A low-cost, high-speed Internet plan officially rolled out by Comcast Tuesday was greeted warmly by school officials who said it will help students academically — and could boost parent involvement.
“You have to have Internet access,” said Eric Leslie, principal of the KIPP School at 2709 N. Broad St. “And for so many of our kids, that’s limited.”
Comcast officials visited the North Philadelphia school Tuesday — the first day for public schools and the first full day of school of KIPP students — to talk to some of the students who can enroll in the plan and their teachers.
About 90 percent of the school’s 350 middle school students are African American and 10 percent Latino. The vast majority, 90 percent, qualify for free or reduced price lunches making them eligible for Comcast’s plan, called Internet Essentials, which includes broadband Internet service for $9.95 a month — as long as a family has a school-aged child in the house — and the option to purchase a laptop computer for $149.
School officials estimated that only 25 percent of students at the school had access to a computer and the Internet at home.
“If more of our kids have access to the Internet in their homes and have access to computers in their homes, this is only going to mean good things,” said Marc Mannella, KIPP Schools CEO. “They have access to technology when they’re here, but for too many of our kids that can’t continue when they’re at home.”
Leslie pointed to a math program called Math First as an example.
It’s a game that helps students with their math skills. Teachers can monitor students’ scores and tailor the games they can play to their needs. Prizes are given according to score.
Every student at the school has an account and can play during scheduled time in the computer lab — but it’s the kids with greater access and who can spend more time online that see the greatest improvement in their skills.
“The hard fact is, the kids with the Internet are the ones winning those medals,” noted Leslie.
Internet access provides many other opportunities too.
Students can improve typing, reading, research and critical thinking skills and more.
“It’s video game design, all the skills our kids will need that we can’t predict,” Leslie said.
An estimated 150,000 students in Philadelphia schools are eligible for the program.
“Now more than ever, access to assignments, grades and other classroom information is offered online — and those who can tap into home computers and the Web are at a distinct advantage,” said Leroy Nunery, Acting Superintendent.
Internet access can also help parents.
KIPP takes part in a program called PowerSchool that allows parents to track the children’s activities in school to check in on things like completed homework assignments, grades and attendance.
Comcast officials said they hoped the program would begin to help close the education gap.
“There is no doubt that the Internet is a great equalizer and life-changing technology — and being connected to the Internet is critically important to society, our youth and our future,” said CEO Brian Roberts. “This program can help low-income American families get online so they can take advantage of all the Internet has to offer.”
A study released in January by the Pew Research Center noted a shift in the digital divide, a lack of access among ethnic groups. Access to the Internet is growing through cell phone use, which is about equal among whites, Blacks and Latinos — but Blacks and Latinos have less access to high speed connections that are of growing importance in the modern world, the report found.
“Some see a new ‘digital divide’ emerging,” noted the report. “It’s tough to fill out a job application on a cell phone, for example. Researchers have noticed signs of segregation online that perpetuate divisions in the physical world. And Blacks and Latinos may be using their increased Web access more for entertainment than empowerment.”
According to the report, 51 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of Blacks use their phones to access the Internet, compared with 33 percent of whites. Forty-seven percent of Latinos and 41 percent of Blacks use their phones for email, compared with 30 percent of whites.
In addition, the report found a greater percentage of whites than Blacks and Latinos have broadband access at home.
Comcast will promote the plan for the next three years, and families that sign up during that period will be able to lock in the $9.95 price for as long as they have a child in school and remain part of the National Free Lunch Program.
Ultimately, the program will be available in 39 states. Comcast estimated that as many as 2.5 million families would be eligible to participate.
For more information, visit www.internetessentials.com for English or www.internetbasico.com for Spanish. Parents looking to enroll in the program can call 1-855-846-8376 or, for Spanish, 1-855-765-6995.
Hundreds protest gas industry conference, proposed regulations
Opponents of a natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing — or more familiarly as “fracking” — have promised to “shut down” an October meeting of the Delaware River Basin Commission.
“You will not frack the Delaware River,” thundered Josh Fox, director of the documentary “Gasland,” which chronicled the environmental damage of fracking, as a crowd of hundreds outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Wednesday roared their agreement by chanting “shut them down.”
Opponents contend that fracking has polluted the air and groundwater and posed an environmental and health threat.
Hundreds of protestors threatened civil disobedience.
“If they’re going to start drilling, we’re going to shut them down,” Fox said, adding they planned a large scale protest modeled on civil rights protests.
The commission is expected to adopt natural gas drilling regulations at a specially scheduled meeting October 21 at its West Trenton, N.J., headquarters. The rules will regulate fracking at an estimated 22,000 gas wells in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware on land that drains into the Delaware River, which provides water to 15 million people in those four states — including 1.5 million in Philadelphia.
“The October 21 meeting will not include a public hearing,” stated a notice of the special meeting on its website.
The public — including two members of Philadelphia City Council and the president of Pittsburgh’s City Council — had plenty to say about it this week.
“If they tell you they are going to allow fracking in your watershed then it’s time to say, ‘You know what, we are taking a stand now,’” Fox shouted. “If they permit it anyway and we show up at the well sites and blockade the well sites, that’s the way we are going to win. That’s the way every single one of these struggles has been won from the suffragettes to the civil rights movement to labor unions. Every single advancement that was won in our civilization was won by one tool — civil disobedience.”
As Fox thundered and the crowd cheered, members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition gathered inside the convention center.
As industry officials slipped into the new main entrance on North Broad Street, protestors were corralled along both sides of Arch Street, nearly a block east at 13th Street. Approximately 1,600 industry officials were expected at the two day conference, which included appearances by Gov. Tom Corbett and former governors Tom Ridge, now a paid industry spokesman, and Ed Rendell.
One energy company official accused protestors of “fear mongering.”
“Was anybody hurt? Was there any permanent or even temporary environmental damage? No. No. And, no,” said Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corp.
Outside they disagreed.
Craig Sautner of Dimock in Susquehanna County warned of the possibility of a large scale natural disaster. He spoke from personal experience. Three years ago his well was poisoned by fracking and he now has to get his drinking water and water for showering and cleaning shipped in by the natural gas company.
“Here’s what my water looks like,” said Sautner, holding up a glass that looked more like it was filled with cloudy beer. “They were doing vertical drilling and something collapsed and all the gas migrated. Now, the gas company said that they did not cause the problem. Enough already. We’ve got to do something about this.”
Many Philadelphians view the issue as an upstate one, but stories like Sautner’s have galvanized City Council, which, earlier this year supported a moratorium on drilling.
“Anything that happens in Allegheny County or Centre County, anything happens in Bradford County, it also affects what happens in Philadelphia County,” said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who called the issue a public health issue. “We get it.”
She promised her support and urged others to join the chorus against drilling.
“It takes collective voices to move the needle,” Brown said. “We can’t do it alone. It takes all of us to send a message.”
Lawsuit alleges harassment, criminal charges against bystanders recording arrests
A little over a year ago this month an eyewitness in the vicinity of 55th and Pine Streets videotaped two minutes and twenty-nine seconds of a man, Askia Sabur, apparently being beaten and arrested by Philadelphia police.
The short video was up on You Tube by the next day and a firestorm of controversy followed. The eyewitness was within their Constitutional rights to visually record what transpired and the police officers involved in the incident didn’t interfere.
But according to the American Civil Liberties Union, not every one with a pod camera or cell phone who electronically recorded an arrest has been so fortunate.
This week the ACLU announced it is filing a lawsuit later this month against officers in Philadelphia that not only confiscated the cell phones of citizens who taped an arrest — a violation of their rights — but in all cases filed charges of disorderly conduct against citizens just because they were monitoring the officers who were engaged in making an arrest.
“This lawsuit isn’t just about the confiscation of cell phones but about citizens who were all charged by police because they were monitoring police activities,” said Mary Catherine Roper, attorney for ACLU Pennsylvania.
According to Roper, the ACLU intends to file a lawsuit this month on behalf of four people who accuse the police of either confiscating or destroying their cell phones, and charged them with disorderly conduct, because they were videotaping what they perceived as police misconduct.
She said that in one incident a person had their cell phone deleted. In another incident a citizen used an audio recorder during a police operation and posted the recording on YouTube. In a third incident a person was charged just because they were simply watching an arrest. In a fourth incident a photographer was arrested because he was taking pictures of police ejecting homeless people out of Rittenhouse Square.
Roper said police charged all of the people involved.
“The bottom line here is that people have a right to monitor the police, you have a right to watch and not have to suffer any retaliation or harassment. Some Philadelphia police officers have a different idea about that. Certainly not every officer is going to have a problem with residents who are just watching while an arrest is being made — they conduct themselves in a manner that is professional and appropriate. However, we believe this type of harassment is department wide and that it is the department’s policy to tolerate this. In at least one case, we believe it goes straight to the top — it involves the commissioner. I think this police commissioner has a genuine concern about corrupt officers and officers who are violent — but I’m not so sure about his concern for officers who retaliate against citizens. The department has done some growing, but it needs more.”
Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who has been open and candid about the department’s efforts to weed out officers who cross the line, denied any participation in any incident in which police harassed or retaliated against someone because they were watching an arrest being made. So far Ramsey has not been named as a plaintiff in the impending lawsuit.
“That’s just not true,” he said. “And I have instructed my staff to release a memo reminding officers that people have a right to watch arrests being made, they have a right to videotape them if they choose and the officer can’t confiscate the tape or camera. It’s really just common sense, but maybe some officers need to be reminded. If it’s proven that any officer did this, then they will face summary charges by the department.”
During a recent interview, Commissioner Ramsey spoke at length regarding the efforts that the department is making on it’s own behalf to excise officers who cause problems.
“Most officers do not want to have to work with someone who is a problem and being an embarrassment to them and the department. Most of our people get out on the streets and do their job very, very well and I’m proud of them,” Ramsey said. “But you’ve got some bad eggs in the basket and we’ve got to weed them out — and I think I’ve gotten a lot of support on this. For decent officers who care about their careers, their families and the communities they serve, don’t want to have these guys around. Every one we have to fire is a mark of failure because the goal is to let them have long distinguished careers. Right now we have 145 officers working in the Internal Affairs unit. We have better reporting mechanisms as compared to the past. Anything that rises to the level of intervention we actively pursue it.”
Like a fumble in football, a mulligan in golf and, depending on the depth or persuasion of your religious convictions, a wayward soul finding salvation, the Million Man March is also looking for a second chance.
“We stand in violation of the pledge that we made in D.C. that day,” Minister Rodney Muhammad, head of Muhammad’s Mosque No. 12, said. “That pledge represents a code of conduct and because it was violated on every point, our communities continue to suffer. Our failure to stand by our pledge has allowed disunity to creep into our communities, making them worse off than they were in 1995.”
Muhammad made this statement Tuesday as a member of The Greater Philadelphia Local Organizing Committee for the 16th Anniversary of the Million Man March at a press conference at 1199C AFSCME District Council headquarters on 13th and Locust streets.
The commemorative event will take place the weekend of Friday, Oct. 7, and will conclude on Sunday at the Philadelphia Convention Center with an address by Minister Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam.
Farrakhan organized the Million Man March on the National Mall in Washington on Oct. 16, 1995. On that day, it is estimated that upwards of 1 million Black men showed up in Washington for what was to be a day of atonement. According to the Philadelphia organizing committee, more than 200,000 men from the Greater Philadelphia region attended the march.
Under a brilliant autumn sun, the march closed with the gathered men taking a pledge to “take responsibility for their lives and families, and commit to stopping the scourges of drugs, violence and unemployment.”
Many have wondered in the time since the march what has happened to the momentum that was instilled in the men who attended. Muhammad and the members of the local organizing committee have also asked that question.
“Back in 1995, Minister Louis Farrakhan was the general, and he gave marching instructions to us as soldiers,” said attorney Michael Coard, executive vice-chairman and general council of the Millions More Movement. “Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding, I guess, down the chain of command. What the general ordered didn’t necessarily happen. It’s no fault of the general; it’s the fault of soldiers like me and others.”
While atonement for past transgressions will be part of the weekend, the main focuses of the weekend will be hunger, youth violence and political accountability. Attendees at the closing address will be asked to bring at least one non-perishable food item. There will be numerous events that weekend preceding Farrakhan’s address, including a youth leadership meeting on Saturday for emerging leaders in the community, some of whom may be too young to remember the Million Man March.
Of cities with more than 1 million in population, Philadelphia has the highest percentage of people living in poverty. Philadelphia’s First Congressional District, which includes Kensington, parts of North and South Philadelphia and Chester, has the second-highest percentage of impoverished families in the United States.
“The poor, and especially people of color, are under attack by forces that have been demonstrating their anger about the election of an African-American president in the U.S.,” said Joe Certaine, former managing director of the city and a member of the committee. “They have seized the momentum by pandering to those who relish our economic, social, cultural and political demise. Without an aggressive grass-roots mobilization we cannot even hope to fight back.”
Successful music mogul and entrepreneur Kenny Gamble, chairman of the Millions More Movement, emphasized that he wants people of all colors to be involved in the events of the weekend. On Tuesday, Gamble pointed out that the problems plaguing the Black community have deep roots that are intertwined in Black culture that go as far back as slavery.
He does not consider the Million Man March a failure, but he recognizes that 16 years after the march there is still plenty of work to be done.
“It’s going to take an awakening in our culture to make sure that the men in the community don’t do the same thing that their fathers did to them,” said Gamble, alluding to the high number of female-run households in the Black community. “You have to be responsible for your children. The destiny of our community is in building families. That is the most important unit to building a great society. So men and women have to work together.”
Gamble said that the commemorative weekend will focus more on the emancipation of the mind and not the problems born out of racism.
“You have no control over that,” Gamble said. “I’d rather deal with the things that I can control than the things I can’t. You do the right things for your community and your family and you will have control of them. I don’t care if you are Eskimo, Chinese, Russian or whatever — you can’t control that. But you can control your mind and your thinking. We haven’t done a very good job of that.”
Citing safety concerns for the more than 16,500 students who attend Catholic high schools, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed indefinitely the 17 high schools normally staffed by teachers who went out on strike last week.
“We are not able to bring the entire school population back into the building with reduced staffs since this would compromise the safety of the school and our students,” wrote officials with the Office of Catholic Education, in a letter sent to parents on Tuesday.
Schools were closed on Wednesday.
Archdiocese officials closed the schools after rejecting an offer by the Association of Catholic Teachers, Local 1776 that would have returned teachers to the classroom provided the archdiocese agreed to mediation in an effort to end the dispute with some 800 teachers.
“At the urging of the Archdiocese, the Association agreed to face-to-face discussions which were very effective. Discussions over the past two days have been productive,” said archdiocese officials in a statement. “With the parties who best understand these issues remaining at the table and continuing to make progress, we can accomplish our goal.”
Union president Rita Schwartz disagreed with that characterization of negotiations, saying the archdiocese had terms “they want to shove down our throats.”
“The secondary school system has decided that this round of negotiations is to be a test of wills,” she said.
Schwartz also provided a list of 14 sticking points — in addition to a dispute about pay — that have stalled negotiations. They included a reduction in sick leave, disciplinary procedures and changes to rules governing tenure. She noted that the list was only a small portion of almost 300 contract changes suggested by the archdiocese and the 100 proposals from the union.
Teachers have asked for a 14.5 percent salary increase over the course of the three-year contract, according to archdiocesan officials. The archdiocese countered with increases totaling 7.84 percent over the life of the contract.
But pay is not the core issue, Schwartz said.
“This strike is not about money, and has never been about money,” she said. “It is about retaining dignity in the work place and obtaining fair treatment.”
The archdiocese is asking for what it describes as an “agreement that will provide the flexibility to adapt to the ever-changing 21st century learning environment.”
School officials want more control over curriculum and lesson planning as well as the right to choose which teachers it retains in the event of future lay-offs.
“We are seeking substantive changes within the labor-management agreement in order to keep pace with current and ever-changing educational practices so that we can properly prepare your son or daughter for their post secondary experience of college and/or work,” officials said in a statement to parents issued shortly after the strike started.
That also includes giving schools the authority to introduce new educational initiatives and lesson and unit planning without union approval; to increase the number of part-time teachers; changing its “first in, last out” practice used to determine seniority and teacher placement, and longer classes.
What the archdiocese really wanted was to roll back the hands of time, said Schwartz.
“The vast majority of these proposals have nothing to do with bringing the schools into the 21st century,” she said. “Rather, they harken back to the 1920s when employers broke unions who sought to give their employees a voice over wages, hours and working conditions.”
Teachers walked out Sept. 7, but the 16,502 students at the affected high schools continued to attend classes. The dispute does not affect students who attend Catholic elementary schools, as teachers in those schools are not unionized.
As a result of the injuring of another SEPTA bus driver by gunfire — this time, on Tuesday night along Ogontz Avenue — transit and law enforcement officials are deciding how to better protect the transit agency’s workers and riders.
Those considerations include supporting legislation introduced by state Senator Christine Tartaglione that would elevate transit workers to the same protected legal status as police officers and firefighters — increasing the penalties against those who assault SEPTA personnel.
“We want the word to go out to the knuckleheads of the world that assaults on our employees are not going to be tolerated,” said Richard Maloney, director of public affairs for SEPTA, in a published report.
The latest incident happened around 9:40 Tuesday night in the 7600 block of Ogontz Avenue — just the most recent in a string of violent incidents involving a SEPTA worker or rider. Transit officials say there have been 46 other incidents in which a vehicle operator or other SEPTA personnel have been injured or wounded on the job.
The incident Tuesday, September 13 on Ogontz Avenue involved a 22-year-old man who was shot twice in the arm outside a Route 6 bus. The splintering windshield glass from a stray bullet injured the driver and he suffered minor cuts. Police rushed both the shooting victim and the driver to Albert Einstein Medical Center in stable condition. Police reported that at least 12 shell casings were recovered at the crime scene.
“In this case, the driver really wasn’t the intended target — he was caught in the cross fire and injured when the stray bullets struck the windshield,” said SEPTA spokesperson Jerri Williams. “But, there have been other incidents — including some that haven’t been reported — like an assault that happened on one of the suburban lines where a bus driver was assaulted by a passenger with an umbrella. The driver suffered a minor injury and the suspect was arrested.”
On Tuesday, September 6, driver Bernetta V. Rembert, 46, was shot and wounded in Grays Ferry by a man who tried to board her Route 79 bus while it was out of service. Rembert was wounded in the arm by the still-unidentified assailant during an attempted robbery at Vare and Snyder avenues.
“After being shot, he called her a ‘B’ and told her to open the door,” said John Johnson, president of Transit Workers Union Local 234. Johnson said the assailant was yelling at Rembert before the shooting and trying to get into the bus. Unfortunately, the vehicle she was operating was among the two-thirds of SEPTA buses not equipped with security cameras. That incident remains under investigation and, as of Tribune press time, the shooter remains at large.
“This is getting to be a very serious problem,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in constant communication with Mayor Michael Nutter about this and he’s extremely concerned. We’re putting together a task force to address the issue and there are some other measures we’re looking to put in place. We’re also speaking with our membership to have them tell us what they would like to see in place to make them and the riders safer. Look at the problem like this: If I’m driving a bus and I’m assaulted, I’m not only in danger but so are the riders and the public if I lose control of the vehicle. Our drivers are telling us they don’t feel safe and I understand that — people are looking to hurt us and we have to be proactive about us. The driver who was injured Tuesday night suffered some serious cuts to his face. I know him and I worked with him. Who ever thought that being a bus driver would become one of the most dangerous jobs in America?”
In response to these incidents, state Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione, D-Phila., is urging other lawmakers in Harrisburg to finally pass Senate Bill 236 that would add transit employees to the class of protected workers — the same as police officers and firefighters — and upgrade assaults against them to aggravated assaults, which would increase the penalties for offenders.
Similar legislation has been passed in New York and Delaware.
“For seven years, I’ve been trying to get this law changed,” said Tartaglione in a published report. “Some legislators think we are opening the bill to include too many different things. Not only our bus drivers, our transit workers, [but] how about our people coming on the bus? We should try to make it as safe as we can.”
Sen. Tartaglione was unavailable for comment by Tribune press time, but J.P. Kurish, spokesman for her office, said right now the bill is in the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The bill passed the Senate in April 2009, but didn’t make it through the House. If a bill doesn’t pass the House, it expires and has to be resubmitted — which it was,” Kurish said. “We’re waiting to see what the Judiciary Committee does with it.”
According to SEPTA officials, there have been twice as many assaults on their employees in 2011 than all of last year, when 20 such attacks were reported.
On Tuesday, September 6, just after 2:00 a.m. at the 60th and Market streets El station, a 37-year-old man was wounded four times by gunfire. The victim managed to survive after being rushed to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. That incident also remains under investigation.
But the most brazen offense occurred on June 18, when young Black males fired into a passenger-filled Route 47 bus in the vicinity of 7th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
According to police reports, Penny Chapman, 20, a young mother, allegedly took offense when Lefenus Pickett spoke to her about spanking her young son. Investigators said that Chapman then made a phone call — allegedly to rally a crew who responded by shooting into the bus after she disembarked at 7th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
Fortunately, no one was injured but investigators said this one incident could have been far worse. Six people were arrested and charged with attempted murder, conspiracy and a host of related offenses: Raheem Patterson, 21, of the 2000 block of North 9th Street; Penny Chapman, 20; Karon Patterson, 19, of the 1300 block of East Carey Street; Angel Lecourt, 18, of North Marshall Street; Lawrence Rahyel of the 1200 block of Alcott Street; and Keith Bellamy, 22, of the 1600 block of North 6th Street.
Charges were dismissed against two of the defendants and four are being held for trial in the case.
“Public safety is at risk as long as this continues,” Johnson said. “We really need to address this right now before any more of my people are injured.”
The Avenue of the Arts Inc. is gearing up for a project that would enhance the North Broad Street corridor.
The Building on North Broad Street Initiative calls for a bold lighting design, green spaces and landscaping along the corridor that spans from north of City Hall to Broad and Glenwood.
Under the $13 million project, 55-square foot high lights would be installed from Broad and Spring Garden Streets to Broad and Glenwood Avenue. Streetscape plantings would span from City Hall to Broad and Glenwood.
AAI Executive Director Karen A. Lewis says this is the ideal time to enhance the North Broad corridor.
“Things are aligned now. When I first started and I talked about North Broad Street people would look at me strangely. Now when I say North Broad Street — it’s like, oh wow,” Lewis said, noting more developers are taking more interest in the corridor.
“It’s just interesting to see that change in reaction because there’s so much happening. It’s just the timing is right. There’s just a lot of interest, activity and development and that’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted people to know and appreciate the potential for North Broad Street.”
The project will be highlighted during a Promenade of Lights Ceremony held September 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple School of Law, 1719 North Broad Street.
“It is to show that we have reached a milestone in this project and we wanted the community and others to celebrate this milestone with us,” Lewis says of the ceremony.
The Building on North Street Initiative is supported by local, private, state and federal investment. Mayor Michael Nutter administration contributed $4.8 million in capital funds to the project.
AAI recently received $3.9 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funding for the project. State Sen. Shirley Kitchen, state Sen. Vincent Hughes and state Rep. Dwight Evans were instrumental in securing the additional funding.
Sen. Kitchen says the project will really give the North Broad corridor a lift for both neighborhood residents and businesses.
“Everything just can’t continue to keep going on South Broad. We got to build up North Broad too. It absolutely needs it. You can see the drop off as you travel northward from Center City,” Kitchen said.
“It really needs to be built up so that businesses can be attracted to locate there. We’re trying to build it up because businesses can’t thrive and neighborhoods can’t grow if there isn’t an incentive created and people don’t feel like anybody cares.”
AAI has been working on the Building on North Broad Street Initiative since 2007. Organization officials have been meeting with city departments, PennDOT, SEPTA and community stakeholders.
The project, designed by architect Bohlin Cynwinski Jackson, is slated to be up for bid by the end of year. The streetlights and streetscape plantings are scheduled for completion by 2013.
Shortly after the Million Father March wrapped up in front of Universal Audenried High School, new principal Robert Rouse had hit the ground and was ready to start running.
It was shortly before 8 a.m on Tuesday, the first day of the academic year in the Philadelphia School District, and Rouse was finishing up his obligation to the march, which included the reading — with the help of a megaphone — of the Founders Pledge, urging, in call-and-response fashion, for the group of about 100 participants, most of them men, to stay engaged beyond the opening festivities.
“That’s what is going to be the most important aspect of it all, keeping everyone involved,” said Rouse, the new principal at Audenried. “The challenge is we have a beautiful school building and it’s filled with beautiful children. But you have to change their mindset of what has been delivered and what has been acceptable in the past.”
Last spring, the School Reform Commission turned over Audenried, located at 33rd and Tasker streets, and Universal Vare Middle School, located at 2100 S. 24th St. and the origin point for Tuesday’s Million Father March, to Universal Companies. They are part of the “Promise Neighborhood,” struggling schools in the Point Breeze and Grays Ferry neighborhoods that have traditionally underperformed and are slated for dramatic changes.
Universal Companies partnered with the House of UMOJA in Tuesday’s march, which is part of the Chicago-based, 2011 National Million Father March that sponsors similar events all over the United States to mark the opening of the school year.
Rouse wants to build on the momentum of the march. He underscored the importance of having African-American men involved in what goes on at schools such as Audenried.
“Any parent being involved is important,” Rouse said. “But it’s even more so for fathers to be involved. When a young lady grows up to be a lady it is what they saw in their father that will show them what they want to find in a husband.
“Boys need to see the example of a hard-working man,” Rouse added as he paused to help students tie their ties. “Unfortunately, we see a lot more women at school than we do men. Fathers tend to sit on the sidelines and watch the mothers do it. I saw some good men here today; I want to see more of them, though.”
Rouse has his work cut out for him. Universal, which hopes to receive millions in grant money later this month from the United State Department of Education to fully implement its plan, has pledged to make certain that the school graduates 100 percent of its students by 2020. Universal’s website places special emphasis on “at-risk African-American males, given their extraordinarily high and unacceptable high school dropout rate.”
“Moving forward,” Rouse said, “the plan is to wrap at least three Black males in the community around every male child and provide them with someone who is a spiritual guide, a mentor and someone who can just be there for them.”
That’s one of the reasons why community activist Kenneth Smith marched on Tuesday. His children are no longer school age. However, he is active as a mentor and said that just because his children are older does not mean that his “work is done” in the community.
“That’s why it was so important for us to show up here,” Smith said. “We want the kids to see us. Not just today, though. We want them to know that there are those in the community who are concerned about their future.”
City Council continued digging into the newly revised zoning code this week, with a hearing Wednesday that seemed to promise slow going for zoning reform as Council members raised questions about a myriad of issues from re-entry centers, adult uses, night clubs and day care centers.
Though concerns from individual neighbors and their Council representatives varied, the core worry was the same across the board — residents wanted a say in shaping the future of their neighborhoods.
Already, 10 amendments have been proposed by Councilman Bill Green.
Community members and neighborhood groups voiced their concerns this week too.
“The current draft is much improved, but we believe there is room for substantive improvement,” said Steve Huntington of the Crosstown Coalition, a group of 13 neighborhood associations from Overbrook to South Philly, who testified Wednesday.
Nearly 50 people were scheduled to testify. They represented a patchwork of special interests that varied widely by neighborhood.
According to Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Zoning Code Commission, the new code provides more opportunity for community members to voice their concerns before variances are granted or large projects are given the green light.
The proposed code gives neighborhoods a voice through designated Registered Community Organizations (RCOs) that will provide community input for specified geographic areas. They will be registered by the city and required by law to hold public meetings. They will not take the place of individual residents.
“An individual citizen will have the same right as a member of an RCO to present testimony [at a zoning hearing],” Gladstein said.
Large projects, even those allowed by zoning classification, will be subject to community review through Civic Design Review Committees.
Council members also worried about the process recommended by the Zoning Code Commission in regards to implementing the code. The ZCC has recommended a two-step approach with the code adopted first, and maps rolled out later. Doing so, they said, separates large policy questions from neighborhood concerns and politics. Several Council members suggested that the new code be phased in district by district while the old code remains in place for the rest of the city.
“We’d rather not deal with this bit by bit,” said Alan Greenberger, chairman of the Zoning Code Commission, cautioning that rolling out zoning changes district by district would essentially mean the city had two zoning codes and could present legal challenges that would be difficult to defend against.
Rewriting the city’s zoning code has taken four years. Members of the Zoning Code Commission were appointed in 2007 and given the task of cleaning up and simplifying the city’s Byzantine code, which now extends to more than 650 pages.
The latest incarnation of the code, under scrutiny this week, is down to 384 pages.
Administration officials hope to have Council’s recommendations by Oct. 20 and final approval of a new zoning code by Dec. 15.
Even under the best of circumstances, a complete overhaul of city zoning rules will take years. Once the code is adopted, which administration officials hope will happen before Council adjourns in December, new maps for 18 zoning districts will need to be drawn up four districts at a time — which is a process expected to take five years.
Maps are now being drawn up for lower Southwest Philadelphia and Overbrook and nearby neighborhoods. In January, members of the Zoning Code Commission hope to begin Center City and the lower Northeast.
“The current zoning code is so broken that none of us trust it,” Greenberger said.
What are they giving back to the community?
It is a question often asked by African Americans of the stores that do business in predominantly African-American neighborhoods from coast to coast, and often the answer is unsatisfactory.
This is not the case, however, with Philadelphia-based urban apparel retailer Villa. With 11 of its 32 stores (with locations also in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Reading, York, Allentown, Camden, Cleveland and Toledo) located in Philadelphia, the company has initiated a new marketing campaign — “Dream Project” — aimed at inspiring and “awakening the dreams within Philadelphia’s youth.”
Late last month at Benjamin Franklin High School, the Dream Project brought together more than 500 local high school students for a day of engagement and mentoring from more than 70 business executives representing companies such as Nike, BET, American Express, Fannie Mae and others. Mayor Michael Nutter was in attendance, as was former Def Jam president Kevin Liles. Liles has played a major role in the success of artists such as Jay Z, Ludacris , LL Cool J and Ashanti, to name a few.
Students participated in panel discussions with the various professionals. They were given exposure to potential career pathways outside of the norm, such as in sports, entertainment, banking and finance, business and marketing, E-commerce and real estate.”
“I enjoyed interacting with all the kids, and as the day progressed, I personally saw kids’ lives were being impacted positively, said Hezekiah Griggs, managing partner at New York-based H360 Capital. “I received several emails that impressed upon me the importance of what took place during the day.”
According to Patrick Walsh, vice president of marketing at Villa, the company will continue to gain more visibility but not just as a retailer. Next Wednesday, Villa will host a screening of CNN’s Black in America 4. The event will be held at Shoemaker Mastery Charter in West Philadelphia. Four hundred students from the Mastery charters will screen the show and then have a chance to pepper Emmy Award-winning producer Jason Samuels, an African American, about his career path. Samuels is the producer of the show.
Joining Samuels on the panel will be Navarrow Wright. Wright is one of the featured success stories in Black in America. He is the chief technology officer at Interactive One, the nation’s largest digital media company serving African Americans.
“It’s imperative — and it’s our obligation as African Americans, that we do all that we can to expose the future leaders to all different sorts of opportunities,” Wright said recently.
And on Jan. 1, at the Liacouras Center, Villa will host a high school basketball tournament, bringing together nationally ranked teams from the New York and Philadelphia areas with the proceeds being funneled back into the Dream Project.
All of these ventures are under the directorship of Patrick Walsh, vice president of marketing at Villa. Before he embarked on the project, Walsh spent time going throughout the city and talking directly with students, wanting to find out exactly what their aspirations were for the future.
“Everyone who has seen the struggles of the last 12 months knows it has been hard on the youth,” Walsh says. “Flash mobs, bullying, problems on public transportation. We’ve seen a lot of negative stories in terms of our youth.
“I wanted to interact with the kids and see what they were doing, and you know what?” Walsh continued, “I walked away with the understanding that the bulk of our kids are not doing these things. A lot of the kids looked just like me and others who are being successful. But they wonder who is going to help them get to their destiny.”
Walsh knows that as the director of marketing for a growing company, his job is to drive business to Villa. But he grew up in the hard scrabble neighborhoods of Queens and Harlem watching African Americans struggle to get ahead.
“We are going to do more,” Walsh said. “The Dream Project is just a launch pad. It is a launch pad for sharing success stories in the community. There are so many stories of successful minorities in non-traditional businesses. We have connections to phenomenal people. It’s our obligation to get the message out so that our kids can aspire to be just like them.”