Mighty Writers opens bilingual center in South Philly

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Playing Scrabble at Mighty Writers South's bilingual program to build children's skills, with teacher Laura Karabell (front) and parent Martha Tellaz (standing). (VICTORIA MIER)

The corner of 15th and Christian Streets is clogged with snow. As the storm intensifies, only a few people keep trudging through the slush.

Among them are Martha Tellaz and her children, Alan and Santiago. Bundled tightly, the three seem to materialize out of the storm and enter the building of Mighty Writers South on Christian Street.

Mighty Writers, a nonprofit that fosters critical thinking skills and creativity, offers daily afterschool programs, nightly classes, scholarship programs, college preparatory courses, and more, all free to Philadelphia students. And Mighty Writers is about to open a bilingual center.

Alan Tellaz, 11, bounds across the room to join Stephanie and Adrian Lorenzo, age 10 and 11, respectively. The usual Saturday afternoon group, a bilingual Spanish and English class taught by Laura Karabell, has dwindled from eight or more children to three, due to the weather.

The Lorenzo kids got lucky and caught a ride, but the Tellaz family braved the snow on foot. The weekly class is important for Alan, according to his mother.

"I think it's a very good program for the kids for their future," Tellaz said. "My son is not a citizen, so I think college is going to be hard . . . but I am sure Mighty Writers can help."

Tellaz says she is happy that something like Mighty Writers exists. She watches as the kids play Scrabble with Karabell, tiles clicking on the table as another word is created - sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English.

"I like to write comedy," Alan Tellaz said later, yogurt-covered pretzels on a paper towel in front of him. "In school, I have to write about different people in history. It's not fun. But writing at Mighty Writers is fun, and you get to meet new people."

Although his school assignments remain decidedly un-fun, Alan says those are easier to complete after his two years at Mighty Writers. Planning, he said, is not as stressful anymore, because he knows where to start.

All part of the plan, according to Tim Whitaker, Mighty Writer's founder and executive director. Getting the students to think clearly is a big step to writing well. "That's when good things," Whitaker said, "are going to happen."

Since 2009, Mighty Writers has been at its locations in West (39th Street and Lancaster Avenue) and South Philadelphia. Recently, the staff noticed a need in the Mexican community around the Italian Market, demonstrated by the growth of and interest in Karabell's bilingual class on Saturdays.

To serve that need, Mighty Writers will open its first bilingual location, dubbed El Futuro, at 1025 S. Ninth St., on March 16.

Which works out just fine for Martha Tellaz.

"It's going to make a big difference with the new center closer," Tellaz said. "Now I can bring my son every time there's class, and if we have a concern, we can ask easier."

Alan is happy that the walk will be shorter, particularly in bad weather, and that he can attend more often. Stephanie Lorenzo agreed that being able to walk to the new center, instead of her usual drive to Mighty Writers South, is exciting.

Karabell, a Spanish teacher who will direct El Futuro, designed the curriculum with artist Nora Litz, a well-known member of the Mexican American community.

"It's the difference between making it and not making it," Litz said of Mighty Writers programs. "Because right now, there's nothing for a community with parents that didn't go to school and don't know what higher education is."

Classes will be mostly in English, said Karabell, but she'll also have the students write in Spanish. Most are fluent in English, Karabell said, but could fine-tune their writing, spelling, and grammar.

In a bilingual program, parents without confident English can be more involved in their children's education. Many parents in the city's Spanish-speaking community are fierce advocates for their children, Litz said, but lack of English proficiency can be a problem.

"The parents can come in, and I can make them feel at home," Karabell said. "These parents as a whole came here with the purpose of giving their kids better opportunities and a chance at something they didn't have. You can see that."

A few moments later, Karabell is writing seasonal words on the whiteboard. Someone calls out, "Taxes!" for spring, and everyone laughs. The group chooses winter as a theme. Karabell puts five minutes on the clock. The kids write. Once finished, they're asked to share.

Adrian writes: "Winter is a season of cold and joy. Winter is a season of slowdown, doing things you haven't done. Winter is a season of spending time with families and friends. Winter is a season that makes you see white and feel cold up your spine."

The snow is still falling heavily outside Mighty Writers.

"Are you ready for the next season?" Karabell asked, moving the magnet on the white board to spring. The pens start to scribble again.

 


vmier@philly.com