The innocent chatter of a group of elementary age children spills out of a colorful room filled with bookshelves and play mats. Dressed in smocks and wielding paintbrushes, they splash colors on to blank sheets of paper laid out on tables. In another room, an older group sits on the floor and listens intently to Common’s “I Have A Dream.” Heads nod in time to the beat. Next door is a computer room, where more children sit in front of the machines. Gently tapping on the keyboards, they watch their words pop up onscreen.
These brief snapshots are typical of an afternoon at this branch of the West Philadelphia Community Center, a white and red stone building that spans part of the 3500 block of Haverford Avenue in Philadelphia’s Mantua section.
“Right after school is definitely the craziest time of day here,” said Branon Gilmore, the Center’s Assistant Director.
Gilmore directs the after-school program and the summer camp, but the non-profit agency hosts a multitude of programs. From day care and an early learning center to a senior center and foster placement, the Center has woven itself within the fabric of its neighborhood. Nearly all those who utilize its services are longtime residents with strong family connections to Mantua.
“A lot of them are related to each other from the families that have lived here over the years,” said Gilmore, speaking of the kids in the after school program. “Some of the grandparents are still in the area.”
A neighborhood perhaps most noted for crime, Mantua bears the signs of a subtle revitalization. Cheap rent coupled with its proximity to Center City and the campuses of Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania have begun to attract college students.
Several Center staff believe the safe alternative of their facility’s programs is the main benefit for working parents in the area.
“It’s good for the families, for both single parents and two parents,” said After-School Program Coordinator Robin Choi. “The children are too young to stay at home by themselves, so it gives them a safe place to be.”
Each afternoon following dismissal from school, a herd of children ranging in age from five to thirteen stampede through this center’s front doors for two hours of creative supervision and homework help. Most of the children attend one of three schools within a two block radius of the community center, Gilmore said.
More than a neighborhood haven, the Center serves an obvious need for its younger residents with its daily tutoring. Mere blocks away on Fairmount Avenue sits McMichael Morton Middle School, whose students tested into the fifth and lowest quintile of the Philadelphia School District, according to the data in the “Report Card for Schools” issued nearly two years by the The Philadelphia Inquirer. Nearly 69 percent of fifth graders tested at basic and below basic levels in math. Eighty eight percent of fifth grade students tested at the same level in reading.
Gilmore confirmed the students’ struggle with these critical subjects.
“We’ve often found that a lot of students need help across the board with basic reading and math,” he said.
In an effort to increase literacy levels, this year journal writing was introduced into the program. “One of the things we’ve seen is that kids will write more if they’re used to writing,” said Gilmore. “So outside of their actual homework, we have them keep journals.”
Student volunteers from schools like Saint Joseph’s University are an enormous asset to the after school program. The West Philadelphia Community Center also partners with Drexel and Penn to bring children in the program onto those campuses for college visits.
Gilmore hopes such examples inspire those children who thunder through the building each afternoon. He said that of the children who pass through the after-school program, there is a higher rate of graduation. Choi would like to see more people in the neighborhood take advantage of such opportunities given by the community center.
“It doesn’t play as an extensive role as it could,” she said. “But the people who use it will and do benefit from it.”
Those children who do spend their precious after school hours in the program are its pulse, supported by a network of devoted counselors and volunteers. A busy February has been spent preparing projects and planning field trips for Black History Month. Handmade posters celebrating people from George Washington Carver to Condoleeza Rice decorate a hallway where a verse written by Langston Hughes has been painted on the wall:
“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”