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

Photo: C. Shonda Woods

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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Comments (6)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 17, 2012 11:38 pm
Lois Powell-Mondesire turned Strawberry Mansion into a cheating factory. She was given a $10,000 bonus in 2011. Now, after Mondesire has left, the reality of the smoke and mirrors she created is unmasked. Will Mondesire ever be held accountable for the cheating and destruction of Strawberry Mansion?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 18, 2012 12:03 am
Look, up in the sky, it's a pig flying! if ever she's held accountable, you'll hear folks saying that all over town. who is held accountable in the district besides poor kids and blue-collar employees? I asked the question many times, if they're so good, why weren't they teaching others how to do it.. lots of people knew, but the last administration shut down all opposition. it didn't pass the sniff test, pssa scores in the 85% range and nobody flocking to go to that school? like marvin gaye said, "makes me wanna holler, throw up both my hands."
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on December 18, 2012 8:51 am
But you have Linda Weyman in charge. Oh that means many teachers quit or desperately transfer elsewhere, If a stable teaching staff is the SRC goal this is another example of the left hand undoing the work of the right one. Common operating procedure in the the district.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 18, 2012 9:53 am
At least spell her name correctly....Linda Wayman.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 18, 2012 10:11 am
I wonder if Keystone scores will SHOOT UP like they did (PSSA) the last time Weyman was in charge. What's your secret Ms. Weyman -- how did you do it?
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on December 18, 2012 11:26 am
True name misspelled. Staff still fleeing.

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