When I first stepped into the imposing, cavernous building that is Strawberry Mansion High School last fall, I was surprised by how normal it seemed.
Largely empty — this year’s enrollment was 169 students across three grades — there was no chaos, no fighting, and nothing to suggest it was known in recent years as “one of the most dangerous schools in America.”
My colleague Kristen Graham and I saw a number of classes: music, math, biology. Eager to show off their skills, culinary students prepared food for us and several school leaders. Volleyball players prepared for practice. It was not how I pictured a school that was failing according to the metrics.
The school district granted Kristen and I access to follow Mansion students and staff through a year of transition, after pausing ninth grade admissions and initially planning to phase out the traditional high school program. The school, built for 1,800 kids, had already survived a closure attempt in 2013. The story published in two parts: Forever Mansion? and ‘Capable of Greatness.’
At the first assembly I attended, the sparse student body was spread out across hundreds of empty seats in the auditorium, a stark example of the school’s steep decline. It was an important picture, but I also needed to introduce readers to those students. Why, unlike the 2,000 other students in the catchment area, were they attending Mansion?
They knew the school had a bad reputation but told us that was no longer true. To them, it wasn’t a bad school. It was just their school.
As a journalist, I’m an outsider who has to discover and then capture the essence of an unfamiliar person or situation. I knew they would scrutinize the pictures I chose to capture.
Without a frame of reference for what it was like to go to Mansion or grow up in the neighborhood, I was constantly questioning whether my pictures accurately characterized students’ experiences.
I had access, which allowed me to document the good, the bad, and the in-between, but access doesn’t make it easier to navigate delicate situations. If a fight broke out or a student acted out, how would I photograph it? Would that scenario be representative of the atmosphere in the building? Would the students or staff be angry if I captured that picture?
As it turned out, I didn’t witness a single fight during my many visits to Mansion. Students later told me the school was calmer this year.
I tried to go to as many events and activities as I could to capture a more nuanced portrayal of Mansion and to prove to students that I cared about their story. In the age of social media, teenagers can be very self-conscious, so I needed them to become comfortable with my camera.
Because the school is so small, there weren’t a ton of activities. Still, it was hard trying to stay one step ahead of what was going on. Dates and times changed, events were canceled. I had to be proactive about keeping track of everything. I spent a lot of time photographing basketball, easily the most popular of the few sports available, and when the boys’ team won its first-round playoff game, students celebrated like they’d won a championship.
Data points couldn’t show the profound challenges that many of the students faced and the work administrators did to build a sense of community.
With the help of Principal Brian McCracken and counselor Ameera Sullivan, we met students who were homeless, who had children, who lived in foster care, who had been through the juvenile justice system, who had no other option than to go to Mansion. For others, it was just their neighborhood high school. In a neighborhood with a high poverty rate and violent crime, the school became a critical support system, a refuge for its students.
This couldn’t have been more evident than when, on the night before prom, Deborra Tashawn McClendon, the mother of two students, was shot to death. It was a tragic yet acute example of the trauma that many Mansion students experience; a number of them have lost relatives to gun violence. As Kristen and I scrambled to gather more information, I worried again how best to cover this unexpected development.
When McCracken attended a vigil for McClendon the following week — his first time in that situation as an educator, he told me — I tiptoed around the edges of the crowd, unsure how my presence would be received by the family. The somber scene encapsulated what I had been struggling to show about the school’s outsize role, giving context to the challenges students faced outside Mansion’s walls.
Every time I visited the school, I thought about how vastly different it was from my own high school experience. It felt frustratingly unfair that Mansion didn’t have nearly the same degree of resources and opportunities that my suburban high school of more than 1,000 students did.
Yet, there was still plenty of joy at Mansion. McCracken, in his first year as principal, organized countless student activities. The counselor planned college visits. After being forced to hold graduation at the school last year, administrators booked a fancier venue for the big day.
And when that day came, the seniors crossed the stage jubilantly, claiming their diplomas to the cheers of family members and supporters. They joined the thousands of Strawberry Mansion graduates before them, knowing they would not be the last.