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Can a school transform this North Philly neighborhood?

The Philadelphia Housing Authority has pledged $500 million to transform Sharswood. A key part of that plan rests with Vaux Big Picture High School, newly reopened with a staff determined to reimagine what high school looks like for children in the neighborhood.

Vaux Big Picture High School teacher Amit Schwalb, center, leads his students in an exercise to create a family tree to learn about graphing.
Vaux Big Picture High School teacher Amit Schwalb, center, leads his students in an exercise to create a family tree to learn about graphing.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

In a crime-scarred section of the poorest big city in the U.S., Sharswood still sticks out.

Once dominated by high-rise housing projects, this North Philadelphia neighborhood sees   high school graduation rates that have hovered around 35 percent. Trauma touches nearly everyone.

So when city housing officials promised $500 million to remake Sharswood into a place where people wanted to live, they knew there had to be a school.

Four years ago, citing dwindling enrollment and lagging academics, the school district shuttered two schools: Reynolds Elementary and Vaux High School.

This month, with a multimillion dollar boost from the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the school system reopened the school at 23rd and Master Streets — now known as Vaux Big Picture High School — featuring or soon to feature medical and dental clinics, after-school programs, and a team of "resilience specialists."

A collaboration of this kind, unprecedented in Philadelphia and rare nationally, advances an idea embraced by city and district leaders: Public schools must be more than just places where children learn. They must also be agents for community change.

As an agency also intimately involved in the lives of many of Philadelphia's children, the PHA is furthering a key goal in the remaking of Vaux, said Kelvin A. Jeremiah, the agency's president and CEO.

"For each of these kids who are going to Vaux, if 90 percent of them go off to college and graduate from college, they won't be coming back to public housing," said Jeremiah, who along with other officials will formally unveil Vaux to the city at a ceremony planned for Tuesday.

The housing authority agreed last year to buy the Vaux building from the school district for $2 million, and committed up to $15 million more to renovating it. It is also providing the school system with a $500-a-student subsidy.

The district is paying the respected educational company Big Picture Philadelphia $23 million over six years to manage Vaux. The nonprofit — which also has a district contract to run El Centro de Estudiantes, an alternative school in Kensington — must meet targets regarding attendance, enrollment, and graduation rates or risk losing its contract.

Housing agencies and schools have partnered elsewhere — Harlem Children's Zone is one notable example. But what Philadelphia is doing is unique, officials said.

"I don't know that this particular model exists anywhere else in the U.S.," said Christina Grant, the assistant superintendent responsible for the school.

Partnerships are difficult, said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and a government veteran herself. But the Vaux partnership matters.

"It is an extraordinarily positive step forward to increase access to high-quality high schools in every neighborhood in Philadelphia," Cooper said.

Vaux Big Picture High School opened Sept. 7 with 126 ninth graders, all from North Philadelphia. By 2020, it is projected to educate 500 and be a showplace — not for the best and the brightest from somewhere else, but for all Sharswood kids. Sharswood is the neighborhood north of Girard College, south of Cecil B. Moore Avenue, and between 20th and 27th Streets.

Though the school educates district children, it is run by Big Picture, whose hallmark is a focus on strong relationships among students and staff, and on individualized learning centered on students' interests. Through an agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the educators who work at Vaux Big Picture have agreed to some flexibility in work rules — longer school days and years, a different system of evaluation.

Vaux students will all develop individualized education and wellness plans. The school will eventually have medical and dental clinics open to the community, and will likely offer college courses on site — the entire first floor of the building, essentially, will be space for Sharswood residents to use.

"I have more here than I could have imagined," said Gabriel Kuriloff, Vaux's principal.

As it grows, the school will hire a counselor to help students consider formal post-secondary options. But it already has a meditation room, complete with fluffy rug, Buddha statue, pillows, salt lamp and soft lights, and four "resilience specialists," two full-time employees and two students.  Those staffers, who trained as social workers, are key, said David Bromley, executive director of Big Picture Philadelphia.

"It's all about breaking down barriers and being restorative," he said. Already, the resilience department has defused a major beef that was brewing in the neighborhood and threatening to spill into the school, Bromley said.

Beginning in their sophomore years, students will all have internships, but the work of identifying passions and possible career paths has already begun.

"The bottom line," Bromley said, "is kids taking ownership of their learning."

Work on the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is ongoing, but it already shines. PHA took no shortcuts, Bromley said; everything Jeremiah promised, he delivered on, down to the new furniture that matches the school's logo, the meticulously restored hardwood floors in classrooms and the basketball court on the roof.

On Wednesday, just the seventh day of school, students left the building, dispersing with staff to explore sites around the city — including a wastewater treatment plant, a coffee shop, the city's main post office — to begin learning about where their interests may lie.

"The model isn't 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the building — the model is going out into the community," said Grant.

Soon, there will be after-school activities — robotics, beekeeping, dance, theater, information technology.

That's why Tracee Jones stayed close to home for high school, as opposed to her original plan of leaving the neighborhood to attend one of the city's special-admissions schools.

"This is hands-on stuff — not just writing stuff down that's on the board and going to the next class," said Jones, 14.

She wasn't quite sure what to expect at Vaux, Jones said, but so far she loves it — especially advisory, a 90-minute block of time spent daily with a teacher and classmates intended to stay together for four years. The aim is to work on projects, but also to check in.

"When I walk in the room, answer a question, say how I'm feeling, I like that a lot," she said. "It's a really calm environment."

Jones thinks she might want to be a veterinarian, but she's not sure. In advisory, she's working through what it would take to design clothing, too.

Jim Gallagher, Jones' adviser, left his job as principal of West Catholic High School for an opportunity to build something different.

"There was a big disconnect between what I saw as a need to help students and the existing school philosophy," said Gallagher, who is a math teacher — or "empirical reasoning adviser" at Vaux. "I'm into project-based learning, not rows and columns."

In his class, students are creating and analyzing graphs — focusing on how to use math by creating family trees. It's a shift for students, but they're getting there, Gallagher said.

"Some of them said, 'Why don't you give us worksheets?' " he said.

A few blocks away from the school, Linda Gerald swept the street as she does most mornings, part of her daily routine to improve Sharswood, where she has lived for 60 of her 67 years. She said she didn't know much about what the teachers and students are doing differently at Vaux, but she knows that it gives her hope.

"Vaux was closed a long time, and the kids had to go so far," said Gerald, a retired postal worker. "This will let them stay in the neighborhood, and maybe bring more people in."

Kuriloff, the principal, is banking on it. Sharswood, he said, deserves this shot.

"This is an honorable place to go to school," he said. "It's quite inspirational."