ABOVE PHOTO: From left: St. Sen. Art Haywood (D- 4th Sen. Dist.); Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller, Senior Pastor, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, and Rev. Marshall Mitchell, Pastor, Salem Baptist Church in Jenkintown.
By Arlene Edmonds
Thanks to a generous contribution from the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Northwest Philadelphia and the Salem Baptist Church in Jenkintown, Black students at Cheltenham High School will get the help they need to get ready for college.
Enon and Salem joined forces to make a $30,000 donation for a new college preparation and tutorial program at the public high school in Wyncote. This effort comes on the heels of a series of meetings held to discuss the racial tension that beleaguered the school last year.
The SUN recently sat down with Enon Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller, Rev. Marshall Mitchell, pastor of Salem Baptist and State Sen. Art Haywood (D- 4th Sen. Dist.) — whose district includes Cheltenham township — to discuss the new initiative and the PSAT, SAT and academic tutoring it would provide.
To take advantage of the quality education that the Cheltenham School District is known for, many families opt to move from Philadelphia. But because they may not have gotten all of the courses they needed from the School District of Philadelphia, there may be gaps in learning that causes them to have difficulty competing with their peers academically.
This was the source of some of last year’s troubles, and the reason why the three men thought that this new initiative was necessary.
“The School District of Cheltenham has had some challenges,” Haywood said. “What came out of the administrative meetings was a discussion of how the community can assist the youths at the school. Pastor Waller, Pastor Mitchell, and myself met with the superintendent to come up with a core plan of ideas to help the young people.”
“We decided we would give them extra help and assistance with the PSAT and SAT to improve their chances of admittance to college,” Hayward continued. “This is not just for the purpose of having an impact on their opportunities, but we also wanted to have an impact on the culture of the high school. We realize that there are things we can to help address some of the discussion as far as the achievement of African-American students in the district. Part of what we are trying to do is to support families so that the orientation is towards excellence.”
Because of the school’s proximity to both Enon and Salem (students attend both churches), the pastors felt it was important for the faith-based community to be stakeholders in this partnership, Waller said.
“Our approach is going to be multi-pronged,” Waller said. “We want to address the achievement issues of our young people. That is why we are providing this financial assistance. We want to help the students, particularly the African American [ones], to have an orientation towards excellence. We want to ensure that these students are on a path to opportunity, and to behave in ways that ensure that.”
Waller has his own personal insights about the Cheltenham High School situation, having lived a form of it himself while growing up in Ohio. His family moved from Cleveland to the nearby suburb of Shaker Heights, and many of the same conversations between the mostly White and affluent population and the newer Black, working-class population that moved in are currently taking place in Cheltenham regarding the district’s public schools.
“I understand the impact of changing demographics,” Waller said. “I lived through it. Whenever any suburb has a changing demographic, we all have to make the transition a good thing. I understand the dynamics of that change. I know how parents and families react. I understand the families already in Cheltenham have high expectations for Cheltenham High School. But let me be clear; my focus is on the African-American students. I want the Black kids to succeed.”
“I am not an elected official or politician, so I am speaking from the church’s ability to fund this type of training and inviting parents to support it” Waller continued. “We are not trying to get them to join Enon or Salem. We do have students from our churches who attend Cheltenham. We want to work alongside them to help them. We know there are other issues (besides academics), but this is a start.”
Rev. Mitchell attended the community meetings that dealt with the racial issues last June, sometimes staying until well after midnight.
At one particular meeting, he remained to hear the testimony of an older African-American woman who lived in Cheltenham for decades.
“This is about our holistic responsibility,” Mitchell said. “Money is only one part. We can help the district as far as helping these families. This is really geared at looking at ways the two churches can turn this situation around.”
“We — the churches — are stakeholders after putting this money on the table,” Mitchell continued. “We are investing, and we want to see a return on our investment. The return is educational and cultural (benefits) for young African-Americans.”
Sen. Haywood believes that this initiative is critical for the students and is hoping that an alliance of government, churches and the high school itself can make things easier for everyone concerned.
“I have a personal and vested interest in Cheltenham High School,” Haywood said. “I live across the street from the school. I have lived in, and been an Elkins Park homeowner, for a long time. I have been involved in the community for 17 years. The school takes our tax dollars.”
“We have many of the same issues of Shaker Heights that Rev. Waller spoke about,” Haywood continued. “Together, we can solve this. All students should have the opportunity to raise their achievement at Cheltenham High School. It is critical that everybody in the township see that we are moving towards excellence.”
Ultimately, Waller believes that the Cheltenham High dilemma can be solved. He feels that the cultural diversity of the school could create a win-win advantage for the school community in the long run. However, he recognizes that this is a transition that will take time.
“We have to acknowledge the difference between what is racial and what is racist,” Waller said. “We have both White privilege and Black apathy here. There is the problem of accountability. We know we have to put systemic evil in its context. Enon and Salem put the money up. We want to be accountable because the people in our congregations put the money up.”
“We must be prayerful,” Waller continued. “But, this money allows us to have a seat at the table to discuss those systemic issues. [In the future] that will include hiring practices, having African-American history classes, not just for African- Americans, but AP classes. There are African-American students who are AP. Why can’t they take an African -American AP class? So, we are working towards many solutions.”
This is not the first educational program that Enon has contributed to. Last June, Enon gave $100,000 to the Community College of Philadelphia. These funds were earmarked for CCP’s 50th Anniversary Scholars Program. This initiative helps make college possible for Philadelphia high school graduates.
“A large gift such as this can change the lives of so many students,” said Dr. Donald Generals, president of the Community College of Philadelphia. “[It can] foster more secure futures for their families and our city.”