Vaux High School reopens as part of Sharswood revival

 Vaux High School in Philadelphia's Sharswood neighborhood is reopening Tuesday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Vaux High School in Philadelphia's Sharswood neighborhood is reopening Tuesday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For the first time in nearly four years, students and teachers will show up for classes Tuesday at Roberts Vaux High School in North Philadelphia.

In 2013, the School District of Philadelphia shuttered the hulking building as district officials stared down a multimillion-dollar budget gap. Declining enrollment and poor academics landed Vaux on the district’s closure list, which included nearly two dozen other schools across the city.

This spring, the Philadelphia Housing Authority purchased the school for $2 million with plans to revive it.

For PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah, it was a critical piece of his agency’s sweeping plan to transform the city’s Sharswood section. Without a good school, he said, the project would be “incomplete.”

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“It’s important for us to try to transition families and give them opportunities for social and economic mobility. The educational rates in Sharswood are abysmal, and we have failed too many of our young people,” Jeremiah said. “This is the time for us to restore some of that.”

Neighbors and area businesses agree.

Longtime resident Warren Hill, who went to Vaux in the late 1970s, said neighborhood students had to travel to new schools when Vaux closed.

“It’s like, ‘I’m taking away your ability to learn — to enhance your mind, to expand upon knowledge.’ It’s like, ‘We’re gonna make it harder for you to obtain the education, which should come to you freely,'” he said.

warren hill
Warren Hill, a student at Vaux High School in the 1970s, says his neighborhood has suffered without a high school, but questions the wisdom of putting a private company in charge. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Philadelphia district has tapped Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit, to manage Vaux, which will remain a public school.

The new Vaux will open with just ninth-graders and add a grade each year.

Big Picture Learning, which also runs El Centro de Estudiantes in Kensington, 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 in May, shortly after PHA purchased the Vaux building.

The school will largely employ school district teachers.

PHA has a $500,000 roadmap for revitalizing Sharswood, a struggling cluster of blocks just north of some of the city’s more well-heeled neighborhoods, including Fairmount and Center City.

To date, the agency has demolished the majority of the Norman Blumberg Apartments, a public housing complex, started building replacement units, as well as a brand new headquarters.

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