Closing the Gap is a four-part series by Grid highlighting education nonprofits working to make sure Philly’s literacy gap doesn’t get bigger during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is the first installation.
When seven-year-old Aki Mir passed by a lemonade stand in South Philadelphia with her mom, she heard someone calling her name but wasn’t sure who.
It took Mir a second to realize that it was a fellow Mighty Writer. The two had only seen each other in a virtual summer program provided by Mighty Writers, a nonprofit that promotes literacy.
Before the pandemic, nonprofits like Mighty Writers were working tirelessly to close the literacy gap in Philadelphia, where only 17 percent of students performed at or above the NAEP proficient level for reading in 2019 according to The Nation’s Report Card.
The social distancing measures put into effect to combat the spread of COVID-19 have made systemic barriers and gross socioeconomic pressures even more glaring than they were. While The School District of Philadelphia decided to put the health of students and teachers first and mandate that all students attend class online until at least November, the situation is far from ideal. In an already stressed school district, the move puts marginalized students at an even greater risk of falling behind.
Mighty Writers’ mantra is “Learn to Think Clearly and Write with Clarity,” but founder Tim Whitaker knows it’s harder to write with clarity on an empty stomach.
After their seven locations were shut down in March, Whitaker realized his organization needed to do more than tutoring, so he and his team started handing out lunches almost immediately after their physical locations were shut down.
Whitaker says the most dire need was for the kids at their bilingual “El Futuro” location at 9th and Market that serves mostly Mexican kids and families. Whitaker says that because some of the families were undocumented, no government help was coming in.
Whitaker says it was obvious that Mighty Writers needed to step in to help as much as they could.
“The food distribution has gone phenomenally, and we’ve hired more people to work on the distribution side of it. It’s been very rewarding,” Whitaker says.
It doesn’t stop at lunches either. Mighty Writers has also been handing out diapers, masks and other grocery items throughout the city.
To stay in touch with the kids who don’t have technology Whitaker says he and his team have also been handing out literacy challenges, along with books, paper and pencils.
Initially Whitaker and his team were nervous about keeping kids engaged via Zoom, but as the summer progressed they found their groove and the attendance of online programs is only getting better.
“You have to be a bit of a performing artist to get the attention of kids at a time like this,” Whitaker says.”You have to be charismatic and not fall back to any kind of teacher role that you may have done before.”
Sixteen-year-old Mighty Writer Alani Brokenborough struggled with adjusting to virtual learning when her school went online.
“Moving to online has very much been a struggle, because there I can focus and at home it’s just so much harder to pay attention,” Brokenborough says.
As a normally attentive student, Brokenborough has had a hard time staying engaged, but she commends Mighty Writers for the way they kept their classes fun and captivating over the summer. She appreciates their empathy for what students are going through.
“It’s been really fun, and they’re allowing us to stay on mute and be more free because they know that this is a hard time for us,” Brokenborough says.
Carolina Maugeri, Mir’s mother, says she is also amazed at the quality of Mighty Writers’ virtual summer programs. Maugeri is so impressed that she actually wishes that Philadelphia schools would take note of what Mighty Writers is doing.
“The activities they have Aki doing have more of a workshop feel to it. It doesn’t feel like something she has to slog through, she actually looks forward to it and enjoys doing it,” Maugeri says.