District plans call for phase-out of Strawberry Mansion as a neighborhood high school

No freshman class is slated to start in September. The building might be used for other educational programs.

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

Updated at 3:25 p.m. on March 29 to reflect corrected information regarding former principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman.

Determining that Strawberry Mansion High School is no longer sustainable, the School District is planning to gradually shut it down and use its sprawling building to house various alternative education programs.

Under the plan, no 9th graders will be accepted for September 2018, and the last class will graduate in 2021. Eighth graders in Strawberry Mansion’s catchment will be assigned to other schools in North Philadelphia.

For next year, boundaries would be redrawn to absorb its catchment area into other high schools. Nearby high schools include Simon Gratz, a Mastery charter; Vaux Big Picture, which reopened this year as an innovative project-based school; and Benjamin Franklin.

There will be a community meeting at the school at 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the plans.

Mansion, as it is known, is the alma mater of Council President Darrell Clarke and rapper Meek Mill, but it stands at just 17 percent of its enrollment capacity today. Only 25 percent of the students in its catchment area are enrolled there. The rest go to charters and special admissions schools, as well as other neighborhood schools.

District spokesman Lee Whack said the District had been keeping members of the community apprised as the plans have unfolded.

“We’ve got to make adjustments to make this school a better resource for the community … and make sure we’re providing better outcomes for those students,” he said.

But some community members reacted to the news on social media with surprise.

The phase-out comes after investments and interventions from the District — and even rapper Drake, who donated $75,000 to the school for a recording studio — have failed to improve Mansion’s struggles with enrollment, attendance, and academic performance. It was a Promise Academy School and then was added to the Turnaround network, but nothing stopped its steady decline.

The school has never climbed out of the lowest of the four tiers of school ratings, “intervene.” The metric ranges from 0 to 100, with a score of 70 meaning that a school is on the right track. For the last three years, Strawberry Mansion has been consistently in the single digits. Its score last year was 5.

A little more than half, 52 percent, of its students graduate, among the lowest rates for city high schools.

Enrollment has decreased from 394 students in 2015-16 to just 294 this year. Only 11 percent of students have good attendance, defined as being present 95 percent of the time.

“With very low and shrinking enrollment, there is not access to a full set of high school opportunities,” according to a District presentation prepared for a March 19 meeting of “stakeholders” and obtained by the Notebook.

According to the presentation, in September, two new programs would be housed in the building: an accelerated high school, in which students who have fallen behind can more rapidly accumulate credits toward graduation, and an Educational Options Program (EOP), or evening high school. Together, these programs could accept up to 500 students.

By the following year, the building may house something like Youth Build, a one-year program for 12th graders that focuses on academics and construction skills, or an innovative school on the model of the Workshop School, a small high school with a curriculum that is driven by student interests and is project-based.

Space will also be available for leasing to outside programs that align with the District’s vision for the property, according to the presentation. Upgrades to enhance the building’s efficiency and aesthetic are set to begin in June.

More community meetings are planned, Whack said.

Strawberry Mansion opened in 1966 as a junior high school, grades 7-9, and in 1977 it added high school grades. At its peak in the 1980s, it had close to 2,000 students.

For part of its history, it was a basketball powerhouse, and it had a string of winning entries in the early 1990s in the George Washington Carver Science Fair.

“When I first came there, all five floors were being used,” said Gerald Hendricks, who started teaching at Mansion in 1980 and was the basketball coach from 1982 until 2010, when he retired. “When I was there, the students really loved the neighborhood, and they came to school and did what they were supposed to do.”

But from the start, there were incentives for students to leave. In the 1980s, there was the voluntary desegregation program in which students from mostly African American neighborhoods could opt to be bused to whiter schools, most of them in the Northeast. Then Randolph Skills Center cut into Mansion’s shop program, which was housed on the fifth floor.

Students could also apply to special admission schools, and later, charter schools. Gradually, the student population dwindled.

“I’m upset because I think the neighborhood is losing something that kept it together at one time,” Hendricks said. “The whole neighborhood was behind the sports program.”

Mansion’s basketball team won Public League championships in 2000 and 2003 and went to the state finals in 2008 and 2010, losing both times in overtime.

“I don’t have anything but positive memories of Strawberry Mansion,” Hendricks said. “The community may have had problems, but the school was always together.”

Nevertheless, in the years after Hendricks left, Mansion spent time on the state’s list of “persistently dangerous” schools, due to numbers of serious incidents in the school that had to be reported under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In 2013, it was featured in an ABC News segment that highlighted the struggles of the neighborhood and of the students. Then-principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman became a fixture on the speaking circuit talking about the education needs of children living in poverty and was one of the people portrayed by actress Anna Deavere Smith for her one-woman show on the school-to-prison pipeline. A year after Cliatt-Wayman came to the school, it was removed from the “persistently-dangerous” list. She retired as principal last year.

Before Cliatt-Wayman came to the school, however, it had become embroiled in a cheating scandal, in which test booklets were tampered with. In 2009 and 2010, it appeared that more than two-thirds of the students had scored proficient on standardized tests. But a statewide cheating investigation discovered suspicious patterns of wrong-to-right erasures.

Strawberry Mansion was on the list of 37 schools that Superintendent William Hite recommended for closure in 2013, but was removed after community opposition and the intervention of Clarke. Ultimately, 23 schools were closed that year.