Community Academy in Philadelphia is like any other charter school in big-city America, trying to etch out an existence for students who, for whatever reason, don't make it in the typical urban school system. All I knew about Community Academy was that it was the first and oldest charter school in Philadelphia and, at 33 years old, has been one of the pioneers. But I discovered there was a lot more I didn't know.
The recent invitation to speak at Community Academy came from former City Council member Angel Ortiz and, in all honesty, I had zero time to prepare. So as I got in the car with Angel, I actually heard myself say, "So, tell me where we are going, who I am speaking to and what this is all about." Angel laughed and said, "Put on your seatbelt. I'm taking you to the barrio."
And he was. Community Academy is a fortress-like structure in the middle of the inner city. The parking lot is guarded, and you feel as though you're entering a prison. Inside, there are more guards and a metal detector, but once you get through that maze, the world changes dramatically.
You enter a modern building with students and teachers streaming through the halls, engaged and excited to be there. You can also note that they are all wearing, with some pride, the school jacket with its crest.
I was introduced to the school's founder and CEO, Joe Proietta. He explained the mission of the school and then led me into a room where members who self-identify as LGBT were waiting for us to have a discussion. Most members of the group were over 14 and female. As I was introduced by Angel, I was sort of at a loss for words, realizing that I'm speaking to a group of gay youth, and that is how I started out my chat. Some 40 years ago, I told them, we organized an organization to help endangered youth -- people just like them -- but, at that time, it was not safe to come out at school or have your school officials support you. All of a sudden, I turned the tables and asked them what their lives were like and what coming out was like for them.
They were all bright, eloquent, and very much in control of their lives. Most said they had come out when they were around 12 or 13 but knew they were gay all their lives. Many had parental problems but they were determined not to allow that to get in their way. Some take public transit for an hour and a half to make it to school every day. And many of the students were at Community Academy because the school embraced them, and that if it weren't for this school, they would not be in any school at all.
The biggest surprise was their lack of knowledge about their city's LGBT community or the Gayborhood. But it really shouldn't have been a surprise, since they see themselves as being able to fit in anywhere and with anybody.
Some charter schools have a particular focus, such as an artistic or even a sports-centered curriculum. Community Academy is specifically designed to embrace at-risk youth, make them feel welcomed, and help them grow.
I guess what I'll remember is what at first seemed strange to me. Two of the girls, ages 16 and 17, had been together for two years. They said so in an open room with their teachers and principal looking on, and no one was shocked or surprised. When I mentioned that to a friend later, he said, "That's sweet, it's a high-school romance."
Here's to the future. It's a bright one.