January 21 — 8:27 pm, 2019

Paul Robeson High School’s Day of Service includes painting and spoken-word contest

School once faced closure, but has since been recognized for academic progress.

Mayor Kenney poses for a picture with a Robeson student during his morning visit to the MLK Day of Service activities. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

During the District’s downsizing in 2013, Paul Robeson High School for Human Services was almost closed, but on Monday, it was a hub of activity as hundreds of volunteers gathered as part of the Martin Luther King Day of Service.

Principal Richard Gordon said that although the volunteers’ task for the day was to spruce up the building, the real goal was to instill in students the importance of community service and giving back. Students and other volunteers painted hallways and organized books in a storage area so that they will be more accessible to teachers, among other tasks.

“We believe in a great school environment,” he said. “And we want them to always pay it forward.”

Just like Robeson – which stayed open after the Notebook pointed out that its graduation rate was higher than many similar schools not slated for closure – Roslyn Mayes has gotten a second chance.

Mayes, a senior, was among dozens of students who showed up at the school to volunteer.

As she tells it, she was at School of the Future when she got into serious trouble as a freshman and was headed to a disciplinary placement. But her uncle worked at Robeson and asked Gordon to let Mayes transfer there instead. Mayes met with the principal to press her case. She promised him she would turn herself around and focus on academics, a promise she has kept.

Student Roslyn Mayes (left) goes over the day’s schedule with principal Richard Gordon and another student. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

Now, she is a graduating senior and also works as Gordon’s intern. She has several college acceptances and dreams of being a forensic scientist.

“I like being part of a community,” she said, adding that King’s legacy had inspired her to “follow my dreams.”

The black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Omega Omega chapter, helped organize the event. In addition to the painting and book-organizing, it included a spoken-word competition for students with cash prizes for the three top winners.

“Each year we partner with public schools in community service,” said Charlene Collins of AKA.  Members take students on college tours, and many of them mentor young women at the school through an organization called The Links Inc. In the auditorium, various groups set up tables for a resource fair.

Mayor Kenney stopped in during his busy day of visiting several MLK activities, including the biggest one, which drew 5,000 volunteers to Girard College. The overall theme of the day was reducing gun violence.

“I think this era we are in where everyone is so rude and confrontational – we should think back to the way [King] always acted with so much decency and how he controlled himself under so much pressure,” the mayor said. “We should certainly emulate that. We would all be better off for it.

“I think in the end he knew it would end badly for him, like Jesus, who said, ‘Let this cup pass from me,’ but he kept moving forward. He was an amazing human being.”

The school’s hallway was a scene of controlled chaos, with paint cans and rollers everywhere and a long plastic tarp covering the floor.

Robeson junior Makayla Harris was stretching to paint above a row of lockers. “Martin Luther King means a lot of things to me,” she said.

Robeson student Makayla Harris reaches above a locker to freshen the paint on the walls of her school during the King day of service. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

“He didn’t believe race was important, but personality,” she said, paraphrasing King’s statement that what mattered was not the color of one’s skin but the content of one’s character. “We have to live up to that. And if we do, his dream will come true.”

Gordon, who has been principal for five years, said that when he was growing up, his own family “didn’t trust the Philadelphia public schools” and sent him elsewhere. He is determined to create a different story today, and Robeson has been cited for its academic improvement since its brush with closure. “Our students work hard to make sure this school is about academics,” Gordon said.

The school, at 41st and Ludlow Streets in University City, is just a few blocks from the house where Robeson himself, the renowned singer, actor, athlete, attorney, and activist, lived out his last days. His face and his words line the school’s walls.

The building was once named after Octavius Catto, the 19th-century civil rights leader. Catto, who worked for the education of blacks and the integration of streetcars, was murdered when he went to vote after the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. At the time, it was a discipline school, and Catto was still relatively unknown. Now, a statue of Catto, who was brought to more widespread attention by a 2010 biography by former Inquirer writers Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin, has been erected on the south side of City Hall.

“King, Robeson, Catto – our students are a living example of what that legacy means,” Gordon said.


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