Strawberry Mansion community meeting leaves unanswered questions

The District says it plans music and culinary programs.

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

Corrected 8/16/18: A previous version of this article stated that the new music program coming to Strawberry Mansion, run by DASH, is the same program implemented at Hill-Freedman World Academy. The article has been corrected to clarify that the programs are separate, but share instructor Kristal Oliver.

Two girls open the community meeting at Strawberry Mansion High School with a rendition of a song written, produced, and sung by students. The lyrics about the beauty of imperfection fill the humid auditorium:

What if I think that you’re perfect?

Perfectly imperfect

What if I don’t see flaws at all, and what if I think that you’re flawless?

But they aren’t students at Strawberry Mansion. They attend Hill-Freedman World Academy in Mount Airy, and they were presented by District staff as part of the same music program that is coming to Strawberry Mansion this fall.

Hill-Freedman’s program was created by the school’s music teacher, in partnership with the local nonprofit Live Connections and its founder David Bradley, while Strawberry Mansion’s program will be run by Destined to Achieve Successful Heights (DASH). The two programs share Grammy-nominated instructor Kristal Oliver, who has worked with artists from Kanye West to Mary J. Blige.

And that’s what School District administrators were here to talk about — two new programs, music and culinary arts, and the preservation of Mansion’s sports teams. But to the dismay of some community members, administrators were not keen to discuss several other topics, such as what the school will become a few years from now after the neighborhood high school is “phased out,” as the District says, or “closed” as it’s termed within the neighborhood.

Strawberry Mansion will not enroll a 9th-grade class this year, over the objections of many local residents and alumni. The District plans to create a “complex” that includes several alternative education programs, including an accelerated school on the fifth floor operated by the education provider One Bright Ray.

Enrollment at the neighborhood high school had dwindled, but advocates said that was because the District had stripped it of programs.

A few dozen people attended the meeting, mostly members of the working group established by the District, made up of parents, alumni, and neighbors.

“I want to thank the working group,” said Assistant Superintendent Amelia Coleman Brown. “I thank them for their commitment to go to every meeting and push us, because we know that without a push we can’t get anywhere. Every movement requires that push, requires fuel.”

The school’s new principal, Brian McCracken, spoke with students at the end of last school year about their concerns and came up with the music, culinary and athletics programs. Members of the District’s central administration gave presentations about each program and another presentation on creating a School Advisory Council.

Frank Machos, executive director of the District’s Office of the Arts, explained that the school’s recording studio will be used by a new music program, DASH. The DASH program is also available at Building 21, part of the District’s Innovation Network, and partners with PSTV, the School District’s student-produced news broadcast.

“We need the Mansion kids to give them a run for their money at the Grammy nominations next year,” Machos said. “We want to make sure every musician who comes out of Philadelphia can say: I started in school.”

Machos introduced the new music teacher who will run the elective program five days a week.

“Hill-Freedman gave us a great model to build on,” Machos said. “Strawberry Mansion is an opportunity to take that model and put it into a new high school.”

One of the biggest concerns that McCracken found among current students was the fear that their sports teams would disappear before they graduate. James Lynch, executive director of athletics for the District, assured the community that would not happen. If the current plan holds up, the last class — current sophomores — will graduate in 2021.

“Strawberry Mansion will continue to have the same athletics programs, and in addition to that, we’re looking to expand opportunities at Strawberry Mansion— hopefully through a partnership with the Vaux Big Picture High School down the street,” Lynch said.

He said that both schools have enrollments too low for certain teams, but that they could form teams by combining their students. “Some of these students can play there, and hopefully some of those students can play here.”

Lynch’s language made clear that the athletic partnership with Vaux is not a done deal.

The new culinary program will run for three years, starting in 10th grade. Students will graduate with a ServSafe certification, required by most food service jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industries. Students will get to meet professionals in various careers throughout the industry, and the course will be taught by a restaurant owner from North Philadelphia who was not identified.

“Students need multiple pathways to define greatness,” said principal McCracken, who taught at Randolph Technical High School before becoming a principal. “Our new [culinary] teacher is experienced in restaurants and catering and comes to the table familiar with the community. … She has spent some time in the past mentoring students here at Mansion, so she’s spent time with the student body.”

McCracken also outlined the Advanced Placement courses, which will now be offered through an online academy. He also mentioned that the school would offer credit recovery for all major courses. And the school will offer music, art, drama, psychology, and journalism as electives.

But many community members were baffled by all this new programming after the District spent years “starving the school” of the same resources they are now putting in — resources they invested only after making the decision to eliminate the school.

“Those programs are supposed to be there already,” said Tanya Parker, a graduate of the school and a member of the working group. She worked with former principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman, who took over in 2012.

“What are they giving us? Things that are supposed to be here already. But why can’t they answer the question about what will happen to the school?”

That question has been the elephant in the room from day one, and it was asked yet again at this meeting. This time it was posed by Sandra Dungee Glenn, who attended as a representative of State Sen. Vincent Hughes, for whom she works as a special assistant. She is also the former CEO of Harambee Charter School and a former chair of the School Reform Commission.

“One of the things that’s often said is: You have to start with the end in mind,” Dungee Glenn said. “Can you define what the vision is three, four, or five years from now so we understand how this plan fits into that plan?”

But McCracken’s response was not specific.

“We’re looking at increased opportunities and allowing students to advocate for things they find interesting,” McCracken said. He wants to find “the intersection between business and technology while honoring student interests.”

Answers from District staff to many questions were vague or nonexistent.

“How can you have a community meeting where you don’t mention what’s going to happen on the fifth floor?” asked a mother who is part of the working group about the floor that will be leased to One Bright Ray to create a new accelerated high school. “We [the working group] asked for communication from One Bright Ray. … To show respect to the parents and residents who don’t know what’s going on, that should have been on the agenda.”

But McCracken said he was not there to answer questions about One Bright Ray.

“One Bright Ray will have an opportunity to answer questions at the cookout,” McCracken said.

The cookout is scheduled for Aug. 24, three days before school starts.

Parker saw it as just another excuse to keep the community in the dark about the aspects of the plan that concern them most.

“We were told that there were programs that would be offered to our school [by One Bright Ray], and these programs would help us with our enrollment, so we thought the children coming to these programs would be our children from this community,” Parker said.

But they realized One Bright Ray will bring in students from around the city for a separate accelerated high school, and now the District has stopped communicating with them about the new school.

“So once again they’re insulting our intelligence,” Parker said. “When the community comes together and we ask them questions, we can’t get any answers.”

An older neighbor, who walked in a bit late, was disappointed to find that there was no agenda or printed materials distributed to attendees and felt there was no excuse for not having answers to all the community’s questions.

“I’m highly disappointed in the presentation,” he said. “If a student had come with a presentation like that, he would have failed. … I’m insulted that this was not better prepared. I’ve heard responses about how you’ll answer questions in the future at a cookout. Well, that is not the environment that says you’re here to get down to business.”

Assistant Superintendent Coleman Brown said the purpose of the meeting was just to share what the District has come up with so far.

“We’re not perfect. This is the first of many meetings,” said Coleman Brown. “Every vacant seat that existed a few months ago is now filled. … I don’t think it’s fair to just point out all that was done wrong.”

Dungee Glenn was not pleased with the response.

“I want to make sure that we don’t gloss over that gentleman’s comment,” Dungee Glenn said. “When you have a meeting, it’s common to have an agenda. If there were a handout that outlined your program for the upcoming year, that’s information that they could take away and share. That is the expectation. … We’re here to help, but that’s the floor.”

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 City Council President Darrell Clarke.

Cliatt-Wayman, who was then the principal, raised the graduation rate and reduced violence at the school enough to remove it from the persistently dangerous list. It was Cliatt-Wayman who built up the sports teams, the old culinary program, and the honors program. She also oversaw the construction of the school’s recording studio, donated by the singer Drake, which will become the site of the school’s new music program run by DASH.

But during the last three school years, many community members like Parker haven’t seen the District making new investments in the school.

Parker speaks with many community members through her work as a committee person in the neighborhood. She was confused about how the administration determined where to distribute fliers advertising the public meeting that night, saying they only seemed to canvass the more affluent side of the community. Members of the working group were also invited through an email.

“To the best of my knowledge, it was principal McCracken and his leadership team who passed out fliers,” Parker said. “But on the other side of my community, they said they didn’t get any fliers for the meeting. The way it was run, I’m glad they didn’t come because they would have felt insulted.”

Parker sees the decision to close the school as related to the gentrification sweeping through her North Philadelphia neighborhood. Over the last decade, the signs of gentrification — pre-fab luxury rowhomes and towering apartment complexes — have sprawled westward from Temple University and crashed like a wave at the feet of Strawberry Mansion. New construction surrounds the area, and several vacant lots are already marked with “sold” signs and pictures of the new high-rises “coming soon.”

The School District insists that it will not sell the building.

“They make it seem like they’re doing all this for us, but they just want to use us as guinea pigs because my neighborhood is gentrifying,” Parker said. “There is no more starving us of resources. We’re demanding that we be treated equally.

“You can’t make this stuff up. At the end of the day, it is what it is.”