Prosecutor, principal save Strawberry Mansion High

GABRIELA BARRANTES / DAILY NEWS STAFF Dan O'Brien (left), a city deputy managing director, with Deacon Billy Thompson in Faith Temple Church of God. Thompson is getting neighbors to put up lights on their blocks that will shine every night.
GABRIELA BARRANTES / DAILY NEWS STAFF Dan O'Brien (left), a city deputy managing director, with Deacon Billy Thompson in Faith Temple Church of God. Thompson is getting neighbors to put up lights on their blocks that will shine every night.
Posted: January 29, 2014

FEDERAL prosecutor Robert Reed spent 40 years putting violent young criminals in prison for life.

Linda Cliatt-Wayman spent 30 years teaching and administering in Philadelphia public schools, trying to save as many kids as she could from ending up in front of prosecutors like Reed, or worse, from sudden death on the streets of Strawberry Mansion.

Reed was passionate about prosecution. In U.S. v. Larry Johnson and Ronnie Robinson, he got both defendants sentenced to 117 years without parole for several 1994 armed carjackings that included torture and sexual assault.

He successfully prosecuted 61 members of the "OK Corral" cocaine gangs that terrorized Hunting Park in the '80s. Nine defendants were convicted of murder.

Wayman is as fervent about saving young students as Reed was about imprisoning young criminals.

Until 2012, Reed and Wayman lived in such different worlds that they'd never met.

And then they did. And Strawberry Mansion High hasn't been the same since.

The students, 97 percent of whom are African-American, are still 100 percent economically disadvantaged and 36 percent "academically disabled."

But since Wayman took over, although enrollment has increased from 366 to 445 students, assaults per school year have dropped from 26 to nine, and weapons incidents dropped from eight to three.

The school is off the state's "persistently dangerous schools" list for the first time since 2008-09.

'This ain't no school'

When Wayman took over Strawberry Mansion High in September 2012, its fourth principal in four years, "There was a sense in the entire building of 'We don't care about nothing,' " she said.

"The kids loitered in the halls, smoking weed, cursing everybody out, fighting. Somebody said, 'Why do you keep calling this a school? This ain't no school.' "

Wayman reached out to Dan O'Brien, a city deputy managing director who runs PhillyRising's Strawberry Mansion revitalization program. He told her he knew this guy, a prosecutor with a heart of gold, who might help. A guy named Rob Reed.

By then, Reed's focus had shifted from the courtroom to the city's most dangerous high schools. He and his boss, U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger, were trying to stop the school-to-prison pipeline through anti-bullying, student-run youth court and anti-violence programs.

Reed came to Strawberry Mansion High buoyed by program successes in Germantown and Kensington - and ran into a brick wall.

"Rob Reed brought in an anti-bullying program, which was a disaster," Wayman said. "The kids laughed at him like this was a joke. These kids had no empathy for another person. They had no hope for anything. Their attitude shook him up."

Reed said, "I thought I was going to jump out the window. Because of my years as federal prosecutor, I was not naive, thinking I'm going to change the world in one fell swoop.

"But these were 25 ninth-graders so dug in to the belief that their lives could not be changed, that they could not make positive choices, that there was no reason for hope. It was depressing."

But Reed has a prosecutor's belief that tough battles can be won, and Wayman has a preacher's faith in redemption, so together, they fought on.

"I put a system of non-negotiable rules in place that stopped the chaos," Wayman said. "Of course, it almost killed me."

No hoodies. No cellphones. No fighting. Wayman put up "Forbidden Stairwell" signs on the students' favorite hangouts and told them, "You touch this, automatic suspension."

And Wayman, the mother of all mother hens, delivered daily torrents of tough love with gospel fervor over the loudspeakers.

"I scream, 'Joseph? Are you in the classroom, Joseph? Bruce? You got your books, Bruce?' They enjoy me calling them out by name, telling them, 'I love you guys.' And I like them telling me, 'I got it now, Wayman.' "

But then, just four months after she became principal, the Philadelphia School District announced that it was closing Strawberry Mansion High.

"I almost fainted," Wayman said. "They had just closed Rhodes and FitzSimons high schools, and moved those students to Mansion. Now they wanted to close Mansion?"

'Every principal was crying'

At a meeting of principals from the 37 public schools targeted for closure, Wayman held up a neighborhood crime map and told Superintendent William Hite, "These black dots represent the deaths of kids that should be in my school. How are you going to close my school?"

Wayman told the Daily News, "Not a dry eye in the place. Every principal was crying."

She and Reed launched a shoe-leather campaign to save Strawberry Mansion High.

"Most principals thought I was crazy," Wayman said. "They told me, 'Don't mobilize people to protest.' I said, 'If they fire me, they fire me. I can't let them close it.' "

Reed privately pleaded his case before Hite, and before City Council President Darrell Clarke.

Wayman enlisted community leaders Tonya Parker and Donnell Tillery to walk the streets of Strawberry Mansion with her, knocking on doors, getting residents out to a meeting with school district officials that would determine the fate of Strawberry Mansion High.

"I got them at the bus stop, the supermarket, on food lines," Parker said. "I lost two of my sons to street violence. I knew how important saving the high school was."

Wayman said 200 Mansion parents packed the meeting, where she told district officials, "I am surrounded by charters which don't take kids like mine. Every experiment you've tried in North Philly, you've tried with my kids. Lots of them are dead."

Hite took Strawberry Mansion High off the closure list in February. That freed Wayman and Reed to:

* Create a youth court in which, instead of suspensions for nonviolent offenses, defendants were sentenced by a student judge and jury to community service, and remained in school.

* Create a wildly popular culinary program in the school's state-of-the-art kitchen, which had been unused for a year after a cooking teacher quit and wasn't replaced.

"We now have a fabulous teacher," Wayman said. "Students make lunch there for the staff."

* Create a filmmaking program where students wrote, acted in and shot "Mourning at Night," about a senseless killing at a local basketball game.

* Create Strawberry Mansion High's first-ever football team, an undefeated junior varsity squad that will become a varsity team this fall, so players can be eligible for college athletic scholarships.

Cartridge on his desk

Like the high school, said city Managing Director Richard Negrin, the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood is on the rise.

"I have a live cartridge on my desk that Dan O'Brien found while we did a PhillyRising cleanup on vacant land across from the high school last year," Negrin said. "That's a place where kids always played.

"It's a hollow point," he said, "so it spreads open when it makes contact, forms claws as it moves through the body and creates carnage. It looks like it was fired, jammed inside the gun and was ejected into the soil. I keep it on my desk to remind me of what surrounds our kids as they play in troubled communities."

Today, the land where O'Brien found the bullet is a huge community garden that Suku John of the East Park Revitalization Alliance built last summer with sweat equity from Negrin, O'Brien, Reed and neighborhood residents.

Using thousands of dollars of lumber and top soil donated by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, they built 45 raised beds - 30 for residents' vegetable gardens and 15 for Strawberry Mansion High students to grow food for the culinary program.

O'Brien continues to energize the neighborhood by networking with its shoestring heroes, who do big things with little money:

* Markel McCoy lives on Natrona Street alongside the vegetable garden and keeps things watered and healthy.

* Deacon Billy Thompson of Faith Temple Church of God, on Cumberland Street near 32nd, moved the pulpit out onto the street last summer because, he said, "We need to come outside our comfort zone and let people know what we are doing."

What Thompson is doing, said Denise Jackman, who lives nearby on Douglas Street, is getting residents to put up lights and a star on their blocks that will shine every night through National Night Out on Aug. 6, telling the city that Strawberry Mansion supports community policing and peace on the streets.

* In what used to be his mom's corner bar at 30th Street and Dauphin, Kevin Upshur, a Youth Study Center counselor, self-funds his Strawberry Mansion Community Learning Center, where kids drop in six days a week to do homework on donated computers, guided by student volunteers from Strawberry Mansion High.

Reflecting on the changes she's seen since taking over in 2012, Wayman said, "I love these children. If I couldn't see any glimmer of hope, it would be too depressing to stay here."

She's staying.

"Some of my students are kids nobody else wants," she said. "They tell me, 'I've been incarcerated, I've been to Glen Mills, I've been thrown out of charter schools.' I tell them, 'Welcome to Last Chance High School. But, really, welcome.' "


On Twitter: @DanGeringer

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