Even with class not in session at South Philadelphia High School some 80 students from across the city still filed in every morning by 9 from July 6 through Aug. 14. Except for 15-year-old Kumar Santana, who found himself the lone musician at practice one afternoon.
As he later found out, his bandmates were at 2101 S. Broad St., attending the summer-enrichment program Voice of Philly through the nonprofit EducationWorks. His friends, along with the other participants, volunteered to learn about music production, as well as video production, media literacy and issues surrounding today’s city living. After hearing more about it, Santana agreed to join his pals and, in the process, opened his eyes to filmmaking, which allowed him to collaborate on the creation of a public service announcement on bullying.
The final products from the high school-aged students were shown to a small audience Aug. 13 during an awards ceremony at the school. Two of the songs produced during the program, "Education Works" and "Peace N’ Love," can be found on www.myspace.com/thevoiceofphilly. Still in the process of uploading their videos to YouTube, Bianca White, EducationWorks director of youth media programs, said her organization is working towards broadcasting the students’ creations and encouraging the future filmmakers and musicians to enter festivals and competitions.
"[They] are exposed to media images on a minute-to-minute basis and we definitely wanted to give them a basic understanding of how the media works," White said. "We wanted them to take control of their own image and produce things the way they’d like to see them."
Though the program, which just completed its second year at Southern, dedicated a lot of time to separating distortion from reality, many had already learned violence seen and heard through the media is tragic, not glamorous.
"Things nowadays, especially in South Philly, aren’t so nice," attendee Da’Me Harris, 17, said. "It’s really hard to look for hope, but thank goodness for groups like this where we can still find a way."
Led by EducationWorks employees and AmeriCorps workers, the participants held Teen Talks Mondays and Wednesdays to discuss how problems in the community affect them and Tuesdays and Thursdays were spent working on projects, such as creating video clips and writing, recording and mastering tracks.
"We came together as a unit," Harris said, "and we really made something out of it. We made songs that were relevant to the world."
For Santana, it meant "pushing away from violence, drugs and sexuality" in the music he and his band, Squalor Folk, produced not only throughout the program, but when they exited the school’s front doors.
"A lot of these kids’ friends were being killed or shot," Site Supervisor Latoria Williams-Anderson said.
She has been with EducationWorks for six years, but she said she chose to work at Southern because of its low graduation rate and lack of enrichment programs.
"Violence has been around forever and it sort of died down as I was growing up, but now it’s back at that same level," Williams-Anderson said.
Thanks to the efforts of staffers and University of the Arts students Kevin Wright and Nichole Talbott, the teens were able to use the college’s media lab, where there were more computers and better software than EducationWorks could provide under a grant from the city’s Public Health Management Corp. An incentive-based program, the Public Health Management Corp. also offered students $100, though they had opportunities to earn $50 more through EducationWorks based on performance levels.
At the awards ceremony, students laughed with Williams-Anderson, embracing her as they walked to the stage to collect their awards. Four days later, after the program ceased, her office was still filled with students, chatting in the background as she praised them.
Fridays, participants with strong attendance records went on field trips. Though they stayed local for some, including the movies, Jamz Roller Skating Rink and The Mann Center for the Performing Arts, the group also had outings to Dorney Park and, for the final trip Friday, Island Beach in Seaside Heights, N.J.
During open discussion Mondays and Wednesdays, the teens expressed concerns about staying afloat in a sea of bad influences. Even program graduates, whose college acceptance letters hang in Williams-Anderson’s office, returned.
"Working with teenagers is amazing because when you ask them questions about themselves, they open up," she said. "We had to limit them to a one-mic rule."
"A lot of the kids didn’t like that they were perceived as violent," the program’s White said, adding news coverage blankets the students’ reputations. "There is even a disparity between the truth among the students: Who they thought they were and themselves."
Harris, who is heading into his senior year, said South Philadelphia High has always been in the midst of a fact-versus-fiction-themed battle. For this reason, he said, it remains his favorite.
"There’s a lot of heart here," Harris, who attended South Philadelphia High for three years before switching to a local charter school, said. "People underestimate your talent and your abilities coming from this school, but there’s definitely some pure gold. You just gotta search hard to find it."