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City Limits

When Fourth-Grade Problems Include Gunfire

In West Philadelphia, a teacher willing to broach a heavy subject is helping his students make sense of the shootings that shape their world.

Kenya has a choice. During writing exercises, her fourth-grade teacher, Joe Alberti, lets his students sit and work wherever they’d like. Kenya’s desk is near the door, where she has a clear view of arithmetic problems chalked on the blackboard, and printed instructions for what to do in case of a lockdown. But she decides to move to a spot where she can have more space to herself. She picks a pencil from the graveyard of broken stubs in her desk and heads for an open swath of green carpet across the classroom.

Today’s assignment is poetry. The writing prompt is, “Because there was a gun.” Kenya opens her composition book to a fresh page.

She forms each letter carefully. “Because there was a gun,” she prints, “everybody live in fear.”

Around the room, Kenya’s classmates tilt their heads over notebooks, composing their own verses.

“Destroy the Guns!!!!” writes Suehayla.

“Put the gun down,” writes Vanessa.

“Don’t shoot,” writes Robert, “let me live life.”

The poems these students at Samuel Powel Elementary School are writing mark the latest phase in their year-long project on gun violence. Shootings are a daily possibility in the West Philadelphia neighborhoods where many of them live. There are 30 students in the class; according to Alberti, 24 say they know somebody who’s been shot. Even among the few who can’t name any victims within their own circle, the threat of gunfire casts a shadow, crackling through their streets, interrupting their play.

Every student’s experience with gun violence gets equal weight during the project, but many of them have rallied around Kenya. She is 10 years old. Her birthday is September 5, and her favorite colors are pink, purple, and blue. On her last report card, she received four As, four Bs, and one C.

On December 9, 2015, in North Philadelphia, her father was shot and killed.

In early December, a week after the school’s two fourth-grade classes elected to study gun violence, Kenya’s father was fatally shot. (Photo: Dave Londres for The Trace)

Around half past nine, the students gather on the carpet to share their work. Kenya begins to read her poem aloud, softly at first. Alberti asks her to speak up. She raises her voice.

Because there was a gun
everybody live in fear.
Because there was a gun
my father isn’t here.
Because there was a gun
some people cry out tears.
Because there are guns
life is a nightmare.

To Kenya, her father was a puzzle with a habit for disappearing and disappointing. “My dad mostly would do drugs and hurt people,” she says. A 31-year-old Philadelphia resident listed in court documents under several aliases, his record of arrests trailed back to his 20s. Once, three years ago, he beat a blind man in broad daylight. Kenya says he tried to get therapy for his drug problem. But “he had a freak out.”

Kenya’s parents had been estranged since she could remember, and she was raised primarily by her mom. (Her mother declined to speak to The Trace.) On her seventh birthday, her mom got a huge vanilla cake and threw her a party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. She remembers her dad showing up. She remembers that he didn’t stay very long.

Kenya learned of his death on a Wednesday. The next day she stayed home. “I didn’t want to do anything,” she says. “I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t want to do nothing. Just sat in my mom’s bed.”

A day later, she was back at school. “I think she was still in shock,” says Alberti, who asked if she felt like talking first thing that morning. “She was basically like, ‘I’m fine! Moving on!’”

Alberti knew not to push, yet. Known by his kids as Doctor Joe, the homeroom teacher towers over his students with his lanky 6-foot-7-inch frame. Wearing a hoop earring and ponytail, he looks like a genie. For the past three years, Alberti has partnered with Need in Deed, a local service-learning nonprofit, to let his class self-select a social topic to study. He’s not naive about the issues his students deal with — his previous classes have chosen to explore bullying, child abuse, and air pollution. But this year was a first: Asked what they wanted as their project’s focus, his fourth-graders chose to talk about guns and violence.

Amid his regular teaching duties, his involvement with several teacher groups, and coaching the school’s chess and basketball teams, Alberti also plays caretaker. “There just aren’t those resources for students who are dealing with these things,” he says. (Photo: Dave Londres for The Trace)

In early December, a week after the school’s two fourth-grade classes selected the topic, Kenya’s dad was fatally shot. Alberti watched her retreat behind a “hard outer shell,” where she appeared to stay for months. Then, one day in February, the shell cracked. That morning, Kenya and another student were leading a class discussion about gun violence when she began to talk about her dad. She talked some more. She started to cry. Hands shot up from other students, itching to share their own stories. Some had cousins who’d been shot. Uncles. Grandfathers. Within minutes, more than half the students were crying, a few edging on hysteria.

In Alberti’s 11 years teaching in Philadelphia schools, he’d never seen a class become so overwhelmed with emotion. After he’d given several rounds of hugs, Kenya approached him. “No one’s listening, no one cares,” he recalls her saying. “Adults won’t listen to kids. They’re not even listening to other adults.” Alberti took her words as a challenge.

He started by writing a letter to the local paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“We are raising a group of children in our city who are scarred from the guns that are taking the lives of so many,” it reads. “These children feel powerless.”

Through the class project, Alberti would give his students what power he could. He and the school’s other fourth-grade teacher, Chris Powers, have hosted guest speakers, including the district police captain, a gunshot-wound victim, and social-justice activists. They’ve studied Pennsylvania gun laws, the Second Amendment, and homicide rates versus those of gun suicide.

Kenya carries with her a printed copy of her father’s mugshot. (Photo: Dave Londres for The Trace)

The project creates a space for some kids to process the shootings. It can also get heavy. “It does bother me sometimes that I live in a city [where] guns are being used often,” says Samuel, age 9. One of Alberti’s few students who can’t name any gunshot victims in his own family, Samuel realized on that intense February morning that most of his classmates are not so fortunate. He doesn’t feel immune to the epidemic. “Sometimes I get scared for stupid things, like someone ringing the doorbell. I just can’t help thinking, who is it?” His classmates experience different shades of those same fears. A boy named Ali has a plan in case he gets robbed at gunpoint (get a bulletproof vest from the police; give the robbers all his money). Some boys can recognize and imitate the drill-like chatter of an automatic weapon, the way bird-watchers are able to mimic a particular call.

Meanwhile, there’s Kenya, pinballing between stoicism and heartache, anger and confusion. Though she knows her dad wasn’t always around, “it hurts me to know that my own father is dead.” A few months ago she discovered her father’s mugshot online: a young, cheerless face with thick eyebrows and dark, sparkling eyes. When Kenya got the chance, she printed out the photo. She tucked it into her science folder, where her mom was unlikely to find it.

A two-story building of dust-red brick, Samuel Powel Elementary is located in a tree-lined residential neighborhood where security guards patrol on bicycles, dispatched from nearby Drexel University. The parts of West Philadelphia where some of Alberti’s students come from are not so tranquil. Kenya lives in Mantua, a neighborhood dealing with a high concentration of poverty and violent crime. Dubbed by residents as the “Bottom,” Mantua was recently chosen to receive federal funding for revitalisation as one of President Barack Obama’s “Promise Zones.”

Samuel Powel Elementary is one of the smallest schools in the district, and has suffered the effects of Philadelphia’s ongoing budget crisis. To serve its 287 students, the school nurse comes in one day a week — “because kids only get sick on Thursdays,” says Alberti. (Photo: Dave Londres for The Trace)

Mid-morning at Samuel Powel, Alberti’s fourth graders tromp down the stairwell and scatter across the blacktop to spend their 15-minute recess doing fourth-grade-recess things. They shriek, run, show off, gossip, run some more, unwrap their snacks in the warm sunlight. Some days, Kenya loops a neon yellow sash around her waist for Peace Patrol; she’s one of several fourth graders who make sure the younger kids are playing safely. But this morning, she’s off duty, racing around the play structure in a mashup game of tag and dance-off. Her favorite jungle gym move is to twirl on the pull-up bar, her corkscrew curls blurring as she spins.

By turns, Kenya is playful, quarrelsome, pensive, hard-headed. One moment she’s wagging her finger and rap-battling playfully at the lunch table, the next she’s bristling at a name someone called her. She says her temper operates on “three points,” or levels, of intensity. Her friends know these levels and try to help. If she gets upset during a guest presentation and flees the room, they follow her into the hallway; if her cheeks redden in anger, they remind her to “breathe.” She often confides in one of the three Kaylas, Kayla S., a tall 10-year-old with silver braces and long braids. Kayla S.’s dad was killed when she was a baby. A few years ago, she says her mom let her open the envelope containing photos of the crime scene.

“He had four shots in his head” — Kayla S. lightly taps three spots across her forehead, and one beneath her eye — “and another in his leg.” The envelope also contained his birth certificate. “I kept looking at it over and over again so I could remember his name,” she says. “Eric.”

But the sisterhood has limits. Kayla S. says her mom loved her dad, so they can miss him together. Kenya, who says her parents “weren’t friends at all,” has a knot of questions — about his addiction, about his death — to untangle on her own. “Why did they kill him? What did he do to them?” she wonders. “What is wrong with him? Why is he sick with that stuff?”

Kenya and friends play on the jungle gym during recess. When a young person loses a family member to a shooting, it “messes up the person’s feelings and brain,” says Naomi, 10, “and they, like, don’t trust people.” (Photo: Dave Londres for The Trace)

Public health researchers and psychologists say exposure to violence, either direct or indirect, can leave a lasting imprint on children. It can increase the risk of long-lasting chronic health issues like asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and substance abuse; lead to psychological issues like anger, withdrawal, and post-traumatic stress; and increase the probability that adolescents will behave violently themselves.

Some of the fourth graders at Samuel Powel seem to recognize the cycle, in their own way. When a young person loses a family member to a shooting, it “messes up the person’s feelings and brain,” says Naomi, 10, “and they, like, don’t trust people.”

The Samuel Powel teachers provide help where they can, but the school’s official support system falls short. One of the smallest elementary schools in the district, Samuel Powel has suffered the effects of Philadelphia’s ongoing budget crisis. Five years ago, Pennsylvania’s governor cut public school funding by $1 billion, resulting in bigger class sizes, teacher layoffs, and fewer extracurricular activities. To serve its 287 students, the school nurse comes in one day a week — “because kids only get sick on Thursdays,” says Alberti dryly. The guidance counselor is there only Wednesdays and Thursdays. “There just aren’t those resources for students who are dealing with these things,” he says. “The idea that they’ll just bounce back and they’re resilient — actually it’s not true.”

Amid his regular teaching duties, his involvement with several teacher groups, and coaching the school’s chess and basketball teams, Alberti also plays caretaker. For some kids, that means making sure they’re taking their ADHD medicine. For the class as a whole, it means memorizing where each student lives and the exact route they take to get home.

In the afternoon, Alberti assigns homework: multiplication problems, vocabulary words, and a TIME For Kids worksheet. “Write to Your Representative,” reads the heading. “What would make your community better?” Kenya’s green eyes skim down to the bonus exercise. She gets an idea.

Kenya sits at her desk, ready for the next assignment. “If I become president, guns will not be allowed,” she says. (Photo: Dave Londres for The Trace)

Kenya begins passing around her notebook and pencil. “Will you sign my ‘Stop Gun Violence’ petition?” she asks her classmates. Line by line, she collects signatures, each name a little piece of affirmation.

“This is what’s happening in the world now. This is what’s going on,” she says. “When we grow up, if there’s still guns around, we need to know what to do … If I have to wait 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, I don’t care. If I become president, guns will not be allowed.”

At 3:19 pm, the bell rings. Kenya lives one short mile away, but the journey is too dangerous to make by foot. Most days, to get home by her 4:25 curfew, she hops the trolley, transfers to a bus, crosses a bridge over the train tracks, jaywalks a busy road, and then hikes the last block and a half down her narrow street. But this afternoon it’s sunny, summery almost, and Kenya wants to walk.

Alberti shakes his head. Though there’s still plenty of daylight, it’s too risky. “Nope. I’m driving you.” She tries to make her case, but Alberti won’t budge. A few minutes later, he sidles the car up to a row house and Kenya hops out. Only once she’s safely up the steps and inside does he pull away and continue down the road.

[All photos by Dave Londres for The Trace]