On paper, Philadelphia is only 165 miles from Bristol, Connecticut.
But when Tyanna Walker’s family moved from Bristol to Southwest Philly in 2007, it felt like she was light years away from her old home, especially when she started 5th grade at Morton Elementary School.
“It was just a totally different environment,” Tyanna says now. “Everything was less organized, and I was scared of the people.”
It was against this backdrop that she made her first visit to the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center’s new location in East Falls.
Opened in 2006, the $12.5 million Ashe Center boasts 16 tennis courts, state-of-the-art classroom space, a library, and a computer lab.
“My first time coming here, I was just amazed,” Tyanna says. “I never thought a place could be so organized and clean in Philly.”
A year later, the lively 13-year-old is thrilled that she still gets to go to the Ashe Center once a week.
She is also thrilled that her family found a new school for her that makes those weekly trips possible through an extracurricular program that would probably never have been available to her at a traditional public school.
Tyanna now attends Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, where she is a beneficiary of the Ashe Center’s upgraded programming for – and outreach to – charter school students.
“Due to the accountability system and budget and scheduling constraints, it’s hard to get [traditional public] school groups here during school hours,” explains Kenny Holdsman, a veteran of Philadelphia’s education reform community who has been president of the Ashe Center for the past 18 months.
“With charters, there is more latitude in the curriculum and in how they spend their time and money, and [there also seems to be] a greater appreciation for educating the whole child.”
Currently, the Ashe Center serves about 800 charter students overall, including six charter schools through their center-based programming.
Full package of activities
But it is Tyanna and her classmates at Richard Allen, a middle school, who are receiving the fullest extent of what the Ashe Center has to offer.
Tennis teaching pro John Greene, who taught English and ESOL in the District for 16 years, has been working with the group from Richard Allen to develop the Ashe Center’s “model charter school initiative.”
One or two vanloads of Richard Allen students come to the Ashe Center each Wednesday afternoon, when the school closes for staff meetings and professional development.
Arriving at the center, the students receive classroom instruction from staff and are given time to do homework and use the computer lab. Then, they receive up to 90 minutes of on-court tennis instruction from the Ashe Center’s teaching pros. Infused throughout their time at the Ashe Center are “life-skills” lessons.
“They’re not just having kids play around; they are teaching them the fundamentals and philosophy of tennis. There is a strong academic push also,” says Richard Allen CEO Lawrence Jones, whose daughter has been taking lessons at Ashe since she was four.
“Not everyone can be LeBron James or Donovan McNabb,” Jones continues. “We want to expose kids to different sports and in the process make them more marketable for postsecondary scholarships.”
The Ashe Center hopes to build on its work with Richard Allen, expand its programming to other school groups, and possibly help initiate a competitive five-team middle school tennis league for the charters they are currently serving.
“We’re targeting middle schools so that when the kids get to high school, they can compete with other students,” says Greene.