Al Jazeera America
Al Jazeera America

Obama’s Promise Zone both a boon and challenge for West Philly nonprofit

Mighty Writers tries to combat illiteracy in Mantua, where nearly a third of adults don’t have a high school diploma

Editor’s note: This story is part of our ongoing coverage of the Promise Zone section of West Philadelphia. Read about the Promise Zone neighborhood of Mantua here, and Funeral for a Home, an event to commemorate the neighborhood’s history and prepare for its redevelopment, here.

PHILADELPHIA  — With only a week left in the school year, Annette John-Hall was having a tough time getting her third- and fourth-graders to focus on today’s lesson: imagery and metaphors. “My hair is like a woolly crown,” the former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist gave as an example, and asked them to come up with more.

“My baseball hits are better than Babe Ruth’s?” asked Lawrence.

The class was not quite getting it yet.

“I’m funnier than [Marvel villain] Deadpool,” Amir wrote on the paper in front of him.  Then, at last, Robert called out: “My report card is as good as bacon!”

Mighty Writers is wrapping up its first school year at its newest location in West Philadelphia on the corner of 39th Street and Lancaster Avenue, right in the heart of an area designated a Promise Zone by President Barack Obama earlier this year. The designation doesn’t provide any funding on its own, but community groups in the area will be given technical assistance as well as priority when applying for federal aid over the next 10 years.

A child’s course in life should not be determined by the ZIP code she’s born in, the president said in his announcement of the initiative, the aim of which is to select high-poverty communities across the country and help local leaders attract private investment and tap into federal resources to create jobs, build economic activity, improve educational opportunities and reduce crime and violence.

“What we understand the Promise Zone to mean is if we can find a government grant that we qualify for — which is not an easy task — supposedly the red tape is cut and we’re put at the front of the line,” said Tim Whitaker, a veteran journalist and editor himself who founded Mighty Writers in 2009.

Whitaker started the program to combat the city’s illiteracy epidemic by opening bright, energetic, superhero-filled centers to teach young Philadelphians how to write. The original location is in South Philadelphia, and year-round workshops range from sports writing to writing about food and etiquette. In order to write clearly, the Mighty Writers thinking goes, you need to think clearly. And when you think clearly you make good life decisions. In addition to the after-school academy and intensive workshops, the organization offers teen programs and SAT prep and college essay classes, all designed to build both writing skills and self-esteem.

“The kids definitely feel like they have safe space to learn but also be themselves,” said Maya Francis, who teaches the after-school writing academy for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Mighty Writers West Philly. “They learn their voice, whether that’s a writing voice or speaking their minds.”

In May, Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities named Mighty Writers one of 50 outstanding programs across the country. It seems to be working in a neighborhood that could use some success stories.

A 2009 report by the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board titled “Help Wanted” stated that more than half (52.2%) of Philadelphia’s adults are “low literate,” meaning they struggle to follow written instructions or complete paperwork such as a job application or child’s school enrollment. Moreover, that same group competes for only a third of available jobs in today’s economy. In Philadelphia, that means 550,000 adults for roughly 211,000 low-skill jobs.

While Philadelphia suffers the highest poverty rate — at 28 percent —  of big U.S. cities, in the Mantua neighborhood, where Mighty Writers West Philly is located, problems of poverty, unemployment and low education are even more concentrated. The median household income is less than $17,000, according to American Community Survey census data. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent — nearly double the citywide rate.

Students at Morton McMichael, the local public elementary and middle school, are 98 percent low income, according to the Philadelphia school district. Last school year, only 26 percent tested proficient or above in math and 24 percent in reading, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Based on standardized-test scores, Morton McMichael ranked 1,467 out of 1,469 elementary schools in Pennsylvania, and 734 out of 745 middle schools in the state.

The numbers aren’t too surprising given that nearly a third of adults in Mantua don’t have a high school diploma, and only 4 percent have a bachelor’s degree. And yet two large, prestigious universities — the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University — are just a short walk away. 

Parents do care

Mighty Writer Amir Smith, 9, and volunteer Dawn Warden-Reeder look up the definition of "vision," a word Amir is going to have to use correctly in a sentence.
Al Jazeera America

When it comes to inner-city kids and low test scores, fingers often get pointed at the parents.

But John-Hall said the stereotype that poor parents don’t care about or aren’t involved in their kids’ education couldn’t be further from the truth.

“They have the desire, but they don’t have the knowledge and resources to navigate the system. And then they have all kinds of forces working against them,” John-Hall said, adding that many parents in the neighborhood don’t have cars, or sometimes Internet or even a cellphone. “Everything is doubly difficult when you’re poor and you’ve had an inferior education yourself.”

Originally from Berkeley, California, John-Hall worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 19 years before she took a buyout last year. She admits she used to believe that about parents herself.

“I think I had that stereotype. I understood the reasoning behind it,” she said — for example, a lot are single parents working two jobs. “But that’s not true with the Mighty Writers parents. A lot of them work, that’s true. But they find the time to do the research and enroll kids in programs that supplement their education. They’re there for their children. They pick them up. They ask questions. Every parent came to our Christmas party. Not only are they involved, they are really involved.”

She said she’s also learned that “all children are capable of learning if they get resources and they get the right attention.” 

Earlier in the year, she said, a concerned mother called to exempt her son from the program’s spelling bee. The mom rattled off a list of diagnoses her son had been given, including ADHD, dyslexia and anxiety.

“We already had the spelling bee,” John-Hall told the mother, “and he came in second.”

A volunteer had sat with him and gone over the words again and again before the bee. “We have the luxury of having enough volunteers to provide enough one-on-one instruction to teach writing the way it’s supposed to be taught,” she said.

Keeping the promise

Now the Promise Zone designation may prove an unexpected boost to Mighty Writers in West Philadelphia. The group, which costs about $175,000 a year to run, applied for its first federal grant last week, and Whitaker hopes the Promise Zone location helps its secure the grant.

If it’s selected, the NEA Challenge America Fast-Track grant, which is intended to extend the reach of the arts to underserved populations, would give Mighty Writers $10,000 to bring local and national writers to West Philly to talk to kids about the importance of writing. “The Promise Zone designation was not part of the application, though we made mention of it prominently,” said Whitaker. “In theory, Promise Zone requests might get added consideration because the need is so great.”

But the location still presents serious challenges.

“Running a nonprofit is a high-wire act in the best of circumstances,” said Whitaker. “And when you have locations in what are perceived as really hard-pressed neighborhoods, I think it’s that much more difficult because people — foundations and philanthropists — typically don’t pass by, they’re not visible, they’re perceived as dangerous places to go. So it’s hard to get visitors.”

Several of the kids at Mighty Writers are homeless, referred to the program by the People’s Emergency Center, a neighborhood institution that provides emergency and transitional housing to single mothers and their kids.

“They come to us for a time and then they relocate, and we don’t have any continuity with some of those kids,” said Whitaker. The parents are just as committed, he adds, but have fewer tools to help their kids along.

“The greater the poverty, the more difficult the challenge,” he said. “You’re dealing with issues like nutrition and sleep deprivation and all those stresses.”

But the success stories are undeniable, even if they often seem like small steps.

Elaina Howard, 32, picks up her three daughters, ages 8, 10 and 13, from Mighty Writers each afternoon. Howard said she enrolled them in the program to supplement their schooling at Henry C. Lea public elementary and Freire Charter schools.

“I wasn’t looking for just a babysitter,” she said. “I wanted an environment where they can actually learn and grow and do things.”

She wanted a safe space for her oldest daughter, Ladeeah, to open up a bit with new peers and build confidence. For Rachey and Elise, she wanted some extra attention and support for their reading and writing. She felt they weren’t self-motivated enough.

So on a recent day trip to Washington, D.C., Howard was pleased to turn around and see Elise, her youngest, sitting quietly in her bus seat, legs crossed, reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw.”

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