In 2013, Roberts Vaux Junior High at 2300 Master St. in North Philadelphia shut down amid a wave of school closures.
In 2016, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) bought the school building from the School District of Philadelphia. One year later, the school reopened its doors as Vaux Big Picture High School as part of a neighborhood revitalization effort led by PHA.
PHA has partnered with the District, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and Big Picture Philadelphia, which is a part of the national Big Picture Learning Network network that serves promising youth in more than 50 schools nationwide, to manage and operate the school.
“What is unique about Vaux is that you have four entities partnering together to provide the best opportunities for our students, their families, and the community,” said principal Marla Travis. “Our goal is to have our students take ownership of not just their education and future careers, but also their lives.”
Vaux boasts an advisory model where students meet daily over their four years with their advisor (teacher) and 17 peers. The advisors will move with the students throughout each year of high school.
On Wednesdays, students go offsite with their advisory groups and advisors for real world learning visits. During these visits, students must take notes and are encouraged to ask questions. They will present what they learned in a presentation to their classmates, advisors, and families.
“We call the teachers advisors because not only do they provide instruction to our students, but they also serve as mentors,” said director of culture Darryl Johnson. “Seventy minutes a day, our advisors are meeting with students to talk about life and mentor them through the high school process.
“We have a format where we do journaling and students reflect on their experiences. We also have a circle environment where the advisor and students talk about different topics. It’s all about making sure the students have everything they need to support themselves academically.
“At Vaux, we don’t just care about students’ academics, but we also care about their emotional state of mind,” he added. “We believe that social emotional intelligence is underrated in our community and we tap into that at our school. We care about our children, not just as students, but as people. We want to make sure they’re prepared for the world academically, socially, and emotionally and that they’re ready to face the challenges that the world has to offer.”
Vaux utilizes a project-based academic approach across all classrooms and through each student’s individualized Learning Through Internship experience from grades 10th through 12th.
“What sets us apart from other schools is that we offer an internship component that is not just geared toward a select amount of seniors,” said school design coach Matt Prochnow. “At the end of their ninth grade year, students choose a concentration are in which they’re going to pursue an internship in when they’re a sophomore. A lot of our students come in with a limited sense of what’s possible by what they’ve experienced or what people in their family have experienced.
“We encourage them to do some research, network, and to find a place alongside their advisor to do their off campus learning. A lot of our kids want to be doctors, veterinarians, lawyers, or athletes and we want to expose them to a wider variety of things.
“Our students are coming to us with some skill gaps, but they’re also coming to us with engagement issues, they don’t want school.,” he added. “We’re building a different idea of what school can be through an internship program. We’re engaging students based around their own passions and interests.”
Outside of the classroom, Vaux offers students a variety of programs, activities, and clubs outside the classroom. Students can participate in numerous sports like track or basketball or be a part of student council or the dance team.
“I play basketball for Vaux and it’s been great so far,” said freshman Deyshon Miller. “I’ve learned a lot from my coach. He’s taught me how to be a better basketball player and how to get the best out of my practices. Under his guidance, I know I’m only going to get better as a player.”
Sophomore Kevin Johnson is one of many students at Vaux who has started their own club.
“The name of my club is the Gender Sexuality Alliance and I started this club because I felt kids like me didn’t really have a place at school where we can be who we are,” Kevin said. “The club is for everyone and it’s a safe place to express ourselves and support one another.
“We have meetings where we talk about different situations going on in the LGBT community,” he added. “We also talk about our own personal experiences. While the club just started a couple months ago, my hope is that the club will continue to grow and inspire other students.”