Monday, April 7, 2014

University of Pennsylania fraternity invests in reading program in Chester school

Brian Walsh, Kindergarten Teacher at Chester
Charter School for the Arts and his students.

photo by Paul Benson
For the next 5 weeks, St. Anthony Hall, an undergraduate fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania, is collecting book donations to benefit Chester Charter School for the Arts.

St. Anthony Hall, a fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania, has announced plans to partner with Chester Charter School for the Arts (CCSA), a K-7 public charter school in Chester, PA, and The Chester Fund for Education and the Arts (TCF), which raises funds to support literacy and arts instruction at CCSA. The fraternity is organizing a book drive and accepting books at 3637 Locust Walk.

St. Anthony Hall is a national college literary society located at a number of prestigious universities, including Columbia, Brown, and Princeton. Penn’s chapter opened in 1854 with a commitment to foster the social and intellectual development of its undergraduate members by promoting the exchange of ideas and providing a forum to grow and learn together.  The Penn chapter currently has 40 members from all over the country and the world.

Daniel Rodriguez, a Penn junior from Quincy, MA and the newly elected president of of St. Anthony Hall, describes the fraternity’s partnership as practical and purposeful, “Partnering with CCSA and TCF made a lot of sense to our members. Chester is the oldest city in Pennsylvania, and we are one of the oldest undergraduate literary societies in the country. St. Anthony Hall and CCSA and TCF profoundly care about and appreciate great art and literature, and academic excellence, as well as promoting an intellectual and reading culture.”

The partnership extends to organizing the donation of 500 new and gently used books for CCSA’s specialized reading and arts program. Within this program, 137 students are receiving daily, small-group, research-based instruction that develops fluency and comprehension. TCF also raises private funding for specialized visual arts, dance, drama, music and instrumental instruction at CCSA. Rodriguez states, “We hope to come out and visit the school soon, meet the students, and share our favorite books with them.”

Dr. John Alston, TCF and CCSA’s founder, comments, “I am amazed and moved by the compassion and drive of the members of St. Anthony Hall. In addition to state funding, TCF raises $1 million each year to support dynamic and comprehensive literacy and arts instruction. It costs $2,000 per year to offer specialized programming to each of our 374 students. It is encouraging to see talented and bright young men invested in advancing literacy, and using their abilities to improve their community and the world.”

Dr. Alston knows first-hand the power of college communities. In 1994, he was a Swarthmore College music professor who started the popular Chester Children’s Chorus @Swarthmore College (CCC), with the help of students, college staff and faculty, and residents of the town. Dr. Alston, who is African American and Filipino and grew up in Newark, New Jersey, says that the work is personal. He notes that his life was changed by his participation in The Newark Boys’ Choir. In 2005, he founded TCF, he says, because “I knew that CCC students were capable of the highest intellectual achievement, if given excellent academic and arts programs.”

In 2012, after several years of tireless advocacy, and the dissolution of a public/private partnership with the Chester Upland School District, Dr. Alston and a group of Swarthmore residents opened CCSA, which is dedicated to improving the Chester community through high academic achievement and artistic excellence. CCSA’s mission is to prepare children to employ their intellectual and creative powers to enrich their community.

Chester is about a 30-minute drive from Penn’s campus. The city was once a thriving manufacturing town, but, since the 1950s, it has experienced severe job and population losses. According to a 2010 study conducted by the Food Research and Action Center, Chester is the second-hungriest city in the United States, behind the Bronx, and the poorest place in Pennsylvania. The 2010 Census indicated that the per capita income for the city was $9,052. About 22.8% of families and 27.2% of the population were below thepoverty line, including 36.9% of those under age 18.  Chester also is listed as one of the 100 most dangerous cities in America with the highest murder rate in the state and a violent crime rate more than seven times the state average.

St. Anthony Hall’s decision to partner with CCSA and TCF is especially welcomed. Freshman Miles Marden, of Boston, MA, says, “When we began researching a service project for the fraternity to pursue, I was really dismayed and upset by the statistics confronting the children of Chester. It’s no shock that the Chester Upland School District is one of the poorest performing school districts in the state. I had always heard of Philadelphia’s troubles, but Chester, being off the beaten path, seemed to really need our attention and support.”

Dawit Heck, another freshman, from Yonkers, NY, explains his motivation for organizing a book drive. He says, “I have great hope and optimism for the children of Chester because of schools like CCSA and the leadership and advocacy work of The Chester Fund which is clearly invested in creating a Kindergarten to college pipeline.” Mr. Heck adds, “And, as a lifelong reader, I was excited at the opportunity to combat illiteracy, build a reading culture and contribute to the creation of a diverse and multicultural school library for children, especially coming from a mixed race family myself. My mom is Ethiopian and my dad is white.”

CCSA principal Akosua Watts states, “CCSA’s core values are a commitment to fostering literacy and a love of learning. One way to purposefully build joyous readers is to provide them with books that they can relate to, where they see themselves as heroes, leaders, artists and scholars. I am thrilled to partner with young people who have the will to galvanize their community to invest in our students.”

So far, the young men of St. Anthony Hall have organized the donation of over 200 books, but they are hoping to reach their 500 book goal by May 1. Daniel Rodriguez suggests that Penn students interested in this effort should also enlist their families’ help, asking them to send books directly to their dorms on campus or to purchase books at Penn’s bookstore. He emphasizes, “If this is too difficult to coordinate, just make a donation to The Chester Fund, as they are the experts on literacy and what books most inspire children to read. Many of us can donate $25.00. What’s more important than encouraging students to read? It’s a worthy investment.”

William Sorin, a senior and the outgoing President of St. Anthony Hall, comments, “This past year, we have completed 600 hours of community service - setting an organizational record. I am excited that this is part of St. Anthony Hall’s legacy and I hope that we can partner with The Chester Fund and Chester Charter School for the Arts for years to come.”

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