This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Fourth grader Jorge Soto had an important job Saturday at William Cramp Elementary School – and he executed it perfectly.
Jorge held the door for the mayor, the school principal, some politicians and nonprofit leaders, the school superintendent, a handful of bank executives from Wells Fargo, a couple of TV camera operators, a newspaper reporter, and a photographer, all of them on a tour to see what $200,000 from the bank and 325 volunteers from the bank and City Year could do on one rainy Saturday morning to transform Jorge’s school.
“I love it,” Jorge said, as he carefully waited for every last person to pass.
Here’s what the tour group saw:
The new library had freshly painted walls and was ready to receive shelves and books, which were packed in boxes nearby. An old, messy storage area had been converted into a faculty room, where teachers could relax and refresh. In the gym, volunteers painted jerseys from every Philadelphia team on the walls, including one from the William Cramp Elementary School sports teams, along with silhouettes of basketball and tennis players. Others assembled bicycles to be awarded to children with perfect attendance.
Every staircase had new paint in triangles of turquoise and blue, making the experience of climbing from floor to floor akin to swimming through a sun-dappled ocean – perhaps evoking the career of the shipbuilder for whom the school was named.
Every wall displayed a mural, freshly painted that day: One hallway showed a review of the parts of speech. In another corner was an explanation of angles – acute, obtuse. Over there, a diagram of a volcano, each molten layer a different color, and on another wall, the elements of a story, from setting to solution.
Jorge painted an inspirational saying on a green mural, brushing in yellow letters: “Every Accomplishment Starts with The Decision to Try.”
At Cramp, the decision has been to try to make a better world for the 520 kindergarten through 5th graders who attend this school, where the children’s families make so little money that every child qualifies for free breakfast and lunch.
“People call this area the Badlands,” said principal Deanda Logan, now in her seventh year at the school. “We’re in the camp of believing that these are Good lands.
Cramp principal Deanda Logan talks with a City Year volunteer at the Wells Fargo Day of Service on Saturday. Logan says that although the children at her school face high levels of trauma and adversity, they just want to learn and to be loved. (Photo by I. George Bilyk)
“We get the best children,” said Logan, an unabashed booster whose throat often catches with emotion.
Yes, reading and mathematics proficiency rates are low – in the 20 percent range – but they are improving. Cramp’s SPR score (the school progress report index that combines factors such as academic scores with statistics measuring attendance and suspensions) was at 22 in 2013, and it has risen to 41 on a scale of 100. Most of Cramp’s students speak Spanish as a first language, and the testing system requires grade-level competency in English by their second year in school.
“We have some children here with some really profound issues, not of their making. So it’s important to us that our children are happy,” she said.
“You can’t say enough good things about how resilient they are. They have suffered trauma with a capital T many times. What they have to deal with on a daily basis outside of school would make even the strongest person collapse under the weight of such difficulty. But they don’t. They are so strong.
“All they want is attention. They just want someone to notice them, to acknowledge them. ”
You might have thought that Logan slipped these talking points to Mayor Kenney, because he said almost exactly the same thing two hours later, describing Cramp’s children:
“They are smart. They are curious,” he said, after grabbing a seat at one of the new cafeteria tables that Wells Fargo donated. “They just want to be loved and paid attention to.”
Saturday’s efforts, he said, “are terrific and about time. People are starting to understand that we’re not forgetting them. They feel that someone cares about them. We’re trying to bring a level of equity into the system.”
For Kenney, the event provided an opportunity to make his pitch for raising taxes to support the schools. He said the city is trying to help “people who are stuck and mired in poverty and can’t move” and to retain young families who move out of the city when it’s time for their children to go to school.
Property taxes are higher in the suburbs, he said, but families are willing to pay that price – just not in Philadelphia. That has to change, he said, with better schools and better funding.
“I don’t care what the complainers say,” he said. “When I go to these schools, I know I’m right.”
The energy in the building was palpable. Every corridor had a boom box going – sometimes salsa, sometimes hip hop, sometimes old-school or rock and roll. The biggest challenge was to avoid dancing while holding a paintbrush. Besides the 325 volunteers from the bank and City Year, parents, students, school staffers and volunteers from nonprofits such as Philadelphia Mural Arts participated.
For months, school leaders and bank representatives had met to figure out the priorities for the day. For weeks before Saturday’s event, crews from Philadelphia City Year had laid the groundwork, stenciling the outlines of murals on the wall, and taping up doorways and covering floors to protect them from paint splatters.
Similar to the Peace Corps, City Year AmeriCorps members, aged 18 to 25, apply to serve a year in a city, usually working in schools. Known for their trademark red jackets, they receive a modest stipend and scholarship help.
On Saturday, after the Wells Fargo volunteers left, 100 City Year members stayed behind finishing undone murals, cleaning brushes, washing floors, and getting the school ready for the students.
Wells Fargo regional president Joseph Kirk spent most of Saturday morning painting a green stripe on a large butterfly’s wing for a mural in the cafeteria.
Most days, he oversees about 80 bank branches in Philadelphia, Bucks, and parts of Montgomery County, including 38 in the city. Wells Fargo employs 5,000 in the wider five-county region, he said, and has been one of the largest corporate funders of Kenney’s community school program.
In his position, Kirk is fully aware of Wells Fargo’s efforts to climb out of the scandals that have enmeshed the bank, one of the nation’s largest – problems with mortgage and auto loans and the creation of as many as two million fake accounts to bolster the books.
But no one was thinking about that on Saturday during Wells Fargo’s annual volunteer event – the Signature Day of Service.
“What you see here is the face of Wells Fargo team members who live and work in this community,” he said.
Kirk said that Wells Fargo’s efforts don’t end when its 225 volunteers go home, paint-splattered and tired. The bank will continue to back this school and others with money and manpower, teaching courses in financial literacy at Cramp and other schools, for example.
“We use this day as a way of building relationships,” said Aldustus Jordan, senior vice president of community relations. The day also builds relationships within the bank, he said, as employees “who work in their silos” bond over brushes and paint.
Upstairs, Wells Fargo volunteer Carmen Rodriguez, 53, an administrative assistant, was dabbing gold paint on a mural that will be hung outdoors. She attended Cramp as a 5th grader.
“I’m so happy that Wells Fargo is giving back to the community, especially to a school I went to years ago,” she said.
“I love that we are painting and fixing up my school. I would love to see the kids’ faces when they come here on Monday morning.”