Strawberry Mansion High, Once One of US's Most Dangerous Schools, Receives Hope, Help

Philadelphia high school was one of the most dangerous schools in the U.S.

December 3, 2013, 1:18 PM

Dec. 4, 2013— -- Strawberry Mansion High School, where 94 security cameras line the hallways and metal detectors are posted at every door, was once considered one of the most dangerous schools in the country.

Located in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood with a high crime rate, Strawberry Mansion consistently appeared on Pennsylvania's "Persistently Dangerous Schools" list.

But for the first time in six years, that's no longer the case.

"We're off the 'Persistently Dangerous' list. We're very happy about that," said Principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman. "So we know we have a system in place that can curtail the violence. We know that."

In a special ABC News "Hidden America" report on the school that aired in May, Diane Sawyer and ABC News producers followed the daily lives of the school's students and faculty, including its new principal, during the 2012-2013 school year.

School officers said they watched for razor blades in tin foil and knives in backpacks. Some students had to empty their pockets before being cleared to go to class.

It was Cliatt-Wayman's first year as principal -- the fourth principal for the high school in as many years.

When ABC News' special report aired, there had been 49 incidents during the school year, from fires to teacher attacks, reported in or near the school. ABC News cameras captured students brawling in the cafeteria and being bullied, as well as students who shared their dreams of going to college, but couldn't afford to.

But after the special, a tidal wave of generosity from viewers helped breathe new life into Strawberry Mansion. Money donated by viewers helped to pay for school uniforms and to provide 13 scholarships for seniors heading off to college, as well as basic necessities that were missing at Strawberry Mansion, including books, notebooks and calculators.

How To Help Strawberry Mansion High

ABC News went back to Strawberry Mansion for the first few months of the 2013-2014 school year, and caught up with students and faculty -- Principal Cliatt-Wayman is back for a second year.

It is a school that is still close to the edge. Brutal fights break out at times and citywide budget cuts have made an impact. There are fewer teachers this year, and class sizes have doubled. Fewer guards and police patrol the hallways.

"It's very hard, guys opening up these schools with no people. ... We still can't cover the floors," she said. "When they get revved up, they'll realize that there's nobody, and that's what I'm worried about."

ABC News also checked back with a few of the students who were profiled in our May report. Christine, a graduating senior at the time, had been accepted to Philadelphia University but couldn't afford to go. After the special aired, the university waived her tuition.

Malaysia, the freshman who said she was bullied a lot, is now a sophomore at Mansion trying to stay on track. Razzaq, another freshman last year who took great pride in his Junior ROTC uniform, left the school and is now living outside Philadelphia with his father. Although he is no longer her student, Cliatt-Wayman still mentors him.

There are signs of hope and vitality. For the first time in the school's 62-year history, it has a football team, the Strawberry Mansion Knights.

"It just reminds people that we're here and that we're legitimate and that we're still a school, we're still running and we still have a lot to offer to all of our students in this neighborhood, in this community," said Evan Kramp, who was a new history teacher last year.

The Knights suffered a setback when their quarterback was suspended, but sophomore Jyquan stepped up and played quarterback and running back. The team was undefeated in their first season.

"Football keeps me out of trouble. ... I ain't thinking about the streets or nobody else. I'm just thinking about football," he said. "But now since football season's over, I'm just going to the gym every day, lift weights, get bigger for my 12th grade year next year, because like I'm trying to go to a good college."

After the ABC News special aired, Grammy-winning hip-hop artist Drake reached out to see how he could help.

"I caught this piece that Diane did and I was like by the end of it I was so heavily affected that at the end I started questioning like major aspects of my life," Drake said. "It just really changed a lot about me."

So when Drake's world tour landed in Philadelphia, he met with Mansion students at the concert hall. For a school that didn't have the funding for a choir teacher last year, Drake gave them a huge surprise.

"I wanted to let you know that in the next few months I'm building a recording studio inside your school so anybody that's interested in music, you know anybody that wants to rap, sing. I want to encourage you, I want to encourage you to utilize that facility and try to make whatever dreams you have to come true," he told them.

Cliatt-Wayman remains dedicated to making Strawberry Mansion a better school. At the Pennsylvania Conference for Women last month, she gave the keynote address, alongside Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright, in which she talked about the struggles at Mansion and said "this nation must invest in the education of all its children, if they are going to remain the wealthiest country on earth."

"When I was asked to participate in this conference, I first thought it was not real. Why would anybody want me to speak in the same forum as Hillary Clinton, I am only a principal," she said.

But the 6,000 people listening to her speech gave her a standing ovation.

Cliatt-Wayman's message is about reality, which she knows resonates outside her world, and she won't stop motivating her students to hope for success.

"I might not be able to get them into Harvard. I may not, you know, be able give them anything materialistic, but I can give them some hope, and God, don't underestimate the power of hope," she said. "Because when children have hope, they can succeed."

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