One in an occasional series.
AMIR CURRY lives next door to a scarred and slouching house that has been vacant nearly all of his 14 years. It's a trash-strewn magnet for raccoons that prevents Bella, his family's hyper Yorkie-terrier mix, from using the back yard.
Amir's good friend Maliek Robbins, 13, lives a few minutes away on a tidy block off Woodland Avenue, but it, too, sits next to one of Kingsessing's abandoned rowhouses.
The boys share something else.
"I actually don't know my father," said Amir, a large, affable teen with dreams of becoming an NFL lineman, a barber, or a chef.
"I have a good father, but he's incarcerated, so he can't do much now," said Maliek, who adds that he doesn't know why his dad is behind bars - or when he'll be coming home.
Maliek knows, however, that he wants to go to business school, either at Harvard or Penn.
Social scientists might see the two friends as at-risk, given that they are African American teens being raised in female-headed homes in low-income communities.
But at S. Weir Mitchell Elementary, one of the city's lowest-performing schools, Amir and Maliek are being groomed for leadership - especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when they wear dress shirts and neckties to school and set examples.
During their twice-a-week meetings, they talk about meeting goals and avoiding negative peer pressure and blazing trails rather than tagging along. They help each other with homework and visit the classrooms of younger students to encourage them to study hard.
And during these sessions, they address each other as Mister, as in Mr. Curry and Mr. Robbins.
Around school, they are known as the Men of Mitchell.
Last month, the Philadelphia School District named the century-old building at 55th and Kingsessing a "turnaround school," meaning its academic performance is chronically low. Come fall, that distinction will bring the school increased academic and financial support.
Mitchell enrolls 684 students, kindergarten through eighth grade, and is within the zip code with the city's highest HIV rate, where violent crime is a constant stalker and the poorest neighbors rely on the kindness of churches and the Salvation Army for groceries.
At such a school, where do you go to find positive role models?
Donald Lewis wrestled with that question from the moment he became a School District police officer in 2008.
He saw students behaving badly and MIA parents at every school where he'd worked - including the now-closed University City High and John Bartram High.
"If people came and walked through the schools they'll be amazed at what they see as far as the disrespect, cussing, and carrying on," said Lewis, 47, who wears a salt-and-pepper mustache and cool countenance.
Last fall he concluded that in the absence of sufficient good influences at Mitchell, he'd create them himself.
With the blessing of the new principal, Stephanie Andrewlevich, he handpicked 10 boys who - while not flawless - showed promise and maturity in the classroom and hallways.
Amir, an eighth-grader, is president of the Men of Mitchell; Maliek, a seventh-grader, is vice president.
On a Thursday in March, Lewis took the Men on a field trip to the Center City law firm that has adopted the school, Zarwin, Baum, DeVito, Kaplan, Schaer & Toddy.
The Men toured the offices, got an overview of the attorneys' work, split two pizzas, and took turns speaking candidly about themselves to a handful of the firm's employees.
"We're just small fish in a big pond," said Damani Tate, 13. "We're trying to get out of Southwest and live somewhere better. We're trying to reach our goals and do better things for ourselves."
Five boys remain from the original 10 - those who washed out found the ties and the meetings not worth the effort. Two new members joined in March.
When it was Amir's turn to speak, he told how Officer Lewis had pulled him aside and asked if he wanted to be part of the group. "I was honored to be a part of something that was brand new, that no one had ever seen before," Amir said.
"I come from a simple home. My mom is there by herself. My dad left when I was 3."
At a recent Tuesday meeting in the school's library, the Men of Mitchell reflected on their growing influence. Some of the other boys have started wearing neckties on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So have some of the teachers.
"We're blowing up," said Gashawn Moody, 14, rubbing his tan silk tie.
After the meeting, Lewis and the Men of Mitchell headed to teacher Tess Briggs' classroom to speak to her first-graders about the importance of listening and what Maliek called having an "awesome attitude."
On the way to the classroom they passed noontime aide Renee Edwards seated at the guest sign-in table, reading the Bible.
"Y'all look so nice," she gushed, "like preachers and deacons."
Principal Andrewlevich, an 18-year veteran of the School District, is also impressed by her Men, who have in turn given her roses and a certificate of appreciation.
"There are kids who have joined this group who are new to the school and who are going through a lot of challenges, maybe in their personal lives or in their school lives, and they see this as a venue to see themselves differently," she said. "For me, it's fighting the stereotype of what people see young men in the city as."
Here's how Maliek puts it: "I was not always the best kid. But this program has taught me to be a team player, how to cope and deal with others better than I used to - and how to listen to people and how to take constructive criticism."
Lewis said he sees himself in his young Men. The former barber, who is married and the father of four children and a stepdaughter, said he wants to steer them around the potholes he hit as a youth.
Street characters became his role models as he grew up in West Oak Lane with an absentee father and mother who struggled to feed him and his two siblings.
"It was pretty much like, 'Wow, they got all the glamour, they're riding around with the jewelry, they got the fancy cars . . . ,' " said the 1986 graduate of Olney High School. "And then I had some friends who started dying off, so it made me realize that's not the route that I wanted to go."
Amir and Maliek say they get support from their mothers and maternal grandmothers, and their churches - Amir is already a deacon.
Maliek's mother, Teara Thurston, 32, said she is undaunted in raising him in the absence of his father.
"He's your father, you got to love him, but at the end of the day, don't follow that path," she said to her son the other night, seated at the family dining-room table.
"You've got a super team here: your mom, your grandmom, your aunt, and my dad. That's how I keep it."