Strawberry Mansion: Revamped High School Trying to Make a Comeback

Strawberry Mansion: Revamped High School Trying to Make a Comeback
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In the 2011-2012 school year, 26 assaults and eight serious incidents involving weapons took place within the walls of Strawberry Mansion High School, according to school district data.

The following year, those numbers dropped to nine assaults and three incidents with weapons. That was the year Linda Cliatt-Wayman became the school’s principal. By fall 2013, for the first time in nearly five years, this institution’s name no longer appeared on the state’s list of persistently dangerous schools.

This was the year, according to Wayman (below), that she reminded these students this building is in fact a school, something she said most students no longer remembered.

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“I was at another school once, still in this community, and I’ll never forget her name because she actually framed my whole principalship for me,” said Wayman. “She stood up and she said ‘Miss!’ – ‘Miss’ because she didn’t know my name – she said to me, ‘Why do you keep calling this a school?’

“That’s kind of deep though, if you think about it – they don’t even see it as a school,” Wayman said. “She actually stood up and said that to me, and she said it like she meant it. I mean she really meant it with every ounce of her soul, and all I could do was just stand on the stage and freeze thinking, ‘My God.'”

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Formerly an assistant superintendent at the district, Wayman began at Mansion in 2012 and immediately attempted to put systems in place that re-created the concept of school for the students who for so long had gone without. She showed them how other schools work, explained their rules, their ways of running and assured the students that Mansion would now run in the same fashion.

“Ms. Wayman implemented a lot of systems – behavioral systems, instructional systems, climate and support systems,” explained educator Kenesta Mack, who has followed Wayman to various schools throughout her career. “So those were the three major systems that were developed in order for the three schools that merged into this one school to live here peacefully and civilly.”

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Strawberry Mansion High School merged with two other area schools in 2012, and now has an enrollment of 439 students. Due to budget cuts, Wayman explained she has had to reduce staff.

In 2013, Diane Sawyer and her team at ABC News filmed a special about the high school as a part of the Hidden America series. The original program aired in late May, and the team returned for a follow-up six months later. As a result of their visit to the school, Wayman explained that there has been a tremendous amount of donations from viewers – donations to make up for the money that the school has lost.

In one instance, Wayman said a woman stopped by with a man named Carlos. Carlos was the only one who spoke. He asked Wayman what she needed, and explained to her that his female companion wanted to donate something. Wayman did not know what to ask for, so the woman donated money. However, she still wanted to do more, so one day Carlos returned once again ask Wayman what she needed.

“I said well, my kids really do need outfits for the Pennsylvania Conference for Women because they’re going this year. [Carlos said] ‘Hey, Ms. Wayman, she’s buying all their clothes and getting all their hair done.’ I don’t even know the lady’s name,” she said.

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Wayman explained that people have donated without requesting receipts or favors in return. They simply show up and drop off money or equipment.

“We have had people come since our special who volunteer to do a lot of things for us. A whole bunch of people, and they just come and go, ‘Oh wow, Ms. Wayman, how do you do it every day?'” she said.

Wayman, who is the first principal in four years to remain at the high school for more than one year, explained that she is not scared. If she was, she said the school would “eat her alive.”

She explained that no one – not even the teachers – could live the lives of the high school’s students, but she instructs her staff to push them, not pity them.

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Strawberry Mansion High School is located within the 22nd police district

“They don’t need you as a friend, they need a teacher. Teach them and then they’ll be fine,” she said, citing a story of one educator who wanted to make excuses for a student who did not complete his homework due to family issues. Wayman said that since the student did not do his assignment, he got an F.

Less than 10 percent of students were meeting state benchmarks on standardized tests in 2012-2013, according to a school progress report.

On the day PhiladelphiaNeighborhoods.com came to Wayman’s office, she said she had already dealt with questions regarding pregnancy, homelessness and poverty. Yet, she still insists that her students can – and if she has anything to say about it – will persevere.

“Whether you make it in life or you don’t, it’s your story, so this is the beginning and this is the way life is. Your family created a life for you but you’ve only got to deal with that until you are 18, and then you create a life for yourself,” she said. “A lot of them do listen, and it’s such a beautiful thing when the light bulb goes and the light just shines and you go, ‘You know, I think he got it.’ And they’ll go, ‘You know, I think I’m gonna go to college Ms. Wayman. I think I’m gonna try that.'”

“We see progress in small steps and those are successes for us,” said Mack (below, left). “Our goal is one student at a time.”

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A Gift from Drake

When Wayman speaks of her student’s musical talent, her eyes light up with pride. As the alma mater of rapper Meek Mill, the high school has a strong music legacy. As a result of the Diane Sawyer special, current students now have a place to record their own music.

In the follow-up report to Sawyer’s visit, ABC aired the news that GrammyAaward-winning rapper Drake would be donating a recording studio to the school. He said he was touched by the school’s story.

“In the next few months I’m building a recording studio inside your school,” he announced proudly in the clip on ABC News. “This about you. This about your principal. This about your future. I love you. I care about you. I want to see you succeed.”

In the clip, Wayman can be easily seen shrieking with joy, surrounded by her students with broad smiles plastered across their faces.

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The recording studio is now operating, however the school has not yet found a proper teacher.

Senior Ira Purnell is eagerly awaiting the moment.

“I was in the auditorium, and it was like we got a studio sponsored by Drake and I said, ‘Oh yeah?’ And I was like I’ve got to get in that soon,” he said.

Purnell is a rapper. He says music appeals to him as a way to express his feelings.

“If I got something in my head I just let it go,” he said. “If I [have] a lot on my mind, I just want to rap.”

Tasha Bradford, a senior at Mansion, said that she has used the studio before with the help of the art instructor.

“It just needs a couple more things but other than that it’s fine to use,” she said. Bradford said that while she has never recorded her own music before, she believes that it will be a good experience to be able to learn once the studio opens.

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Mansion Fields a Football Team

In August of this year, the Strawberry Mansion varsity football team took the practice field for the first time in nearly 50 years.

When the season ended in October, they had only won a single game.

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“We didn’t win a lot, but it was more of an experience,” said senior player William White (left.) “Pride is the reason we didn’t quit. We just wanted to finish out the season, even if the record wasn’t that good. We just wanted to finish the season with our heads held high.”

The football program really began the year before, when the school fielded its first junior varsity team, which finished the season with an undefeated schedule.

But when varsity practices began this fall, the team suffered from a lack of players. After all, Mansion has always been more of a basketball school, said Athletic Director Evan Kramp.

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“We weren’t really sure where we were going to find everyone to be on the team,” Kramp said. “We don’t have a long history of a football program, so kids don’t automatically know to show up. Coach actually just drove around through the neighborhood finding kids.”

According to Football Coach Steven Quigley, when August rolled around, only four or five players turned out for practice.

“Our biggest issue this year is that we were outnumbered. Every game we went to the other team had more,” he said. At certain games, his team would have 15 players on their roster. The schools they played against had upwards of 40.

Many of the players who would show up to practices had no way of getting a physical examination from a doctor. A physical is required for students to participate in high school sports.

“We were able to reach out to a bunch of doctors at St. Christopher’s who came out and helped us, and they came out to give everyone free physicals,” Kramp said. “And we got some kids, but still not enough.”

In order to field a few more players, the school arranged for a second doctor visit in mid-September, which yielded some results.

“There are a lot of high points and there are a lot of challenges. We made it all the way through, we won one game, we had some close games and some not so close. But for us just being able to complete the season never having to forfeit was a victory in itself,” he said with a laugh.

Quigley explained that regardless of the record, the program did something important for the boys that participated.

“That was the whole idea, give the kids something they can do after school. That’s my mindset. I would love to have 50-60 boys and win every game, but if I only had 15 boys at practice, I knew they were at the field practicing football and they were not out on the corner somewhere,” he said.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Reed has been heavily involved with the restructuring process of the high school. He was asked why programs like the football team help students. 

White, who originally attended a different high school, cited football as the reason for his desire to attend Strawberry Mansion.

“When I first found out I was coming to Strawberry Mansion in the middle of the year, I didn’t really want to come because I heard all the bad stuff about it. But the same night before I had to go, we saw the interview with Diane Sawyer and I saw they had a football team. As soon as I heard that, I said ‘I have to go here,'” he said.

IMG_3944Due to the team’s size, White explained that there were some games in which he never left the field.

“Sometimes?” questioned fellow teammate Yhmir Sterling (right) with a laugh. “I never got off the field. That’s why they push us so hard in practice- keep going, keep fighting.”

Sterling said he found a certain camaraderie with his teammates throughout the year. He was chosen for the all-public football team this year, a team picked by coaches composed of the best players in the district. Sterling hopes to play football in college.

“I’m just glad to be a part of history,” he said.

“I just hope this program stays and maybe I can come to the games and watch them go to states and all that. I just hope that it keeps going,” added White.

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Quigley shares their sentiment.

“Short term, yes, the record might not look great, but I want to be able to look back thirty years in the future and say okay, this is where we were at and see where we are at now- just to build something that will last,” he said.

Quigley admits that the growth will be slow, but for now, the little victories will keep him hoping.

“We went through a lot of down times, a lot of losing, but to see the way they felt when they won and all the joy on their faces, that made it all worth it.”

– Text, video and images by Lizzy O’Laughlin and Cindy Stansbury

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