From a distance, Audenried High School looks like an educational oasis. Brick and cinder block with plenty of tinted windows, the $60 million building that opened in September is the newest high school in the city.
Sandwiched between the Schuylkill Expressway and a recently built public-housing community, Audenried was erected on the same spot in South Philadelphia where the old Audenried stood before being closed and demolished after the 2005 school year.
Violence, truancy and rock-bottom test scores tagged the old school with perhaps the worst reputation in the school district.
"It was called the jail on the hill," said Dee, a 1994 Audenried graduate who did not want to give her last name, as she gazed at the new building while sweeping her porch Friday morning.
During the school year that ends today, Audenried avoided negative headlines, with the exception of a March 13 lunchroom melee. Eight students were arrested that Friday the 13th, and two city police officers were later terminated for using racial slurs against the students, who are predominantly African-American. The cops are waiting for an arbitration hearing to be scheduled, FOP officials said.
Principal Terry Pearsall-Hargett is well aware that the sparkling new building alone will not prevent the new Audenried from becoming like the old Audenried.
"There were some learning curves for everybody, and like anything, there were some potholes in the road," Pearsall-Hargett said. "But because we have a good road crew, we were able to smooth out the potholes so we can keep driving forward."
She has contracts with a handful of community-based organizations to help students in the areas of behavior, emotional health, truancy and tutoring.
Some are not convinced that Audenried High - which opened with just ninth-graders this year - has changed much beneath the surface.
Though they'll only be in eighth grade at nearby Alcorn School in the fall, Markiesha Dockery and Taleya Ewell, both 13, have already decided that they will not attend Audenried.
"They jump people. They fight. The cops have to come here every week," Taleya said while standing on the sidewalk across from the school.
"It's supposed to be a new school, a new attitude. It's supposed to be a good school, but it's horrible," she added.
"They need to get themselves together," chimed in Markiesha, who said she has been jumped by Audenried girls this year. "They're in high school; they shouldn't be acting like that.
From January until this month, Philadelphia police responded to 42 calls at or near the school on Tasker Street near 32nd, said Officer Tanya Little, a department spokeswoman.
There are other problems. Just four parents take an active role in the school's Home and School Association, Pearsall-Hargett said, while of the 180 ninth-graders who began the year, just 73 percent are still on target to graduate on time.
A visit to the library will reveal lots of new bookcases, but few books on them. The district was supposed to allocate $50,000 for library books this year, but not all the money has arrived, said librarian Alice Lee.
The library's 800-book collection - or just over two books per student - falls far below the International Reading Association's recommendation that a library have 20 books per student, Lee said.
"We need support. We need people to donate books and organizations to get behind us," Lee said.
"We also need tutors and mentors to come in to work in this beautiful space. We have four rooms for small groups," she said, pointing to the empty rooms.
Pearsall-Hargett has big plans for the fall when 10th grade will be added. She cautions those who are inclined to write off Audenried.
"They are misinformed. They are talking about a school that they may have never visited or they're looking at one incident on TV," she said.
An electrical academy to teach students about fiber optics and a health-care academy focusing on the health-care system are scheduled to open at the school in the fall. A diesel-engine-repair academy and culinary-arts academy are to follow in fall 2010.
In addition to its new building, Audenried's small class sizes - which range from 13 to 25 pupils - are the envy of many city high schools where more than 30 students per room is typical.
Pearsall-Hargett, who proudly says she has been with the district since 1964, when she entered kindergarten, believes much has to be done to prevent the new Audenried from becoming like the old school.
"It's going to take vision. It's going to take a lot of commitment from myself and the community, from teachers and students. It's going to take a plan, resources, time," she continued. "But believe me, it's all there." *