As a Writing Tutor, I’m Learning Just How Much Philly Schools Aren’t Teaching

A first-hand account of how budget cuts are failing our students.

students writing

There are some 150,000 students served through the School District of Philadelphia. Each week, at Mighty Writers‘ new location in West Philadelphia, I work with 10 of them.

I should say that I am not a teacher via any formalized training; my undergraduate degree is in journalism, the other is a new age choose-your-own-adventure topic-based MLA.

I got this job, Youth Program Coordinator, because I love to write and hope to get young people excited about writing, too.

Turns out, there’s more to it than that.

Monday through Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., I lead a group of spirited middle school students through lessons of my own design (which loosely follow the school district’s curriculum). Over the course of the year, I will teach my students informative, persuasive, narrative writing, in addition to poetry.

I will also teach them things they should already know.

I will continue to remind one sixth grader that “hurt” is not spelled with an “e,” and explain conjugation of the word “to be” with another. Innocent mistakes, you see, which are by no means the mark of their intellect, aptitude or engagement. But it does reveal where the school district has turned a blind eye to their development.

“I don’t mind doing these essays here [at Mighty Writers West],” said one student last week while I popped over shoulders to check work. “The teachers at school don’t sit with us and explain anything like this; they don’t help us like you do.”

Moments like these are the kind where my students teach me. I did not attend public school and my students have shed a light on the many things I’ve taken for granted as part of the education I received, despite my own awareness. They mention their larger class sizes helmed by only one overworked teacher, the infrastructural hazards of their school buildings, the multi-purpose lunchrooms-auditorium-gyms and the libraries that no longer exist.

It’s become harder for my students, who respond well to routine personal engagement from me, to receive one-on-one instruction thanks to budget cuts, which have already reduced school district staff by nearly 3,000 fewer staff members since June, according to reports.

This also means fewer guidance counselors. My students come in, chomping at the bit with stories to tell and angst to be heard. In me, they’ve found an outlet. So you can also add “life skills coach,” to my growing list as well.

I’m not sure what Gov. Corbett’s plan is for Philadelphia students. It doesn’t seem like he really has one at all, except to say “do more with less.”

And so places like Mighty Writers offer resources available to supplement the school day. I meet eager parents each week who are thrilled to learn about Mighty Writers Academy, upcoming teen workshops and our SAT prep courses, programming that taps student interest, develops them into stronger writers, and helps pick up the slack.

For four days each week, students come to me, ready to work. And in the midst of all the headline-grabbing click bait about the decaying school system, it’s essential to remember that students, families and communities care, even when those in charge don’t seem to.