In North Philly, keeping a high school open requires wooing neighbors back

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

For almost an hour, Frank Thorne stood in line, waiting to denounce Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite.

It was early January. Nearly a thousand angry people were packed into a school auditorium. Along one wall, looking unhappy, stood a handful of North Philadelphia politicians, including Darrell Clarke, the president of City Council.

A 1st grader, then a teacher, then a parade of parents and activists blasted Hite’s unprecedented plan to close 37 city schools, including Strawberry Mansion, their neighborhood high school.

By the time Thorne got to the microphone, he could barely contain his anger.

He graduated from Mansion in 1994. He still lives less than a mile away.

"Strawberry Mansion is a community," said Thorne. "Why are you closing a school that’s been around since before I was even born?"

Frank Thorne was as fired up as anyone about saving Mansion.

But he won’t send his own kids there.

Thorne’s three high school-aged children all attend charter schools.

A future for the high school down the street?

Thorne, and Strawberry Mansion High, embody the paradox at the heart of the bruising school-closings fight that has raged across Philadelphia for the last three months.

Over the last 15 years, an explosion of new public school options has spurred an exodus of students from many of the city’s neighborhood schools, especially its high school "dropout factories."

Mansion, for example, now serves just one of every six public school students who live in its attendance zone — the lowest rate in the city, according to newly released District data.

But the school is also a prime example of how fiercely the people of this "city of neighborhoods" will defend their neighborhood schools, seen as vital community anchors — even when they’re three-quarters empty.

"There’s a whole lot of history [at Mansion] for all of us," said Clarke, the council president. "That’s why we’re so passionate about the need to keep the school open."

Back at that January meeting, Hite struggled to make himself heard over the jeering crowd.

Now, days before the School Reform Commission will vote on his final school-closing recommendations, the superintendent firmly backs his revised plan.

Hite is now recommending 29 schools for the chopping block. Four of the city’s neighborhood comprehensive high schools could be shuttered, and 10 more could undergo some form of consolidation.

But, in a reversal, Strawberry Mansion will stay open.

In an interview with NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook, Hite said his decision to spare Mansion was not a case of politically motivated cold feet.

Instead, he argued, Mansion presents a "unique opportunity" to further reshape the city’s high school landscape.

After downsizing, Hite said, the District will attempt to reinvent selected neighborhood high schools. The goal will be to help schools such as Mansion better compete in Philadelphia’s bustling educational marketplace. The alternative is a downward spiral as schools of last resort for the city’s neediest students.

Eventually, he said, the District may entirely eliminate its long-standing practice of assigning students to high schools based on where they live.

"We’re trying to create schools with high-quality programs that will be an attraction to students who live in that area — and beyond," he said.

If Hite’s strategy works, it will move Philadelphia closer to a "portfolio" of good high school options in every section of the city.

If it doesn’t, said Diane Castelbuono, a veteran Philadelphia education policy expert, "We’ll get more of the same: Spending a lot of money, time, and effort while still having mediocre high school options for kids."​

A numbers game

In the build-up to Thursday’s vote, Hite and his team have told anyone who will listen that financial woes are forcing their hand. A massive budget deficit, they say, means the District can no longer afford to heat, staff, and maintain dozens of half-empty school buildings.

But the low "utilization rates" behind the District’s money worries are just a symptom of what went wrong with Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools.

Consider Strawberry Mansion.

A decade ago, Mansion enrolled 1,288 students.

This year, it enrolls just 435.

A NewsWorks analysis of new "live-in/attend out" data released by the District highlights a major reason for that decline: Mansion, like many of the city’s neighborhood high schools, has been hollowed out by public-school choice.

More than 83 percent of the public school students living in Mansion’s attendance zone now attend other schools.

For many, that figure signals victory. It means hundreds of families have escaped a school plagued by dismal academics, violence, and a stunningly low graduation rate.

Others, though, decry the abandonment of a public institution that a struggling community desperately needs to be strong.

Either way, there’s no denying the numbers.

A total of 1,721 students living in Mansion’s attendance zone now attend 111 other public schools and programs across the city.

A huge chunk — 796 students — go to publicly funded, independently managed charters or Renaissance charter schools, all of which have been established since 1997.

Almost a thousand other students living within Mansion’s boundaries attend District-managed high school options, which now include magnets, boutique theme-based schools, vocational schools, military academies, and alternative programs.

Though school choice in Philadelphia is nothing new, much of the growth is recent.

Almost two dozen new high schools came online during the tenure of Paul Vallas, the District’s CEO from 2002 to 2007.

Now the superintendent in Bridgeport, Conn., Vallas declined to be interviewed about his time in Philadelphia.

Castelbuono, who now works as an associate vice president at the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, was his senior policy adviser.

"I think [Vallas] thought trying to fix the existing neighborhood high schools would be too complicated and difficult," said Castelbuono, and that it would "be better to use the power of the choice movement to starve them off."

Castelbuono said other factors, including demographic shifts, were also at play.

"The fact of the matter was these large neighborhood comprehensive high schools either had to get more nimble, or close down," she said.

Less than a decade later, here’s where we are:

Thirteen neighborhood comprehensive high schools — Bartram, Benjamin Franklin, Germantown, Lamberton, Martin Luther King, Overbrook, Roxborough, Sayre, South Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion, University City, Vaux, and West Philadelphia — have been targeted either to close or to receive an influx of students as part of a District-wide consolidation. Carroll and Douglas high schools, which serve the Kensington neighborhood, are also on the chopping block.

That kind of shake-up is long overdue, said Mark Gleason.

"Historically, the strategy has been to funnel money and resources into low-performing schools in an effort to raise them up. The track record behind that approach is weak," said Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, a group that promotes good school options.

The more sensible route, he argued, is the one the District is taking now: Close the schools that are failing, then expand and replicate the schools where parents actually want to send their kids.

It’s simple supply-and-demand, said Gleason.

"If everybody is choosing to drink Coke instead of Pepsi, don’t keep making Pepsi," he said. "Find a way to make more Coke."

Conflicting loyalties

For Frank Thorne, it’s a little messier than that.

After growing up in a rough section of North Philly and enduring an abusive home life, Thorne says he entered Strawberry Mansion High plagued by low self-esteem.

At Mansion, though, teachers like Diane Holliday helped turn his life around.

"I was being told [at home] I was never going to be anything," Thorne said.

"Ms. Holliday told me I had potential."

Thorne graduated in four years, then went on to an 11-year stint in the Army. He’s now studying to be a lawyer. He’s intensely loyal to his alma mater.

Still, Thorne chose not to send his own children to Mansion.

His son Trevon, 16, attends Eastern University Academy Charter School.

His older daughter, Naima, 15, attends Delaware Valley Charter High School.

And his daughter Jazmine, also 15, is a 9th grader this year at Mastery Charter-Simon Gratz High School, a former District-run school now operated as a Renaissance charter.

Thorne recognizes the irony.

Being a parent, he says, changes your perspective.

"My number one question is, will [my kids] be safe in school?" said Thorne.

He says that Jazmine was bullied mercilessly when she attended middle school at E.W. Rhodes, run by the District.

"But when I went up to the school, they kept trying to jerk me around about it," he said. "I had to literally flip the school upside down just to get an answer."

The family’s experience at Mastery-Gratz couldn’t be more different.

Jazmine says she feels safe.

And Thorne says he gets a call or text message about how his daughter is doing at least twice a week.

That doesn’t happen by accident.

"We require that our teachers make at least seven parent contacts per week," says Peter Langer, the principal of Mastery-Gratz’s 9th grade academy.

Langer flips open his laptop, revealing a neatly organized spreadsheet containing note after note from teachers who reached out to parents with homework reminders, or attendance warnings, or just to check in.

"Parents care," said Langer, "and it’s their right to know what’s happening with their child’s education.

That attitude is a big reason Mastery-Gratz enrolls 157 students who live in Strawberry Mansion’s attendance zone.

But sitting on his couch, flipping through his old Mansion yearbook, Thorne can’t help but feel there’s something missing.

"I would love for all my children to go to my old high school, to continue the tradition," he said.

"Overall, it’s like, what are we doing as a community?"

Back to the future

In the weeks after that January community meeting in North Philadelphia, the tension felt by Thorne – disappointment in what his local school had turned into, but a powerful urge to keep it open anyway — continued to play out across the city.

At Mansion, the data seemed clear: The school should be closed.

Beyond its empty corridors, the school’s academic performance is atrocious.

After years of test scores that now appear to have been wildly inflated by adult cheating, just 14 percent of Mansion’s students scored proficient or above on last year’s state reading tests.

Only 9 percent scored proficient in math.

Regardless, Hite and his team were under intense political pressure to keep Mansion open.

In early February, they called a second meeting, to be held inside Mansion itself.

On his way to the session, Clarke, Philadephia’s second-most powerful elected official, took a detour.

"I looked at the hallways, the principal’s office, the auditorium," said Clarke, the City Council president who attended the school in the late 60s. "A whole lot of nostalgia came up."

"It was truly a neighborhood school back at that time."

Once the meeting started, the authors of four grassroots counterproposals to save Mansion called for a return to that hazy past.

Linda Cliatt-Wayman is Mansion’s current principal.

Together with the principal of L.P. Hill Elementary, housed in a building adjoining Mansion and also targeted for closure, Cliatt-Wayman laid out her vision: A single facility serving pre-kindergarten through 12th grade — and overage students and adults looking to get their GED.

"Everything you want to do in this community, you can do through Strawberry Mansion," she said.

The crowd murmured its approval.

Then Cliatt-Wayman turned to Hite.

"How in the world can you even think about closing the only high school in North Philadelphia that takes every child?" she asked.

It’s the central argument of those who remain committed to the city’s neighborhood high schools: The other school options that parents love so much — magnets, charters, citywide admission schools — all require families to clear a hurdle before enrolling. As a result, schools like Mansion have increasingly become repositories for the city’s most challenging students.

As its overall population has dropped by two-thirds, the percentage of special education students in Mansion has more than doubled.

"We don’t look at [students’] test scores. We don’t look at their incarceration records. We don’t look at their ankle bracelets they’ve got to charge every day in our sockets," said Cliatt-Wayman.

"The only thing we’re asking the District," she concluded, "is to be fair."

Clarke, standing off to the side, smiled and nodded.

Fighting to save Mansion, Clarke said later, was about more than just nostalgia.

Even now, he argued, the neighborhood high school is a necessary foundation for efforts under way to revitalize North Philly. There’s been investment in housing. People are starting things like football teams and anti-violence programs.

Closing Mansion would mean a 249,000-square-foot hole in the middle of all that.

"Given what we’re trying to do for that community," said Clarke, "we need to figure out a way to fix the education in Strawberry Mansion."

Hoping for a third way

Caught between the numbers and the community, Hite said the deciding factor in his decision to spare Strawberry Mansion was the students.

Had Mansion been shuttered, about 200 children who were relocated to the school last year after the closure of nearby Rhodes and FitzSimons high schools would have had to endure a second move in as many years.

"As an educator, I don’t think it’s appropriate to impact students in that way," Hite said.

But the superintendent also cast his decision on Mansion as the first step on a new path. The District, Hite said, will maintain robust public school choice, but pick some spots to try to transform neighborhood high schools into desirable options.

"Mansion isn’t working in its current form," said Hite. "That’s why we need to change the form."

At the moment, that appears to mean a smorgasbord of partly developed ideas.

Hite wants to start workforce training programs in the school, but he’s not sure when they might start.

He also wants to create a "middle college" at Mansion that would allow students to earn college credits on their way to a high school diploma. But the details haven’t been hashed out.

And he recently announced that Mansion will be converted into a "Promise Academy."

That means that at least half the staff will be replaced next year. Cliatt-Wayman could go, too.

Hite cast the uncertainty in a hopeful light.

"There’s no reason that Strawberry Mansion can’t become the type of choice that supports not only the neighborhood, but other students [around the city] as well," he said.

Wait-and-see mode

Parents like Frank Thorne will be watching closely.

After winning his fight to save his alma mater, Thorne is gung-ho about getting Mansion’s alumni committee back on its feet.

But when asked where Jazmine, Naima, and Trevon will go to school next year, Thorne hesitates.

"I’m still in wait-and-see mode," he said, "about what happens next."

This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook.

Related: For Philadelphia’s neighborhood elementary schools, a tale of two cities

How many Philadelphia families are choosing their own neighborhood school as opposed to another District or charter school?

(Data shown by catchment area.)
School Percent Closure recommendations
Northeast 59.2
Edison 49.3
George Washington 43.8
Kensington Multiplex* 41.0

Close Carroll and Douglas;
Kensington receives students

Lincoln 39.5
Lamberton 37.7 Close
Fels 32.7
University City 31.0 Close
Frankford 30.4
Bartram 29.8 Receive students
Sayre 28.7 Receive students
Roxborough 28.4 Receive students
Vaux 28.3 Close
West Philadelphia 27.8 Receive students
Overbrook 26.5 Receive students
Furness 25.9
Benjamin Franklin 23.0 Receive students
South Philadelphia 19.2 Receive students
Germantown 18.5 Close
Martin Luther King 18.0 Receive students
Strawberry Mansion 16.7 Receive students

* Kensington Multiplex includes multiple schools sharing the same attendance zone. Carroll & Douglas both recommended for closure.

Benjamin Herold

the notebook

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