At first, that May Friday felt like a magic night, all dim lights and loud thumping bass in a South Philadelphia ballroom, the high school seniors transformed in their floor-sweeping dresses and stylish suits.
When Nykia McClendon arrived at Strawberry Mansion High School’s prom, strong and shining in a gold gown, the energy shifted.
People crowded around the teenager, hugging her wordlessly. A treasured rite of passage became, for a few moments, a vigil.
Less than 24 hours before, McClendon’s mother had been gunned down, caught in a deadly crossfire while she walked home from a Chinese restaurant in their North Philadelphia neighborhood, carrying takeout for her granddaughter. No one was arrested.
Deborra “Tashawn” McClendon had been counting the days until her daughter’s prom. Nykia and her family decided she should still attend.
At Mansion, the staff and students who were close to Nykia and her sister Michelle, a sophomore, felt lost as they tried to support the sisters. It was an unsettling day.
“No one knows whether to be happy or sad,” said Ameera Sullivan, Mansion’s counselor.
The shooting and its aftermath reflected Mansion’s tough realities. Unlike any in Philadelphia, the high school has been fighting not just to survive but to reinvent itself, to somehow be an educational refuge in a neighborhood that logs more homicides than any other in the city.
After staving off its second closure threat in five years, Mansion had just 169 students this year in a building constructed for 1,800, decades before the school choice movement radically altered the landscape for neighborhood high schools.
Nykia was among nearly 60 seniors on track to graduate, with more than half headed to college or trade school.
The school they were leaving behind would almost certainly not be the same in the next few years. Its leaders had to simultaneously plan to attract more students and convince the current student body that after years of cuts, few programs, and scant funding and support, Mansion was a place worth believing in.
And suddenly, a new clock was ticking. In late May, Philadelphia School District officials announced a plan to examine every neighborhood school. Changes are coming, including possible closures for schools that no longer make sense for the system.
Mansion’s review begins in 2022.
In a conference room at the School District’s North Broad Street offices, Brian McCracken wore a suit and sat at one end of a U-shape table, hands folded together.
In front of him that May day were seven school board members who wanted to know: How would he re-energize Mansion?
The 32-year-old principal was nearing the end of his first year leading the school. Some improvements were clear — reinvigorated culinary and musical programs, a growing amount of student buy-in — but his task was much more complicated.
As charters and magnet high schools proliferated over the years, Mansion had shrunk and struggled. Its enrollment this past year was down 88 percent from the 2002-03 school year, when 1,443 attended.
That left it with a small number of the neediest students, typically the kids without other options. Few rising freshmen picked Strawberry Mansion High — which in recent years had repeatedly been called “one of the nation’s most dangerous schools” on national television — as their school of choice.
Mansion kids often struggle with the effects of trauma, mental health needs, and complicated family situations. This year, one-third of its attendees were classified as having special needs. In the past, administrators might isolate such students; McCracken and his team took the opposite approach, mainstreaming them in trips, assemblies and classes when possible.
In his presentation to the school board, McCracken hit other high notes from the school year: increased attendance, more students on the honor roll, more on track to graduate, and far more reliance on student input in everything from what games were played during field day to which candidates got hired for teaching positions. The prior year was plagued by a troubled school climate, virtually no programs or activities, and a raft of teacher vacancies.
Staffers spent the fall and winter pitching their high school to area eighth graders, and 61 opted for Mansion — a vast increase from the single-digit enrollments of years past. Officials hope Mansion can again field a football team and start a pep band.
McCracken also explained the long-term vision. Developed after surveying students and taking stock of the school’s assets, including the culinary program and the burgeoning music program with recording equipment donated by the rapper Drake, the administrative team’s plan is to have students focus on business and entrepreneurship, concentrating specifically on music, media, and management. He talked about partnerships and internships, a freshman academy and an “upper school academy.”
“We promise that those students graduating from Mansion in four years will graduate with a high-quality diploma that gives them access to the post-secondary option of their choosing,” McCracken told board members. “They will also graduate with the experiences, the digital portfolios, and the certifications that will allow them to gain entry into industry and provide them with a family-sustaining wage.”
School board members seemed pleased.
“It’s very impressive,” board member Angela McIver told McCracken, “that we’re having students who are choosing to go there.”
Alfredo Praticò, a student representative to the board, said he had visited Mansion as part of his duties and liked what he saw. Mansion students, Praticò said, “were talking about how they themselves are going out in their community and saying, ‘Strawberry Mansion is not what you hear it is.’”
Staff churn has been a perpetual challenge for Mansion, and this year has been no different; fewer than half of the school’s 20 teachers worked there in the prior school year.
Ben Perkins, who became a teacher less than a year ago, infused new life into Mansion’s music program when he took over from a teacher who quit a few months into the school year. On Perkins’ watch, Mansion music students got gigs DJ-ing School District events; more are planned this summer.
“It’s a really cool opportunity, an open slate,” said Perkins. “The classes are small, and the students want to work. Anything we do, we get supported.”
But overcoming Mansion’s reputation takes some doing.
Perkins was one of the staffers who visited area elementary schools to sell younger kids on Mansion’s offerings. They had a lot of questions.
“They asked me, ‘Do the kids really do drugs in the hall? Are there really fights every day?’” Perkins said.
No, he said he told them, it’s nothing like that. There are teachers who care and smart kids and dances and basketball games, and you can make beats.
But as the administration seeks to make further changes at Mansion, many of the staff have exited. Come September, 10 out of 20 Mansion teachers will be new to the school.
District administrators were pleased with changes in the school’s climate and overall direction this past year, but they and McCracken said the caliber of teaching and the rigor of courses needed to improve significantly.
“It’s easy here,” said Imear Huggins, a senior. “You just come to school, and you pass.”
One beloved teacher, Analia Del Bosque, reluctantly said goodbye. Her mother is gravely ill, and Del Bosque is moving back to the Midwest to be close to her.
“I hope you guys know that I love you so very, very much,” Del Bosque told her third-period class on her 26th birthday this spring, the day she broke the news to her students. “I feel so lucky to have been your teacher.”
Mansion is one of 26 district schools plagued by high staff turnover. That stings, said Nikki Butler, a sophomore who’s a fixture in Mansion clubs and activities. Butler had attached herself to Del Bosque — “DB” to her students — over the young educator’s two years at Mansion as part of her Teach for America commitment.
“I feel so sad,” Butler said of Del Bosque’s departure. “I got really close to her — she’s like a sister to me. Any time I have problems in life, I’d go to her. She helped me through a lot.”
Students noticed improvements at the school this year, even with the upheaval.
“It was just a different vibe this year that was really positive,” said Shyele Jones, a senior.
Jones played a starring role in one of the moments that highlighted Mansion’s new direction and its promise. Her gym class was one of those that reflected the administration’s attempts to better include special education students.
Jones loved helping students with their workouts. But she took a real shine to Sean Keese, a tall, friendly fellow senior who has special needs.
She made him feel comfortable, too. In April, Keese asked Jones to be his date at the prom. She accepted.
Keese’s mother, Tishiea, jumped into action, planning a prom send-off fit for a king.
She cleared the furniture from the first floor of the family’s North 23rd Street home for the May 17 event, and arranged for a sumptuous catered meal, foil-stamped personalized napkins and an open bar. She got a DJ, T-shirts with her son’s face printed on them, cardboard columns that scraped the rowhouse’s ceiling, signs that read “Sean and Shyele’s Royal Prom,” and, in the middle of the living room, a tall, regal golden chair.
“We had to have a throne,” Tishiea Keese said proudly, posing for photos with her son clad in a tuxedo with royal blue accents and matching snakeskin shoes. Outside the house, dozens of people danced in the street, waiting to get a glimpse of Sean.
“He’s come so far,” said Sean Booker, Sean Keese’s dad.
On the dance floor at the IATSE ballroom in South Philadelphia, Keese whirled about, his face alight.
When the yearbook came out late last month, Keese got his own call-out. Next to his name was the honor: “Most Likely to Brighten Your Day.”
And Jones? She’s headed to Lock Haven University in the fall, where she’ll study special education.
A few days after the prom, a vigil was held for Tashawn McClendon on what would have been her 43rd birthday. Friends and family crowded onto a sidewalk just outside the Raymond Rosen public housing project at 23rd and Glenwood, holding white candles, balloons and photos of Tashawn.
They celebrated her life. And they lamented the hard truths of a neighborhood where gun deaths are common and answers are often elusive.
“She was a good person," Deborra Sears, Tashawn’s mother, told the mourners, her voice loud and angry. “Y’all know who did this, whoever hurt her. Stop being scared. Tell who did it. Because you know what? It might happen to y’all.”