sound fine in theory, said Julie Nicols an English teacher at the school for the last three years.

But Nicols wonders why they couldn’t have been brought in years ago.

“The kids are saying, ‘You can’t close our school when you’ve done nothing to make it better,'” said Nicols. “They feel like things are being done to them, and they feel confused, because the message has been so unclear.”

For as long as they’ve been at the school, a group of Mansion students said this month, they’ve felt neglected by the district. Mansion was no one’s first choice, they said, but it’s their school.

“It’s messed up altogether,” said Nikki Butler, 15, a freshman at the school. “They just want to come in here and take our building. Why do they care about us all of a sudden?”

It seems to be unfair, said Cliatt-Wayman. When changes needed to be made at Science Leadership Academy, a well-regarded Center City magnet, parents and students were consulted early on. SLA will move from a leased building to share space at Benjamin Franklin High School; a committee is spending two planning years working on what the co-located space will look like.

“That’s not the way it happened here,” said Cliatt-Wayman.

The district stresses that the future direction of the school will be determined by the community; a Strawberry Mansion working group, made up of anyone interested in joining, has already begun making visits to other schools to scope out future possibilities for the neighborhood high school program it says will re-open in 2019.

That doesn’t convince Cliatt-Wayman.

“For every breath I draw in my body,” she said, “I will travel this country and talk about how a district destroyed its own school.”