Hopes for North Philly neighborhood’s future tethered to new high school

Students move between classes at the newly opened Vaux Big Picture HIgh School. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Students move between classes at the newly opened Vaux Big Picture HIgh School. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Reopening Vaux High School is a critical part of a sweeping, half-billion dollar plan by the city’s housing authority to revitalize the North Philadelphia neighborhood known as Sharswood.

It’s the seventh day of the new school year at Vaux Big Picture High School and students seem to be warming to social worker Jody Ehrlich’s morning greeting ritual.

Some greet him with a handshake. Others smile timidly before heading inside the hulking building on West Master Street in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia.

“People need to see a happy face in the morning — someone smiling, a greeting, letting you know that we care,” Ehrlich said.

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Kids showing up to school is important anywhere, but you could make the argument that it’s particularly important at this school where there’s a lot at stake.

From the start of the school day to its end, staffers at Vaux are working to create a place where students from Sharswood — one of the city’s most impoverished and crime-ridden sections — can buck those statistics and, in the process, help change the course of the neighborhood.

The Philadelphia School District and the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which owns the building, are equally invested in those goals.

Budget cuts, poor academics and dwindling enrollment combined to close the original Vaux High School in 2013. The district doesn’t want that to happen again.

“We closed Vaux as part of budget issues,” said said deputy superintendent Christina Grant. “We are amazed and excited that we were able to reopen a school — that it is a district school that kids from the neighborhood are attending.”

Vaux part of  ‘holistic’ approach to revitalization

There’s also a lot at stake for PHA. The new Vaux is a critical piece of the housing authority’s ambitious, $500 million neighborhood transformation plan.

The project has already seen the seizure of hundreds of rowhomes through eminent domain; the demolition of the core components of a half-century old public housing complex; and construction of new replacement homes.

PHA hopes Vaux can help usher in the kind of change that lifts up low-income residents while also encouraging middle-class families to move to Sharswood and inject some stability into the struggling neighborhood.

“As we think about rebuilding Sharswood, it’s important for us to think about it in a more holistic way — about amenities and institutions that we’re bringing to bear as we transform that community. An educational facility happens to be one of those key elements,” said PHA’s Executive Director Kelvin Jeremiah.

Big Picture Learning, a national education nonprofit, has signed a five-year contract with the district to run Vaux.

On paper, Vaux is a traditional public school required to hit local and state metrics. Day-to-day, it’s unlike any other school in the district.

For example, starting sophomore year, students leave school twice a week to do internships in the community.

The school’s culture also stands out. Vaux puts a big emphasis on teachers forming positive relationships with their students.

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David Bromley, executive director of Big Picture Learning Philadelphia, speaks at the grand opening of Vaux High School in North Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It requires adults in the building who are patient with the kids, who understand where the kids are coming from, who — above all — don’t react to the kids’ behavior except holding them accountable, helping them understand their behaviors, helping them understand the choices they’re making,” said David Bromley, executive director for Big Picture Learning Philadelphia, which also runs an alternative school in Kensington.

It’s an approach Principal Gabriel Kuriloff is committed to, even if, at times, it may be draining for him and his staffers.

“This is student-based,” Kuriloff said. “It’s passion driven. It can’t be about what I say. It has to come out of intrinsic motivations.”

So far, that model is working for Emonte Denson, one of Vaux’s 126 freshmen, the only students in the school until next year when a new class will also be walking the halls.

Denson, 14, said Vaux is more peaceful than the other schools she’s attended. She can think clearly.

“At my other school, there were kids, they didn’t really control them,” Emonte said. “They were running around, screaming, not doing their work. They wasn’t excited about learning. I was.”


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Longtime Sharswood resident Norman Scott says the school will help the neighborhood if there are good students in it. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

A tough sell?

So, can a new high school help change the neighborhood?

Longtime Sharswood resident Norman Scott lives around the corner from Vaux. Sitting on his stoop one recent morning, he said the school would be successful if it’s filled with students like Emonte.

“You need to have good kids going to the school to make the school and the neighborhood uplifted,” Scott said. “If you got bad kids going to the school, that’s going to bring it down, and then you got crime rates that will go up again because they’re bringing friends from their neighborhood to the school to do something to somebody they got a beef with and that wouldn’t be good.”

Standing where the Norman Blumberg Apartment complex once stood, Velvet Lewis said she thinks it’ll take more than a school to make the neighborhood better, especially if the definition of “better” is having a community of all income levels living side by side.

“The school is good. I’m not gonna down it,” Lewis said. “But what are you giving these middle-class people? If you look around now, what are you offering in this area besides a school? It’s gonna be a tough sell right here.”

She believes people need more than a promise of a better neighborhood to move to Sharswood. They have to see the big picture is already becoming reality.

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