Organizers raise funds to offer free summer school

Aniijah Brown, 8, turns to ask a question of her teacher, Robin Brown, during a morning writing lesson at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church.
Aniijah Brown, 8, turns to ask a question of her teacher, Robin Brown, during a morning writing lesson at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 12, 2012

Cassie Harris had a problem: her niece was struggling with math and reading and needed summer school classes, but the nearly broke Philadelphia School District wasn't offering them.

Enter Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, where on Tuesday 20 students bent over worksheets, summarized passages, and worked one-on-one with teachers on word problems.

All free.

"It's like a miracle," said Harris, whose niece and daughter are both attending the Mother Bethel summer school, which began this week and will last through Aug. 3. Niece Sabrina Harris is catching up, Harris said, and her daughter, Briana, is soaking up enrichment activities.

Mother Bethel and the Queen Village Neighborhood Association raised $6,000 to fund the half-day summer school, which employs two Philadelphia School District teachers and enrolls students from Meredith, McCall, and Nebinger Schools.

Meredith and McCall are regarded as two of the district's stronger neighborhood schools; both have populations with about 50 percent of students living below the poverty line. Nebinger struggles more, with about 85 percent of students considered economically disadvantaged.

The Mother Bethel summer school is small and full, but its organizers hope other churches, synagogues, mosques, and community groups follow their lead and organize similar programs in the future.

"Adults have to rise to the occasion to fill in the gaps," said Leslie Patterson-Tyler, wife of Mother Bethel's the Rev. Mark Tyler and a Meredith Home and School Association president. "Especially in this neighborhood. Kids will not suffer on our watch."

The program is the brainchild of Patterson-Tyler and Ralph Burnley, veteran principal of Nebinger, at Seventh and Carpenter Streets. The two started talking about the possibility shortly after another round of budget cuts - the district slashed about $700 million in 2011-12 - eliminated summer school except for students who need only a few credits to earn diplomas.

"We just believe that in order to get struggling kids back on task and up to grade level, we've got to have them in school almost year-round," said Burnley. "They're operating at a disadvantage if they go home for the summer months and forget some of what we taught them during the school year."

Mother Bethel adopted Nebinger a year ago, and was already running a Saturday school and mentorship program. Patterson Tyler wondered, "What if they expanded it to a full summer school?"

Mark Tyler rallied support from Mother Bethel parishioners from the pulpit. And the Queen Village Neighborhood Association - which recently spearheaded a neighborhood canvassing campaign to drum up support for public education - kicked in $2,500.

Neighborhood association president Jeff Hornstein said it was an easy decision.

"There's no worthier project than keeping the schools going - our main goal is just to fill in the gaps," said Hornstein, who ran for City Council last year. "It's a sad state of affairs when the School District can't afford to pay for summer school for elementary school kids."

On Tuesday, two groups of students hunkered down at folding tables in Mother Bethel's Bishops Hall, a room decorated with portraits of the historic church's leaders. While devouring multiplication problems, 9-year-old Camaya Simms, a rising fourth grader at Meredith, said she was excited about summer school.

"Math is not my thing, but I'm really working at it," Camaya said. "This is a learning school and not just playing around. I think that's better for me."

At another table, McCall sixth grader Kennise Mills admitted why she came to summer school: "Because my mom made me."

But Kennise said she didn't mind the workbooks or the thick blue plastic folders full of learning materials.

"We learn about geography and stuff, and it's cool," she said. "And my friends make me laugh."

The program employs two district teachers and an aide handling discipline, parent coordination and other support tasks. Burnley volunteers as principal, and there is free breakfast and lunch, provided by an Archdiocese of Philadelphia summer feeding program.

Lisa Boland, who teaches the younger students at Mother Bethel's summer school, encouraged several of her struggling third graders at Nebinger to participate.

"This might be the only thing some of them are doing this summer," said Boland, who's been teaching in the district for seven years. "They might not have anyone at home to pick up a book and read to them."

Boland and Ly Nguyen, the other teacher, are developing the curriculum with guidance from Burnley. Students spend half of the morning on reading and half on math.

"We decided that our biggest challenge was to get the kids to read better, and we wanted to attack that through writing," Burnley said. For math, the teachers are looking at students' individual state test scores and report card grades to tailor instruction.

There will be trips to the park and visits from notable Philadelphians, such as District Attorney Seth Williams. At the end of four weeks, Burnley will require each student to write a book report.

Donald Jackson, whose grandsons Zayone and Zaire Williams are students at Nebinger and enrolled in the Mother Bethel summer school, was glad to have somewhere to send the boys, who are 9 and 7.

"This gives them a better chance," Jackson said. "And in times like these, with this economy, every little bit helps."

Patterson-Tyler feels conflicted - glad that the community has rallied to provide summer school, but dismayed that state and city funding have not adequately provided the basics for the district.

She's part of a group of Meredith parents who raised over $15,000 in 24 hours to fill in a budget gap created when the district ordered deep cuts to schools in December. Meredith, which has a core of middle-class parents, can do that. But what about other schools?

"It concerns me what we are paying for teachers ourselves," she said. "But we want to find ways to keep this going. We can't have kids fall through the cracks."

Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at

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