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Reinventing S. Philly's last Catholic high school with Ikea furniture, murals and a rain garden

The barbed wire has come down and PSAT scores have gone up. The school's makeover is thanks to the help of Community Design Collaborative, a nonprofit run by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Neuman-Goretti High School students hang out on the bleacher seats in the cafeteria. Its recent renovation borrowed design ideas from millennial office culture.
Neuman-Goretti High School students hang out on the bleacher seats in the cafeteria. Its recent renovation borrowed design ideas from millennial office culture.Read moreMichael Bryant

When people want to disparage the design of a school building, they say it looks like a prison. For SS. John Neumann and Maria Goretti High School in South Philadelphia, that description had been unfortunately all too accurate. A forbidding chain-link fence topped with a coil of barbed wire sealed off the beige, 1950s building from the surrounding rowhouse neighborhood. The entrance was impossible to find, and inside there was no lobby. If you managed to breach the school's front doors in 2015, you would have found yourself standing in a dark cinder-block stairwell, uncertain whether to go up or down or abandon hope entirely.

Neumann-Goretti is far friendlier place today, with a bushy rain garden sprouting on its front lawn and a brightly painted entrance hall. The barbed wire has come down, and PSAT scores have gone up. For the first time in decades, freshman enrollment increased this year, by a substantial 18 percent.

That Neumann-Goretti was able to make so much progress so fast is a story that runs counter to the dire predictions made after the Archdiocese of Philadelphia shuttered nearly 40 schools in 2012.  Though a new emphasis on academics has helped it survive, the Catholic high school — the last one standing in South Philadelphia — also owes its progress to innovative design ideas borrowed from millennial office culture. That includes everything from Ikea furniture in the library to cornhole games and AstroTurf in the cafeteria.

Neumann-Goretti was built at a time when regimentation and discipline were prized. The notion that students should feel welcome seems to have been overlooked by its architects (whose identity has long since been forgotten). Its harsh appearance might not have mattered in the days when South Philadelphia Catholics automatically sent their children to the nearest church school. But with Catholic education facing intense competition from Philadelphia's invigorated (and tuition-free) public schools and charters, Neumann-Goretti's menacing look had become a big liability.

Even after Neumann-Goretti succeeded in raising its academic performance in 2016,  enrollment continued to plummet. At one point, the student body fell below 500, down from a high of 3,000 in the glory days of the '70s, when it was an all-girls academy called St. Maria Goretti. You could feel the footsteps reverberate through the empty halls. "There was no energy," says Bruce Robinson, a corporate executive who was recruited in 2015 to run the school.

In desperation, he made a phone call to the Community Design Collaborative, a nonprofit run by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects. That conversation began a partnership that has helped the cash-strapped institution make informed decisions about its building and access grants to pay for a series of small but powerful renovations. "We like to say we provide the first 5 percent," says Mayva Donnon of KSS Architects, who led the collaborative's pro bono design team.

Tearing down the barbed-wire fence turned out to be the easy part. "I knew I wanted to rip it out the minute I saw it," says Robinson, who was succeeded this year by Joseph M. McColgan. But Robinson soon realized that removing the barrier was just the first step to improving Neumann-Goretti's image with prospective students and the fast-gentrifying Passyunk Square and Wharton neighborhoods. Although Neumann-Goretti is no longer the go-to high school for South Philadelphia Catholics, Robinson still sees its mission as providing a quality education "to aspirational families trying to break out of poverty."

Even by the standards of Philadelphia's legacy schools, Neumann-Goretti is a handful of a building, sprawling across four acres on South 10th Street, between Watkins and Mifflin. Because the compound includes convents, dormitories, and other structures, it was fenced in decades ago to deter vandals. That pretty much ruined the school's curb appeal with prospective students. Yet because Neumann-Goretti was barely making ends meet, it had few resources to pay for improvements.

With help from the collaborative's architects, Neumann-Goretti was able to devise a renovation strategy without laying out scarce funds upfront. "We walked the property and pointed out the things that would have maximum impact visually," explains Donnon. Over several meetings, they mapped out a series of low-cost improvements that could be completed in phases.

The initial budget was a modest $250,000. When that proved beyond Neumann-Goretti's fund-raising abilities, the school had to use its wits. Fortunately, it had just hired an operations manager who was a whiz with a paint brush. Jennifer Cooper scoured the empty classrooms for tables and chairs and painted them bright colors. Another firm, MAI Architects, helped choose the rest from Ikea. All in all, the interior improvements cost $50,000.

At the architects' suggestion, Neumann-Goretti concentrated on the two main social spaces: the library and the cafeteria. Neither had been renovated since the school opened in 1956, and they were still furnished with hard chairs and tables arranged in straight rows. In the library, floor-to-ceiling bookcases blocked the natural light.

That space is now called the Knowledge Lab, and it could be mistaken for the common area of one of Philadelphia's hip co-working spaces. Soft chairs and sofas can be pulled into a circle for drama classes. But there are also tables and chairs where students can do schoolwork. Because  everyone at Neumann-Goretti gets a laptop, Cooper and Robinson decided to reduce the amount of space devoted to shelving, following a trend in some city libraries.

The cafeteria was given a similar treatment to make it feel cozier and less formal. Although standard lunch tables are still used, students can choose to sit at high tops, lounge on sofas, or spread out on a small amphitheater fitted with outlets to charge computers. The new black, yellow, and acid-green color scheme gives the large room a jolt of visual caffeine.

Outside, where the barbed-wire fence once stood, a trench is now being seeded for a lush rain garden, paid for with a $50,000 grant from the Philadelphia Water Department. The off-putting solid doors that served as the school's main entrance have been replaced with glass ones, letting natural light into the entry stairwell for the first time.

Neumann-Goretti still doesn't have a real lobby. But a new super-graphic mural in the stairwell makes  clear to visitors that they've arrived.  The word Welcome is spelled out in giant letters.