(Photo by Juliana Reyes)
Between tending to problems with student laptops and tablets, tech support staffer Tynesha Kinard kept noticing something at North Philly’s new U School: There were a lot of fights — between girls.
That inspired Kinard, 24, to start a club where girls could come to learn and dish about topics like bullying, sexual health and cultural awareness. It would meet twice a week during the ninth graders’ activity period, reserved for extracurriculars. The club started with ten girls, who all had to apply to join. Kinard called it Fly Girls.
Little by little, the girls started to open up to her. Kinard even noticed that one girl in the club stopped getting into so many fights at school.
“She’s like an angel now,” Kinard said, adding that students “just want someone to listen to them.”
Kinard is one of two tech support staffers at the U School, which opened in the fall to about 100 ninth graders. The school is essentially paperless — instead of textbooks and pencils, they use Chromebooks and Google Apps — so the tech support team is invaluable, said principal Neil Geyette. (At some schools, one teacher will take on the role of tech director, but that’s not possible with the U School’s tiny staff of five teachers.)
But the tech team is invaluable for another reason, too: both tech staffers have taken on roles outside of their primary jobs. While Kinard runs Fly Girls, fellow tech staffer Diamond Johnson runs the choir.
Johnson, 22, said a few students must have noticed her humming because they came up to her and said, “Miss Diamond, you really know how to sing. Can you start choir?” Johnson obliged. (The students’ instincts were right, by the way. Both of Johnson’s parents went to the Berklee School of Music.)
Johnson has also been mentoring a student, teaching him to do the things that she does for the school, like fix broken Chromebooks.
In the District’s “bare-bones budget era,” it’s huge for a school to have adults around who are willing and able, Geyette said.
“There’s not enough adults [at the District] to serve our kids in all the ways that they need,” he said.
The principal described Kinard and Johnson as “rock stars.”
Kinard and Johnson are both part of the District’s Urban Technology Project, a tech apprenticeship program for high school graduates. Backed largely by public and private grants, the program has shrunk since 2011, due to drastic budget cuts on the city, state and federal levels. Schools pay to have UTP’s apprentices as tech staff, but as budgets grew tighter, fewer and fewer schools could afford to hire the apprentices, founder Edison Freire said.
U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez spotlighted the program last winter, choosing Philadelphia as the place to announce a new $100 million effort to fund apprenticeships.
Though Johnson is returning next year in her full-time position, Kinard’s six-month fellowship (and tech support role at the U School) recently ended. But she plans on returning to run Fly Girls. That was actually part of the plan all along, she confessed, with a smile. She wanted to find a way to stay involved with the U School.