LOCAL STORY: PHILADELPHIA & CAMDEN

Chess for the Win

Like many young people, Christopher had a rocky transition to middle school and was searching for his place in school. For Chris, a student at Conwell Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia, the Chess Club became his place to explore, experience, and grow while also introducing him to Mr. W, ASAS Dean of Students. Like an understanding uncle or older brother, Mr. W serves a problem-solver that students can turn to in times of the ever-present uncertainty of middle school.

When ASAS came to Conwell, Mr. W offered to coach chess, where he encountered Christopher. In building a relationship with Mr. W, Christopher was encouraged, and he registered for volleyball, which quickly became a passion. He found camaraderie and built solid social connections with peers. Christopher, now in 7th grade, improved his grades; participated in the ASAS Show Your Work career project and learned architectural design, and developed self-confidence and began to enjoy school. Recently, he was honored by the Philadelphia 76ers at a basketball game as their “Strong Student of the Game.”

And Conwell is full of caring adults. Conwell prides itself on creating that “family feeling” that had such a positive impact on Christopher, and this thoughtful approach permeates the school staff’s approach to youth development. Ms. Maria, the ASAS site coordinator, exemplifies this feeling. She’s been with the district for over twenty years and with Conwell for the past several years. For her, Conwell is family. Her granddaughter, for whom she is the primary caregiver, attends the school, so for Ms. Maria, creating a welcoming environment is a profoundly personal passion. She was hired when the previous site coordinator left, and she intuitively understood the importance of developing personal relationships to succeeding at Conwell. She brings this warmth to the classes she teaches, including dance and ballet. She’s also been critically important to bridge the generational gap. She meets parents and caregivers at the door every day to buzz them into the school when they come to pick up their students, and personally can relate to the challenge of raising a grandchild.

Middle school is a critical period of transition for many students. For ASAS, this is our “Sweet Spot” because we engage youth at the moment where they have the most questions and often feel the most doubt. They are unsure about decision making or are unclear about their future and sometimes unsteady with their social connections in school. Many of us can vividly remember these feelings and wanting to just make it through middle school.

ASAS doesn’t parachute in to serve students through programming alone. Instead, ASAS’ programmatic flexibility creates various opportunities for youth to find their niche and get the necessary traction to be successful and happy in school. Chris is like many of our All-Stars: a young person trying to adjust to the middle school environment, manage complex friendships with peers, succeed in school, and maybe not figure out what he wants to be, but at least rule out what he doesn’t want to be.

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