Mighty Writers: Writing academy looks to Kennett Square as its newest home
By Richard Gaw
In 2009, Tim Whitaker, a long-time editor in Philadelphia, launched an idea to connect authors, teachers and journalists with young people whose educational journeys are in need of proper guidance and encouragement, and help them transfer their thoughts and ideas into crisp, clean sentences.
He called the idea Mighty Writers, and its pitch was simple: To teach kids to think clearly and write with clarity, so they can achieve success. The idea took off, and now, ten years later, Mighty Writers offers several four-a-day-a-week writing academies at six locations in Philadelphia and one in Camden, N.J. Each academy provides writing workshops, Mighty Toddler classes, mentorships, teen scholar programs and college essay writing nights to more than 3,500 students from ages seven to 17.
While the organization's mission is clear, it's facilitated in a city whose educational system has become clouded with neglect; nearly 40 percent of the city's students are not graduating high school, and only 30 percent of students in the eighth grade are reading and writing at grade level. Its advertising is strictly word-of-mouth, mostly from parent to parent, and every time a new academy opens its doors for the first time, a new flock of young people stream in.
In the past year, Mighty Writers added its two newest academies at recreation centers at the Rivera Recreation Center, located at 5th & Allegheny in North Philadelphia, and the Penrose Recreation Center, located at 11th & Susquehanna, also in North Philadelphia.
While it continues to address the need to reach young people throughout Philadelphia, Whitaker and his team have ventured out of Philadelphia and Camden, in an effort to bring Mighty Writers to an entirely new community, whose young people, they feel, could benefit from the tutelage of the organization's program leaders and its volunteer teachers.
That community is Kennett Square.
On Jan. 25, Executive Director Whitaker, Education Director Rachel Loeper and Development Director Naomi Levecchia met with a half dozen representatives from Kennett-area organizations to discuss the logistics involved with establishing its eighth location in the borough. The three are scouting potential locations and meeting with several leaders in the community. Ideally, they said, Mighty Writers would like to begin establishing a presence in Kennett Square by this summer.
“Typically what we do when we go into a new location is to start with one workshop, where a town's local library would help us host a workshop every week,” Whitaker said. “Then we try to, as quickly as possible, find a location that we can make permanent, and begin programming on a daily basis.”
For every student who has come through Mighty Writers programs, they're first taught the power of thinking clearly, before they begin to write.
“Before the kids start to write, we try to get them to think how they feel about something,” Whitaker said. “We're not trying to turn them into professional writers, but we're just trying to get them to have clarity about what they're thinking and what they want to write about, and that usually leads to success.”
A scan through the testimonials on the Mighty Writers website provides clear evidence that the approach is working.
“I am a parent of two mighty writers,” Aimee Davis, mother of a Mighty third grader and a Mighty sixth grader, wrote. “I am also a writing teacher for Philadelphia public schools. I am so happy with the methods that the Mighty Writers use. It has expanded their creativity and caused their intuitiveness for writing to grow. I am so proud if their writing and thank Mighty Writers tremendously!”
Whitaker said that what attracted Mighty Writers to Kennett Square was inspired, in part, by the success of its existing locations in reaching young people of Latino heritage in the Philadelphia area.
“It's thriving, and we have more kids than we can possibly teach, and over time, people told us, 'You need to go to Kennett Square. There is a Latino community there who could really use our help.' It became a drumbeat, that we heard it, over and over again.
Mighty Writers wants to begin its tenure in Kennett Square by directing its initial energies toward the Latino community.
Loeper said that the targeted approach is already in place at Mighty Writers' 9th Street El Futuro location in Philadelphia, which is teaching Hispanic students skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening, in both Spanish and English, in classes taught by bilingual teachers.
“We're able to work with them over time and see big results,” she said. “We see kids who have strong English skills who only speak Spanish at a home, as well as kids who are only able to speak Spanish. That kind of bilingual program is what we want to do here, specifically toward the immigrant families who are working in the area's mushroom industry.”
Although she supports the organization's initial goals to target the Hispanic population, Dr. Shanyn Fiske, a professor at Rutgers University-Camden and a member of the Kennett Library board of directors, urged Whitaker to consider integrating programming to include students of other demographics and nationalities. To best illustrate that educational integration works in Kennett Square, recent statistics show that in the Kennett Consolidated School District, the student population is 55 white, and 40 percent Hispanic.
“I still hold on to that grain of hope that in Kennett, [the integration of Mighty Writers classes] may be able to happen in a way that it may not be able to happen in a city like Philadelphia, which has clearly established its boundaries,” Fiske said.
Whitaker said that while no child will ever be turned away from Mighty Writers, it has been the practice of the organization to state up front what students they are initially trying to attract.
“I don't think you can become a Rainbow Coalition successfully, right out of the box,” he said. “The issues with each community are very specific, and we touch on all of the things that they're dealing with.
“The truth is that yes, all kids need it, but we very much see our mission as working with the kids that need it the most, who are not being served by their schools,” Loeper said. “If you have a limited number of slots, you need to be servicing the kids who need it the most, you need to be active in your outreach and who you're talking about, and who you want to come through your doors, initially. Not that you don't welcome every kid who comes through your doors, but there is time and energy that's spent on outreach and that's a choice that we have to make as an organization.”
Establishing a presence in Kennett Square is more than just finding a new home, turning the key, flicking on the lights and passing out the pencils and paper. Loeper said that it will also require about $50,000 in kick-off funding – likely to be sought through a local benefactor or foundation – that would help pay for initial pilot programs and the services of a program director.
Another seed project for Mighty Writers will be to recruit what will eventually become the foundation for learning at the Kennett Square location: teachers, writers, editors and journalists in the community who will volunteer their time and talents, and join the more than 400 active volunteers who teach at the other academies.
“We hire leaders who can coach writers to work with kids, effectively,” Loeper said. “So much of writing is that one-on-one personal attention, the conversation you have with the student about the work the student is doing before the pen goes to the paper.
“The power of those voices will allow us to multiply what we've been able to do.”
To learn more about Mighty Writers, visit www.mightywriters.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.