Nicetown-Tioga: With Failing Schools, Kids Find Help

Mercy Family Center is North Philadelphia's first green building.

In the concrete jungle of North Philadelphia, amid the broken sidewalks, fading stop signs and aging brownstones, stands a refreshingly out-of-place building. Its small garden peels back from the sidewalks of the quiet block. The refurbished warehouse and former conveyor belt storage unit no longer looks like the industrial building it once was. Instead, the bright rainbow colored “children’s entrance” announces the positive environment that is Mercy Family Community Center.

“We’re just a hidden secret, but we don’t want to be hidden,” said child-care director Barbara Coleman. “The community knows about it, but we want Philadelphia, we want Pennsylvania to know about us.”

Mercy Family Center is North Philadelphia's first green building.
Mercy Family Center is North Philadelphia's first green building.

Though enrollment is up, and the community of Tioga has come to rely on the center, the rest of the city doesn’t seem to notice.

For the children of Nicetown-Tioga and Allegheny West getting ignored by the city is nothing new. In a district of failing schools, the community depends on outside organizations for basic education and extracurricular activities that most public schools provide.

Tutoring, art classes, health and wellness programs, PSSA test practice and computer education are some of the activities provided on a regular basis by Mercy Family Center and other outside groups, such as Education Works, the Nicetown Boys and Girls Club and Safe Haven.

“A lot of times people come in to the neighborhood and see kids on the corner, but we have productive members in the community who don’t get recognized,” said Nicetown block captain Barbara Ledbetter. “Kids who are less fortunate or who used to be problem kids are benefitting from these programs.”

The active block captains of Nicetown, who meet every Wednesday, have named kids programs as one of the most important issues in the neighborhood. And while they realize the opportunities that these organizations are creating for children, they want more to be done.

Perhaps the most important change that needs to be made is improving the state of public schools in Nicetown, Tioga and Allegheny West.

As part of the No Child Left Behind Act, every school must make Annual Yearly Progress, which is known as AYP. This standard is based on school attendance, which includes graduation rates; academic performance measured by standardized tests and participation on those tests.

Philadelphia School District has consistently missed the AYP every year since testing began in 2003. Though most schools in Nicetown-Tioga have been less consistent in missing the AYP than the school district overall, only Cleveland Grover Elementary in 2006 and 2007 and Steel Edward Elementary in 2007 and 2009 made the AYP.

Pennsylvania also requires standardizes tests in math, reading, science and writing to measure the level of achievement of each child. Though standardized tests are arguably not the most effective way to test children, these tests do provide a good indicator of school performance.

Looking at the average scores of all the public schools in the Nicetown-Tioga area in 2009, in all categories the majority of students fell into the lowest percentile, below basic, except for writing, in which 55.8 percent of students were in the basic category. Less than 12 percent of students achieved advanced status in any of the four tests. Not one child reached the advanced level in writing. Science also lagged in the advanced category with only 2.7 percent of children reaching that percentile.

“The schools are just awful,” Coleman said. “I’ve seen nothing but deterioration since I started teaching.”

Originally from South Carolina, Coleman came north to teach in Philadelphia public schools, starting in Strawberry Mansion. She retired to take the director position at the Mercy Center.

"Transforming lives one child at a time" is Mercy Family Center's motto.
"Transforming lives one child at a time" is Mercy Family Center's motto.

Coleman is open to working with the teachers and administrators of area schools, but they call her most often for contact information of students’ family members.

“We have all that information because of our Keystone Stars accreditation,” Coleman said. “But how do the schools not have it? They don’t do enough to work with parents.”

Keystone Stars is a Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare initiative created in 2004 that promotes quality improvement in early childcare and school-age environments. The program provides guidelines for schools and organizations that work with children based on a four star system. Mercy Family Center is a Star 2.

More than 30 Keystone Star accredited programs for early childcare exist in the Nicetown-Tioga and Allegheny West communities, including the Nicetown Boys and Girls Club.

The Club was established in 1906 and continues to be a stabilizing presence in the community. The center has two locations in the area that provide programs in nearly every subject matter: sports and recreation, life and leadership skills, nutrition and health, drug and alcohol awareness.

The club has taken on several roles in the community. In addition to providing programs to address kids academic, recreational and everyday needs, the club also provides volunteer opportunities for kids and childcare for working parents.

Boys and Girls Clubs exist all over the city, but the Nicetown chapter is one of the oldest. Another well-known program throughout the city is Education Works, a non-profit, educational improvement agency that is certified by the state. In the Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood, the agency handles the after-school programs at Cleveland and Steel elementary schools. Every program includes homework help, performance and visual arts activities and social development initiatives, such as conflict resolution. Education Works relies on AmeriCorps participants.

Education, crime and economics are tied together, a correlation illustrated by the communities of Nicetown-Tioga and Allegheny West. Based on 2000 Census data these neighborhoods are below the national average in graduation rates and bachelor’s degrees, 65.8 and 16.4 percent respectively, compared to the U.S. average of 80.4 and 24.4 percent.

Families and individuals living below the poverty line comprise a higher percent of the population than the U.S. average. Families living in poverty comprise 25.5 percent of the community in Nicetown-Tioga and Allegheny West. In the U.S. this percent is 9.4 percent.

The community is grappling with a crippling trinity of interrelated social problems. Perhaps the innovative Mercy Family Center is the start of a new era, a symbol of the direction the community is headed.

The building is the first LEED-certified, green facility in North Philadelphia, and a long way from where they came. At 19th and Tioga streets, the previous center was leased from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and was falling into disrepair.

Mercy Family Center relocated from a deteriorating building on 19th and Tioga streets.
Mercy Family Center relocated from a deteriorating building on 19th and Tioga streets.

“We’re very pleased with [the new building] because where we came from… the building deteriorated,” Colemand said. “They refused to repair anything in the building…it was like the archdiocese really didn’t care.” So we knew…it was time for us to make a move. We knew we needed the space; we needed to expand our programs.”

The new space at 19th and Venango streets was a former warehouse that had been abandoned.

“Sometime in the early ‘90s it was no longer used as a warehouse and shortly thereafter the building was used as storage for a conveyor belt company,” Executive Director Ann Provost Provost said. “When we looked at the building there were conveyor belts laying all over.”

Today the conveyor belts are gone and have been replaced by smiling children, loving staff and community members and a will to succeed despite the challenges.

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