One Program, Four Thousand Students, And A Mission To Make Philadelphia The ‘Capital Of Youth Literacy’

Story by David Fulmer
Photos by Brae Howard

The front door of the building on the corner of 15th and Christian streets in South Philly swings wide in a sudden burst and three grade-schoolers hurry inside, their faces bright and smiles wide and giddy, as if racing to play. In fact, they’re racing to write. They are three of the over four thousand students enrolled in Mighty Writers, an after-school program dedicated to teaching young people writing skills.

In 2009, when Mighty Writers’ doors first opened, directors Tim Whitaker and Rachel Loeper didn’t think that many children would show up, at least for a while, and they assumed they would be hearing only the sounds of the clock ticking and crickets chirping. They also considered the possibility that no one would come at all.

“Everyone said that it would take a year or two to get anywhere,” Whitaker says. After all, what could be the prospects for teaching the craft of writing to kids of seven to seventeen, asking them to dedicate their after-school hours to words, of all things? But they had planted their flag and were in it for the long haul.

As it turned out, it wasn’t long at all. The response was immediate. “There was a rush right from the start,” Loeper says. And the year that followed proved that the program was no flash in the pan. It kept growing. “We were mostly trying to keep ahead of the demand,” she says.

As Whitaker explains it, the program succeeded – and succeeds – because of the need. “No one is teaching writing any more. The schools concentrate primarily on math, science, and standardized tests. But what good is being a science or math whiz if you can’t communicate your findings?”

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An afternoon at Mighty Writers begins with homework help. Photo by Brae Howard. 

The first class at the lone Christian Street location has grown to a program that serves four thousand students. La Futura, also in South Philadelphia, is directed at the Latino community, and the third and fourth locations are in North and West Philadelphia. Whitaker is considering moves that would reach even more students. “I’d like this city to be the capital of youth literacy,” he says.

This grand success began after Whitaker had been a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a published author, and the editor of Philadelphia Weekly. When the paper, like so many others at the time, went under, he tried teaching school. “I was terrible at it,” he admits. “But I really liked the kids.”

Casting around for a way to meld his career experience and a desire to make a change in those same kids’ lives, he came up with the idea of a writing program. At about the same time, he met Loeper, who had extensive experience in the classroom – and more specifically in after-school programs – and was chasing a similar idea from a different direction. They did their homework, Loeper organized the concept, and Whitaker went in search of support, which included the donation of their building from the legendary record producer Kenny Gamble. So began Mighty Writers.

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When Mighty Writers first opened, its directors didn’t think many students would show up. The program now serves 4,000 children each year. Photo by Brae Howard.

On this afternoon, the dozen or so grade-schoolers who have found their places at the tables and desks begin with homework help from staff instructors, all seasoned professionals. Then they turn to their writing projects. Along the way, there are snacks and perhaps an outing to the park. They return to their writing projects until it’s time to go home.

Shortly after they leave, a new batch shows up, students working on writing in specialized programs like “Comic Books,” “Girl Power,” and “Teen Scholars.” There are also SAT essay programs with mentors, many of whom are from the city’s writing community, working one-on-one with high-schoolers. From the afternoon to the evening, it’s a beehive and it’s evident from the waiting list that it has the city’s support.

All the classes and workshops are shot through with the concept of thinking with clarity and then writing the same way, skills that are overlooked but essential in propelling children from disadvantaged backgrounds toward good high schools and then colleges.

“We’re teaching them to write clearly by getting them to think clearly,” Whitaker says. “Before they begin writing, we get them to articulate their thoughts and feelings so they have something in mind and are not just…” He mimes rapid typing.

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Mighty Writers operates out of four spaces, including this South Philadelphia location. Photo by Brae Howard.

Mighty Writers is also a haven of sorts. Whitaker describes a clubhouse feel that makes for a safe space. It’s been a gratifying lesson for the founders in how the children can grow within the program.

“When they first come in, they can be really shy, even withdrawn,” he says. “As time goes on, they come out of those shells. They feel like they can say what’s on their minds. Maybe say things here they couldn’t say elsewhere.”

Less than half of Philadelphia’s third through eighth grade students were able to read at grade level in 2014, according to data released by Public Citizens for Children and Youth. Whitaker believes Philadelphia schools are failing students on a pervasive scale, and that Mighty Writers is a lifeline. He says the the parents know it.

“[The parents] go to great lengths to get them into the program, to give them a step up. They seek me out,” says Whitaker. “They ask how their children are doing. They want to know how to get them into good high schools and then good colleges.”

For both the students and the parents, Loeper uses a single word to describe this: “Empowerment.”

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David Fulmer, the author of nine novels and a novella, won the Shamus Award for Best First Novel and has been nominated for an LA Times Book Prize, the Barry Award, the Falcon Award, and the Shamus Award for Best Novel. His books have received superlative reviews from, among others, The New York Times, USA Today, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly. Eclipse Alley, the sixth novel in his Storyville series, was released in November.

Brae Howard is a photographer who has made her home in Philadelphia for the past 10 years. She is a portrait photographer who has built her business primarily shooting weddings, and she continues to do personal portrait projects on the side. Brae moved to Philadelphia after teaching English in China for a year where she shot many street portraits. Brae is also a volunteer ESL teacher to refugees from Bhutan in Philadelphia, whom she spends time with and photographs outside of class as well.

Copyright © 500 Pens. December 2017.