Education: Nonprofits Provide Opportunities for Philadelphia Youths

Vaux Community Building
The former Roberts Vaux High School, located at 2300 Master Street.

Text by Ella Lathan. Image by Kendra Franklin.

Mighty Writers, a nonprofit after-school program that began in 2009 in South Philadelphia, was already a successful operation serving hundreds of young people before the School District of Philadelphia closed 24 public schools in 2013. The organization has since grown to have locations all over the city and beyond.

“When I look back at those school closings, it wasn’t a direct connection at the time,” said Mighty Writers executive director Tim Whitaker. “But Mighty Writers grew dramatically during that period.”

Mighty Writers, like many other nonprofit after-school programs, saw an influx of students after the wake of school closures. Many social service programs were lost during this period, especially after-school, or out-of-school time programs, where students learn many skills to flourish in an ever-changing society.

Scholars, researchers, community activists and police administrators believe that if youth can be engaged in after-school activities, their likelihood of ending up in the juvenile system is much lower. 

“We definitely do need to get back to those after-school programs, because the majority of [violence] is [after] dismissal time,” said Sylvester Lolley, director of administrations at The Institute of Development for African American Youth (IDAAY). “The more we can keep them engaged or in classes, I think we run a better chance of reducing or mitigating the violence.”

IDAAY, founded in 1991 by S. Archye Leacock, is a nonprofit dedicated to students’ well-being and success, not just in an academic sense but also on a human level. The organization expanded offerings from around 20 programs to 45 in 2013, said James Washington Communications Director at IDAAY.

The rise of charter schools

The school shutdowns came at a time when charter schools were beginning to take over cities across the country. Charter schools were originally established in 1991 in Minnesota. Philadelphia started seeing charter schools in 1997. By the early 2000s, then president George W. Bush helped push the charter school movement even farther.

“A large part of the story is about the rise of charter schools and school choice in Philadelphia,” said Justin Ennis, the director of the nonprofit organization After School Partnership Activities (ASAP), “and the impact that has on the District and its ability to control its financial wherewithal in the short-term and the long-term.”

Under-enrollment and poor test scores in public schools across the city, as well as the federal support of the charter school model, opened the doors to this new form of education that has limited oversight from the District.

Losing community hubs

“Schools – and particularly neighborhood public schools – are meant to be and have been an anchor in so many of these communities,” said Ennis. “They act as a community hub for a number of things.”

Community fosters a sense of belonging for students, which helps with their successful development.

“The reason our name is ASAP is that there’s always been a sense of urgency to our work,” Ennis explained. “There was an opportunity to assert that kids’ connection to their school is of vital importance to their academic performance and sense of well-being. If we can’t preserve that by keeping the schools open, we have to find other ways to preserve that.”

The school closures happened rather abruptly, which led to a sense of urgency for many parents, teachers, and administrators alike to help students acclimate to a completely new environment. 

“When they move to a new school, we’re also recognizing that these new schools are not going to be flush with resources to accommodate the incoming students,” Ennis continued. “After-school programs could be a way of just integrating bringing these two groups together, allowing kids to continue to do the things that they love, but also getting to meet their new peers.”

ASAP, which launched in 2002, was able to expand programming to many schools that they were not previously connected, but it also demanded that its programs change to adapt to this new circumstance. ASAP was not the only one. 

IDAAY also saw an influx of students after the 2013 school closures, and they had to adapt to the new situation. 

“We had to adjust our time for programming,” explained Lolley. “Instead of them being at a school within our area or around the corner, they were at a school in Frankford, but they lived in North Philly, or whatever the case may be.”

Lolley explained that the school closures also raised truancy rates because students would not feel safe traveling to school. 

“If I lived on this side of Broad Street, and now I have to travel to that side of the street, I don’t get along with that side of the street,” said Lolley. “But now that’s where my school is. That causes them to carry weapons because now they have to travel over that side. And then the ones who didn’t travel just didn’t go to school.”

Despite the high truancy rates, young people still attended IDAAY programs, which are court-ordered.

“The parents and the teachers can’t do it all by themselves,” said Lolley. “It takes a village of community policing, police departments, parents, the schools, and the neighborhood. I know when I was growing up and my neighbors saw me on the corner, they gonna get me and then take me to my mom. Nowadays, it’s none of that.”

Stepping up to guide youths

Other programs across the city have seen changes in numerous ways. For example, Whitaker explained there is even a different energy between the schools and the Mighty Writers after-school programs. 

“In the early days, we would get calls from teachers in the District saying, ‘We want to send over Mark or this guy because they really need help,’” Whitaker explained. “The other thing they would say is, ‘They have real potential.’ We get no calls like that anymore. None. This School District and the teachers are just overwhelmed. Getting through the day is a challenge.” 

Whitaker described that teachers are feeling discouraged, and many are quitting. This is not acceptable for the short or long-term, he said. 

James Washington underscores the importance of IDAAY programming and seeing youth for what they are – children who are in need of guidance.

“We’re looking at them as criminals,” he said. “We have to realize they’re adolescents. Most of the stuff that they’re going through is because of the cultural challenges they’re facing. The traveling to school, the educational disparities, the homelessness, the hunger. They can’t control it. They are children. Our programs are so important for at-risk youth because they provide intervention methods to youth who just need that second chance to return to society.”

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