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In a hard-hit area, Strawberry Mansion High is losing the numbers game

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    Photo: C. Shonda Woods

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by Paul Jablow

Strawberry Mansion High School, one of 44 schools targeted for closing or relocation by the Philadelphia School District, has not made any honor rolls recently.

PSSA scores fell sharply in 2012 after allegations of cheating, student attendance is poor, and the facility is seriously underutilized. Several students interviewed Monday on their way home from school were decidedly downbeat about it.

For Dominique Huggins, the closing would be “an inconvenience” for her grandparents, with whom she lives. She said that many students in the North Philadelphia high school are worried about how they will get to and from school next year.

Huggins, 16, a junior, does not relish transferring to a more distant school for her senior year after three years at Mansion. The closest District-run neighborhood high school remaining open would be Benjamin Franklin, just north of Center City – more than two miles away.

The decision to close so many schools is “all about money,” she said as she stood outside after dismissal Monday.

But she was unenthusiastic about the school itself. “It’s been OK,” she said. Many of the familiar teachers have left, she said, and too many of her classes are taught by substitutes.

Mysha Douglas, a 17-year-old senior, was more blunt. “It’s a mess,” she said. Douglas is looking forward to her freshman year at Bloomsburg State University, where she plans to study human resources.

Like Huggins, Thomas Player complained about the number of subs. Player, who is 17 and a junior, said he had already planned to transfer to Randolph next year for a better learning environment.

A student who would give her name only as Brianna said she wanted to transfer before the year was out.

Some students were upset about the closing.

“I’m mad,” said Shakeira Gallashaw, a 19-year-old senior. “It’s a good environment. It’s my neighborhood school.”

Talia Price, in 11th grade, said she was upset because she had just transferred in September after the closing of nearby Rhodes High School.  “I just started this year and I got to know everybody.”

For District officials, though, the numbers just don’t support keeping Strawberry Mansion open.

The District tried to boost the school’s enrollment this year when it closed the high schools at Rhodes and FizSimons, both nearby, and encouraged the displaced students to attend Mansion.

Many of those students, like Price, now face attending a third high school in three years.

“Unfortunately… parents in that community are choosing to send their kids elsewhere,” Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said in a press briefing last Wednesday. The school’s population grew only slightly, from 361 last year to 435 this fall. The school, built in 1964, is designed to accommodate over 1,700 students.

“Strawberry Mansion is at 25 percent utilization, and as far as I know, that’s going down. … That’s just an impossible situation for us. … We have no choice.”

Kihn said that some charter school partners and Renaissance schools were below their enrollment caps and could absorb some Strawberry Mansion students, including Mastery-Gratz, which is on Hunting Park Avenue, about three miles away. But students do have to go through an application process.

“It’s not our plan to say that any student leaving a closing high school has a guaranteed right to the school they want to attend,” Kihn said. “We’re going to reopen the transfer process for them and they’ll have the right to apply in any way that all students have done via the transfer process. In the case of Mastery, that’s something we have to work out for them.”

Declining enrollment is just one of the troubling statistics for Strawberry Mansion in recent years. Suspensions rose from 21 in 2009-10 to 187 in 2011-12, and average attendance declined from 83.3 percent to 77.7 percent.

Just 9 percent of 11th graders were rated as proficient in math on the 2011-12 PSSA tests; the District average is 38 percent. Reading proficiency was 14 percent, compared with a District average of 43 percent.

The school was one of three District high schools flagged last year by the Pennsylvania Department of Education for possible cheating in 2009. That year, about two-thirds of the students scored proficient – an unprecedented rate for a neighborhood high school. But since 2009, the proficiency rates have plunged.

Strawberry Mansion was just one of the schools in its area slated for closing in a plan that hits North Philadelphia particularly hard.

In its 19132 zip code alone – an area of North Philadelphia west of Broad Street – T.M. Peirce, Whittier, Pratt, and L. P. Hill elementary schools are also on the closing list. Directly south of this area, in the 19121 zip code, four more schools are targeted for closure.

A spokesperson for City Council President Darrell Clarke, who represents the area, said Clarke was “disturbed by the announced closures.”

She said Clarke “looks forward to hearing more from the School District about its plans to keep students safe and to keep student attendance numbers up.”

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