“I’m lucky!” Why? “Because I get to come here,” Ronoldo, a nine-year-old fourth grader living on the 700 block of Morris Street, said.

He was easily one of the most enthusiastic and inquisitive students last Tuesday afternoon at Mighty Writers El Futuro when South Philly Review paid the brand new bilingual learning hub in Bella Vista a visit. He and his sister, Karina, a 10-year-old fifth grader, go to Christopher Columbus Charter School on 13th Street. From 3 to 6pm on weekdays and for a couple hours on Saturdays, Ronoldo and Karina will visit Laura Karabell, El Futuro’s program director, to get help with homework, read books, play games and write from assignments, in two languages.

“A week from yesterday was our first day open,” Karabell said of the March 16 grand opening. “It’s been building. I think we had seven kids the first day, and now we’re at 13. We have four second-graders in this class. I’m getting a new sixth-grader today. We’re just trying to get as many people in as possible.”

The Mighty Writers program, with a center in West Philly and one at 1501 Christian St., focuses on seven- to 17-year-olds and offers its programming for free.

“Our mission is to teach Philadelphia kids to think and write with clarity so they can achieve success at school, at work and in life,” is how the online mission statement reads. “We offer daily afterschool academics, long- and short-term writing classes night and weekends, teen scholar programs, mentorships, SAT Prep courses and college essay writing classes.”

Ronoldo pulled out a copy of The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley.

“We’re reading this aloud right now,” he said. “It’s really cool.”

Echoing its mission statement, Karabell said they offer a mix of programming every afternoon to meet the kids in the middle.

“We want them to have a place that they can come and feel safe and loved and feel motivated and feel comfortable to share what they’ve written, which can be very hard. [There is] a mixture of homework help, which we do in the beginning, snack, read aloud and that kind of thing,” Karabell explained.

The organization has sectioned off a front section with tables and chairs, a white board, full bookshelves and supplies, and then there’s a sizable section perfect for running around and playing games. On the day we visited, they were just finishing up a treasure hunt.

“We want kids to write with clarity and think with clarity so they can make smart decisions, which will help them to be successful. It can be hard to teach students how to think, but it can be a little easier teaching them how to write—and those are very correlated,” Karabell, who taught elementary and middle school Spanish at the Montgomery School in Chester County, noted. Plus there’s “space for kids to move around and get their yah-yahs out if they have to. After school, it’s important for them to play a game and run. They’ve been sitting a lot.”


In Mighty Writers executive director Tim Whitaker’s e-mail, titled “Mightiness Goes Bilingual,” he was proud to announce that “our doors are open at our first bilingual writing center for kids.” Noting support from parents, kids and other community organizations, he wrote “thanks to you, our believers, we were able to create this Mighty writing space for Latino kids from the city’s Italian Market neighborhood in warp speed.”

“We’d been working with this community for a couple years now on Saturdays at 15th and Christian. We began about three years ago looking for funding,” Whitaker said. “We’re not just helicoptering in.”

He noted that for many of the students at El Futuro, they are the ones who’ve picked up English as a second language—not their parents.

“I think the kids pick it up through television, through the culture, through the school. When you’re young, you can learn that stuff. When you’re an adult it’s a whole different battle,” added Whitaker.

He also suggested that, despite a history of Latino cultures existing in the shadows, things are changing—and for the better. “We’re trying to reach the kids we need most. The resources are scarce. I think this community, in large part, has been in the shadows for a long time. I think that’s starting to change as the numbers get bigger, and I like to think that feelings change about all that stuff.”

“Over time in South Philly, we’ve seen more children of immigrants participating in our programs,” according to Rachel Loeper, Mighty Writers’ education director. “There’s a huge growing Mexican population in South Philadelphia, and we wanted to go right where they are.”

Loeper also explained that a fortuitous connection in the community has been with Puentes de Salud, based out of Southwark School on Ninth Street. And Nora Litz, a Mexican artist and Mighty Writers board member, helped build a marriage between the two organizations that’s fed the momentum for El Futuro.

“We’ve kind of worked together to have a summer camp at Southwark and at Mighty Writers for the past two years,” said Loeper. “Those made us really start looking to start building relationships in the community to take it to the next level.”

She added that students come in at all ranges of skill, from kids who desperately need help with schoolwork to young writers who identify as poets and journalists.

“We can do that enrichment piece with them,” she said.

Noting the difference between Mighty Writers as a day care and an academic program, “this is not a drop-off service or a babysitting service,” Whitaker said. “It’s kind of like a clubhouse feeling, like a warm feeling.” Echoing that turbo-speed comment before, he says the El Futuro space will be humming in no time. “You have to sort of crawl before you can go running down the street, but we like to move quickly. By summer, we should be pretty busy.”

As for those kids? They are pumped. Nayeli, a seven-year-old at Andrew Jackson School on 12th St., was all smiles and eager to say hello. She was palling around with Jordi, a 10-year-old fifth grader and Pedro, a 9-year-old third grader, who go to George W. Nebinger School on Carpenter. Alexis, a 10-year-old fifth grader at Center City’s Independence Charter was nearby. Ronoldo’s buddy Victor, a 10-year-old fourth grader with him at Columbus, said “We’re in the same grade, and our teachers talk to each other a lot.”

“Oh my God, they’re so excited,” Karabell said. “This is a direct quote: On Monday [a Mighty Writer] said, ‘We learn here AND it’s fun! And I said ‘Yes, yes—exactly!”

A version of this story appeared in PW’s sister paper, the South Philly Review.

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