Tutoring project gives West Philly students a leg up on learning

A West African proverb, borrowed by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton for the title of her 1996 book on how a community impacts a child’s wellbeing, says, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Children are not islands, and cannot thrive in isolation. A collective societal effort is required for them to reach their full potential.

West Philadelphia’s children are no different. For them to grow into productive, mature, and responsible adults, their families must guide, encourage, uplift, and love. The City of Philadelphia must extend both hands. West Philadelphia must stand up. Penn must do its part, and it does.

The University has an array of programs and initiatives to abet West Philly youth.

At Civic House, Penn’s hub for student-led community service and social advocacy work, the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project (WPTP) helps elementary, middle, and high school students who live or go to school in West Philly realize their academic potential by assisting them with their schoolwork.

Founded in 1986, the WPTP consists of more than 300 students—primarily undergraduates—from each of the University’s 12 schools who devote one hour per week to tutoring school-age students in the program. Both on campus and off campus, one-on-one tutoring is available throughout the semester.

On-campus tutoring is available Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., at Civic House. The WPTP partners with five public schools for off-campus tutoring: Morton Elementary at 63rd and Elmwood; Powel Elementary at 36th and Powelton; Rhoads Elementary at 49th and Parrish; Middle Years Alternative at 47th and Fairmount; and Mastery-Shoemaker at 53rd and Media. With the exception of Mastery-Shoemaker, which is an after-school tutoring program, Penn students travel by van to the schools during the school day.

Lauren Rosenstock, a senior in the Wharton School and chair of the WPTP, has been involved with the project since her freshman year.

“I was interested in tutoring and learning more about the West Philadelphia community, so it seemed like a really cool opportunity,” she says. “I wanted to find a way to help and give back.”

Rosenstock, from Wisconsin, is tutoring on and off campus. She tutors two fourth graders, helping them mostly with math and reading comprehension.

Elizabeth Cannon, an associate director at Civic House and program coordinator of the WPTP, says the project works closely with teachers at the partner schools in order to determine what strategies will work best for the schools and the tutees.

“We are constantly trying to build and deepen our collaboration and relationships with our partner schools to incorporate a community partner voice,” she says. “For example, the teachers identify areas where the Penn students can be a support, so it’s not just us coming in and saying we want to tutor this; we are trying to listen to the teachers and the school to figure out where they would like some additional support and help.”

Tutees who come on campus for tutoring bring their own schoolwork, and the tutors assist with whatever parents request.

Neha Gupta, a junior from Westchester, N.Y., majoring in economics and minoring in Hispanic studies and consumer psychology, is in her fifth semester volunteering with the WPTP. She tutored children and adults while in high school and says she was interested in continuing community service work at Penn.

“I thought it was an awesome opportunity to get involved in the community,” she says. “I had heard that it was really important to be able to step out of the Penn bubble, and I knew this would help me do it.”

Gupta, who serves as director of the WPTP’s education committee, has tutored at Powel and Shoemaker, and is currently tutoring a fifth grader at Rhoads. She says the project is “mutually beneficial” to both tutors and tutees, helping West Philadelphia students with their studies and providing Penn students with a greater perspective and awareness of larger educational issues, such as school funding, race, class, and other socioeconomic concerns.

“It’s not just us coming in to help them,” she says. “We really benefit from them, too.”

Tyler Harris, a junior from Minnesota majoring in finance, is also in his fifth semester with the WPTP, and says he was involved with a similar program in high school in Minneapolis. This semester, he is tutoring a third-grade student at Morton, where he has volunteered since joining the project.

Harris, director of the WPTP’s strategy and analytics committee, says the program was one of the first things he signed up for when he arrived on campus as a freshman.

“I think it gives us a good first exposure to the community, and it helps us find other ways to become involved,” he says.

The WPTP accepts new tutees at the beginning of each semester, and a majority of the West Philadelphia students return for the spring semester. Some of them stay in the program for years. Cannon says there have been instances in which a Penn student has tutored the same West Philadelphia student for his or her entire four years at the University.

Sylver Foxworth has three of her four children enrolled in the WPTP, and is awaiting a tutor for her youngest child. She says the program provides her children, who have been involved with the project for three years, with the one-on-one tutoring they so desperately need but are unable to receive in school.

“Even though it’s only once a week, it still helps,” she says.

Parents who are interested in enrolling their children in the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project next semester can apply via the Civic House website. Applications open in December and run through the beginning of January.