Retooling public education
“Let’s motivate these kids to be more independent, more responsible and ready to work, so they’re not just sitting at home,” Smith said.
As the mother of two black children, Smith said she is horrified by how her children are perceived to navigate the world alone and in groups — especially by the police.
She’s already been pulled over twice in recent years on her commute, once after forgetting to turn on her husband’s car headlights after a long day at the store in Philly and once on the freeway driving from her suburban home with a new luxury car. The officer seemed suspicious of her wealth, she said.
“I answer the questions and my son is so uncomfortable in the passenger seat,” she said. “They asked me more questions about my car than my legal documents, and in the process you lean against my son’s window, who you can see is very uncomfortable. I was like wow, that was really unprofessional.
But that doesn’t mean Smith harbors a negative attitude toward the police. In fact, she has a good working relationship with the police officer who often stops by the store.
Unfortunately, Smith had a break-and-take theft for the first time in 30 years of business, which she said is extremely unusual for the neighborhood in her experience. More commonly, the community will keep a close eye on her store, even at night, she said.
Decades before Ken Curry became president of the North 22nd Street Business Association in North Philadelphia, he was a peer counselor at a local high school.
He happens to be involved in early childhood education for two decades.
Curry said he doesn’t think Philadelphia’s education system is setting young people up for success.
“It’s broken and I don’t see anyone trying to fix it anywhere. We do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result,” he said. “I think we need a city- and state-funded education program where everyone is treated equally and has the right equal access to resources and educational materials to succeed.”
Currie said he is not convinced by the year-round school concept – which has been proposed by some mayoral candidates – and would prefer to see a more robust vocational training network with apprenticeships at local businesses.
“If you’re going to keep doing the same thing, it doesn’t mean much. You just do it for two more months,” he said. “It’s pretty hot going to school in the summer when you don’t have air conditioning in many of our schools.”
He said he wants to see more construction trades taught in school.
“We have a shortage of these things now,” he said. “It’s easy to jump on the wave of technology and the service economy, but there are still things you’ll never escape. We will always buy homes. So who will wire these homes? Who will come to fix it when you have an electrical problem? Who will take care of your plumbing?”
Training future entrepreneurs
A graduate of Dobbin High School — known in the community as a historic vocational public school — he is also an entrepreneur in the local community.
Tameka Montgomery is 30 years old, grew up in the neighborhood and attended Murrell Dobbins High School for Career and Technical Education.
After graduation, she enrolled in community college. After that, you found work with people with physical and mental disabilities. She worked in this career for about a decade.
“The money was super good, so I kind of drifted off in college and then came back when I got older,” said Montgomery, who has not yet finished her associate’s program in technology and business.
But during the coronavirus pandemic, everything changed. She worked in an emergency room and contracted COVID-19. She was unable to work for a month and had no income. Still, she was told she didn’t qualify for government food assistance programs because she earned too much money in her previous wages.
“I couldn’t sleep in the middle of the night. I was on YouTube watching stuff and I came across candles,” she said, sitting in her shop busy making candles. “I bought three candle making kits and it was really easy for me. It was like cooking. It’s therapeutic for me. Making candles smells so good and is so peaceful. I’ll play jazz music, it’s just soothing to me.
A boxer by training, Montgomery wore a baseball cap, jeans and fresh, colorful sneakers.
She still wants to finish her degree, so she enlists in the US Air Force as a reservist.
“I never wanted to take out a lot of school loans,” she said, “God [community college] the student loan ended up being only about $6000, but with all the interest and stuff it came out to like $13,000. So I was a little discouraged about going back, but then I joined the Air Force.
She said there’s a disconnect when everything is online or there are only pop-up opportunities like the West Philly-based Enterprise Center’s Biz on Wheels program, where a mobile bus was parked in the hallway offering resources to small business owners.
“We need a physical resource center. Something as simple as a person walking in there and saying, “Hey, my son is being bullied at school, I need help. Hey, my daughter isn’t doing well at home, she’s getting out of control. I need you all to help me find her some help,” she said.
Montgomery said she wants to see more paid apprenticeship opportunities for high school students.
“They need more cooperative work programs [in high school] so they can start gaining experience,” she said. “I don’t mind hiring two or three kids – they come here to make candles. It helps me do administrative work, put labels on things.”
But she doesn’t have the money to pay the workers entirely out of pocket right now.
“That will be a good thing. But you know, you have to pay them. Or the school can. If the city says hey, if they came to school and didn’t miss a day, keep their GPA up, we’ll pay you to go to work right there down the street. That’s the incentive kids want to work for,” she said.
Barber Fred Serom Hill remembers when professional trades were more common in schools.
“They used to have a plumbing school, an electrical program. It wasn’t a lot of money to get into those classes,” he said. “Then you pick up a skill and get a job somewhere and you have those skills, but they don’t have them anymore. To me, that’s kind of tearing down the community.”
The lack of opportunities for young residents is a problem, he said.
“So you have a lot of people who aren’t really trying to do anything with their lives in their 20s,” he said. “They do nothing at 30, and by the time they’re 40, they’ve accomplished nothing.” So they cannot provide for their families. [Education] is what makes entrepreneurs out of individuals.”
Instead of waiting for the city or school system to act, Hill offers apprenticeships in his shop.
“We have people come in to start without even knowing how to cut, but they’ve just been around long enough and they’re trained,” he said. “They train to become full-fledged barbers and be able to function and provide for their family for the rest of their lives. Yes, especially for individuals [formerly] closed.”