Nikyta Gray used to feel comfortable walking her daughter to school at Mitchell Elementary at 55th and Kingsessing.
That was before a spate of gun violence in the city, culminating in a quadruple shooting that left a 20-year-old dead. The violence broke out in broad daylight May 12, outside a nearby corner store after school dismissal, as people gathered for a vigil for a friend killed near Mitchell in April.
An oasis in Southwest Philadelphia, Mitchell is a stable, tight-knit community with a host of programs and resources for families, said Gray, an active parent. Children feel supported and happy inside. But what’s going on in the neighborhood threatens that, she said.
Now, “I don’t feel safe,” said Gray, parent of a Mitchell fifth grader.
“She doesn’t feel safe,” Gray said of her daughter. “She’s full remote at school, because I don’t feel comfortable sending her there with all the shootings in the neighborhood.”
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and Mayor Jim Kenney recently announced a return to five-day, in-person school in the fall — if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxes school distancing recommendations. But for now, the vast majority of Philadelphia students remain at home.
In communities like Mitchell’s — which has one of the highest homicide rates in Philadelphia this year, according to city data — the loss of the anchor of full in-person school is felt keenly. Without the bustle of 430 K-8 students coming in and out five days a week, things have shifted in the neighborhood, community members say.
Gun violence is not new to this part of the city, but the community was protective of Mitchell and its students when they trooped in and out every day. When schools were fully open, school staff had conversations with people congregating in the neighborhood or in corner stores, who would remind students to get to class on time. The perimeter around the school was generally respected, school officials said.
Now, the violence is happening right in front of the school. In-person attendance has plummeted since the May 12 quadruple shooting.
The Mitchell community and public officials gathered outside the school one week after the shooting to demand better for their community, to ask for more jobs, more extracurricular activities for children and teens, more partnership with police. Kids slurped water ice and drew bright pictures in sidewalk chalk outside the school. Grandparents grabbed leaflets from folding tables.
The festive scene was a marked contrast to the fear and anger over the surging violence.
“Families are afraid,” said principal Stephanie Andrewlevich. “I love our school and our Southwest community and want everyone to feel safe.”
Andrea Custis, president of the Urban League of Philadelphia, said, “Every last one of you should be screaming and hollering.”
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier called for an investment in evidence-based violence prevention programs, community outreach, and resources.
“At the end of the day, if we can’t keep people alive, I don’t know what else matters,” Gauthier told a crowd of more than 100 Wednesday.
State Rep. Rick Krajewski (D., Phila.) agreed, telling the crowd, “It feels like we don’t even have space to grieve before we’re out here again lamenting another loss.”
Mitchell grandparent Ramona Davis limits the time her granddaughter, second grader Zarrie Williams, can play outside, and keeps a close eye on her whenever Zarrie steps out of the house. Davis, a former crossing guard, worries about the violence across the city.
“I think most of this mess is due to how we have to stay in the house,” said Davis. “We’ve got to get things open for our kids.”
Natalie Reddick agrees. Her nieces attend Mitchell and she attended the rally to take a stand against gun violence, but also for the simple joy of seeing children laughing with their friends and riding scooters on Kingsessing Avenue, which had been blocked off to traffic between 55th and 56th Streets for the event.
“Everybody’s looking for something for the kids to do,” said Reddick. “For so long, there was no school, no rec centers.”
One by one, politicians, police officers, and Mitchell staff read poems the students had written, with hopes for a better world.
“I’m a good kid. I am proud to live in Southwest Philly because my family lives here, and we have fun,” one sixth grader wrote.
“I am asking to be kept safe,” another wrote. “Will you be a change agent for me?”