Phila. Housing Authority buys shuttered high school in bid to transform the neighborhood

 Roberts Vaux High School (photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Housing Authority)

Roberts Vaux High School (photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Housing Authority)

The Philadelphia Housing Authority now owns the former home of Roberts Vaux High School, a hulking building in North Philadelphia shuttered four years ago amid declining enrollment and poor academics.

PHA bought the property last week for $2 million as part of a sweeping, half-billion-dollar plan to transform the surrounding neighborhood known as Sharswood. 

The agency has pledged to pour up to $15 million into building renovations over the next three years. The school on Master Street will reopen in September.

“We’re trying to create a community of choice, where families would choose to live. One of the things families look at in selecting where they want to live is the educational institutions in the community,” said PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah.

The Philadelphia School District has contracted with Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit, to manage Vaux, which will remain a neighborhood public school. 

Big Picture Learning also runs El Centro de Estudiantes in Kensington and uses a project-based curriculum combined with student internships in the community.

“We believe that kids do best in school when they’re engaged and they’re known well, and then when they’re excited about what they’re doing and where they’re going,” said executive director David Bromley.

The nonprofit will be paid $23 million over six years, which will cover the nuts and bolts of keeping a school open, including salaries and classroom materials, according to Bromley.

School district employees will make up the teaching staff and school administration. Big Picture Learning will hire an internship coordinator and at least two on-site social workers.

The 2017-2018 school year will have just ninth graders in the building. One grade will be added each year after that until there are roughly 500 students on the books.

“My hope is that the school will ultimately be at the status of Penn Alexander,” said Jeremiah, referring to one of the city’s highest-achieving public schools.

Buying and renovating Vaux is the next visible piece of PHA’s work in Sharswood, which effectively began last March with the demolition of the two high-rise and several low-rise buildings that made up the Norman Blumberg Apartments.

The goal is to transform a struggling Sharswood into a vibrant, mixed-income community with less crime and poverty and more community assets, such as Vaux.

So far, PHA has built 57 new units of public housing in the neighborhood.

Construction on the agency’s new, $45 million headquarters is slated to begin in June. The renovation of the Blumberg senior tower will follow. Revitalizing the neighborhood’s retail corridor along Ridge Avenue and additional housing are also part of PHA’s ten-year plan.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Big Picture Learning is a private company. It is a nonprofit. 

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