A church in midtown Harrisburg is surrounded by the usual grit and grime of the city. The Verbeke Street sign across the street is bent and windows are often broken. Grafitti adorns the city-placed trash can out front.
And most of the kids in the area are forced into failing schools.
“The systems are broken in Harrisburg, ” said Glenn Williams, who wants more for low-income city students. “They're just not working.”
But this church, and its several classrooms upstairs, could be a fix.
“We hope to have some bustling children here,” said a smiling Rebecca James with enthusiasm.
Big, bright smiles are also rare in this area, which makes Rebecca's stand out.
She's excited about the New City School that she and others hope to open in the fall in the church building. She holds a glossy brochure with its mission statement of turning the city around one life at a time. She speaks knowledgeably of the curriculum, which will be faith-based and liberal arts.
She has the vision, and it's a good one.
Neighbors, tired of failing schools, are ready to sign up.
“I'm taking phone calls from single moms on Second Street who are saying, 'please open your school, I love your mission. We want to be a part of it and we need something like this here,” James said.
That mission includes delivering a private school education to the poor without the private school price tag.
“Kids who don't have the ability to pay should have the opportunity to go to a school that's going to get them the education they need,” Williams said.
“This is the kind of education that Obama's children get and we think its valuable for the least of us,” James added.
The pair explains that tuition would be income-based.
“Everyone would pay something, even if its $25 or $50 a month,” Williams said.
Higher wage-earners would pay full tuition, which is $7,000 a year.
The school's bylaws require 60 percent of the students to be at or below the poverty line. To start, New City would have four grades: Pre-K, Kindergarten, and first and second grades. They hope to add a grade per year until they're Pre-K through eighth grade.
Organizers offer a shocking statistic: if a child can't read by the third grade they are several times more likely to end up in prison.
“We want to be able to get those children in young and teach them to read, teach them to love learning,” James said with her trademark energy and smile. “Learning is fun. They can learn by songs and chants and repetitions and they're like sponges and they soak up information. Pre-K to second grade is a time to get them to start reading and have a love for it.”
There is certainly passion and a clear mission. What these organizers need is money. To open the doors next fall, they say they need $100,000 in the next three weeks. That's because a good headmaster and teachers need to be recruited in April.
Cynics would say these enthusiastic folks in the church don't have a prayer.
They would counter, that's exactly what they do have.
“Prayers are always helpful,” Williams said with a laugh. “Prayers work for sure.”
City parents who want a choice for their kids hope those prayers are answered.