It’s a Philadelphia School District school, with union teachers and staff, but run by an outside education company. The Philadelphia Housing Authority — which bought the Vaux building at 23rd and Master from the school system — gives the district an extra $500 per student annually. Health services, workforce development, and community organizations are embedded into the school.
“You’re pretty much guaranteed that it’s going to be successful,” then-U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson said on the school’s first day, as a foyer full of students, teachers, and dignitaries looked on.
How did Carson’s bold prediction for a school in one of the most poverty-stricken corners of America’s poorest big city hold up?
This month, 90 young men and women graduated — out of 102 seniors and 126 students who began the program. Forty-two percent of the graduating class is headed to college, a trade school, or an internship, and 84% had internships during their time at the school. Others are headed to the military, union jobs, or other full-time work.
But more significant to new graduate Enya Sultan, Vaux helped her find her voice and a sense of community.
She loved learning through projects, having abundant out-of-school opportunities and a single advisory all four years. Advisory is a core period in the Big Picture concept, a class that fosters close relationships between students and an adviser, a time to address educational as well as social and emotional concepts.
There was no traditional schedule with seven periods a day. She had an experience tailored to who she is, said Sultan.
“Vaux is a success, and it’s just starting,” said Sultan, who is headed to Howard University to study psychology. Sultan won’t fully disconnect from the school — an alumni adviser will continue to support her.
“At Vaux, they focus on collaboration,” she said. The traditional way, it’s grades and it’s competing, but here, you get to be free. It is structure, but you’re able to be yourself when you’re here.”
David Bromley, executive director of Big Picture Philadelphia, the education nonprofit that runs Vaux, said he’s “thrilled about where the school is going.”
Reynolds and her classmates “haven’t had a typical four-year high school experience,” Bromley said. “They’ve engaged in their passions and interests, they’ve engaged in dual enrollment, and they’ve created a real sense of community.”
There were hiccups along the way, like stumbles as the school built systems and heavy staff turnover, including at the principal level. And while Vaux was prepared to support students — staff are trained in trauma-informed practices, and the school has an on-site social worker and therapist — there were still challenges on that front.
Shavonne McMillan became principal two years ago. When she was principal of a “no-excuses charter” — a school focused on testing and accountability, discipline, and a firm belief that college is for every student ― she found herself wondering about the kids who didn’t make it to higher education.
“College was the goal, but college isn’t everyone’s goal — economic freedom should be the goal,” said McMillan. “We are a college-focused school, but we are a real-world learning focused school. We know that every student is not going to go to college, but we know that everyone needs a learning plan.”
More complex learners often thrive with the hands-on experience Vaux provides, McMillan said. And many learn things about themselves they didn’t know.
Take Malayah Reynolds, who came to Vaux not considering herself an artist. One day, her gym teacher noticed Reynolds doodling and suggested she enter an art contest.
Reynolds just graduated as class salutatorian and is heading to Carnegie-Mellon University, after Vaux internships in an art gallery and steady support from staff in pursuing her passion.
As McMillan sees it, education often reduces young people to their numbers — test scores, attendance, grades.
But “there’s always a story behind the numbers, and the stories matter here,” McMillan said.
McMillan has helped Vaux find its stride, staffers say. Turnover is way down — just one teacher is leaving this year.
The principal and teachers know a big part of the model is the extra funds and flexibility their school affords them. Staff are unionized district employees, but agree to more flexibility in scheduling. And the budget allows for robust staff development and more.
McMillan, who was named one of the city’s top principals this year, wants to use the prize money she won by virtue of that distinction to add certificate-granting opportunities for students, like a pharmacy technician program.
COVID-19 challenged every school, but Vaux’s unique setup helped it pivot quickly, keep track of students, and keep them growing. The advisory model meant teachers had close relationships with their pupils. The school offered in-person learning pods with tutoring and social and emotional supports.
“There were cracks, but nobody slipped through,” said Vivian Shaw, a science teacher and adviser who came to Vaux two years ago after time spent at a Boston charter school.
“People who make policy or make blanket rules try to make school a one-size-fits-all, and that’s not how students come,” said Shaw.
Kelvin Jeremiah bet big on Vaux Big Picture.
Jeremiah, the city housing authority CEO, sees Vaux as a key part of PHA’s $500 million, multiyear plan to transform Sharswood. The old Vaux High was closed by the district in 2013, but Jeremiah saw an opportunity. There was no raising the community up without a school to serve as anchor, Jeremiah said.
Jeremiah was teary-eyed at Vaux’s graduation earlier this month, choked up, he said, at what the students overcame. Half of Vaux students are PHA residents, and a third need special education services. They weathered a pandemic and more.
“Life in the inner city is hard, but education is your passport to a bright and prosperous future — it was for me,” Jeremiah told the graduates. In an interview, he said he “could not be happier” with PHA’s investment in Vaux.
Christina Grant, who as the district’s chief of charter schools and innovation witnessed the school’s beginnings and first four years, is unequivocal.
“This proves to us what’s possible for a neighborhood high school,” said Grant, who is headed to Washington, D.C., to be state superintendent of education. “This could be a road map — how do you manage complex governance structures.”
Liz Dennis, a founding special education teacher and now Vaux’s director of special education, agrees that the model is worth spreading.
“We’re not a magnet school, you don’t have to meet qualifications to come here,” Dennis said. “This is for every single kid in Philadelphia — we think every kid deserves that, not just ones with grades and test scores.”