The lights dim for the poetry slam, and Kimberly Canzoneri ’17 is all nerves. She spent the morning working with two students who were agonizing over their poems, and now one of them is approaching the podium, under the spotlight, empty handed.
The girl looks up to meet the gaze of the packed crowd, and she freezes. But she closes her eyes, collects herself, and delivers commentary on the violence in her neighborhood that sucks the air out of the room.
The spectators snap their fingers in unison, the judges raise 9s and 10s, and Canzoneri beams.
“The poem had completely changed from that morning, and she improvised the second half,” says Canzoneri, of Fairfield, Conn. “That amazed me. It shows that when these kids open up about the things that resonate with them, the results can be incredible.”
The poetry slam was the exclamation mark of the Project Blueprints Summer Institute, a four-week program held at Swarthmore this July that offered academic and cultural enrichment to 20 high school students from the beleaguered streets of Chester. A team of College staff, faculty, and students taught and mentored the Chester youth, providing the skills and tools for success in the classroom and beyond.
“It’s guiding them to avoid detrimental situations and grow into productive adults,” says Cynthia Jetter ’74, director of community partnerships and planning for the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility, who grew up in Chester and took part in a similar program.
“I know first-hand the difference that can make,” she says.
Funded with millions of dollars of grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Project Blueprints has been held at Swarthmore since 2005. It is a joint initiative of the Lang Center, the College Access Center of Delaware County, and the Crozer Wellness Center.
The program’s first cohort of 25 students graduated high school and gained admission to college, setting expectations for the 50 students participating through 2017.
“Short of them moving away,” Jetter says, smiling, “we’ll be there knocking on those doors.”
Project Blueprints runs all year around at the three sites, culminating in the summer program. Members of the Black Cultural Center (BCC), Media Services, the Language Resource Center, and the Department of Educational Studies contributed to programming this summer.
A favorite was the digital storytelling seminar, which gave students a place to express themselves without judgment.
“Most of these kids have been through a lot in their lives, and this was a way to tap into those feelings in a fun way,” says Ashley Henry, program director for the College’s youth empowerment program. “They just came alive.”
Another highlight was the Mathematical Masterpieces Gallery poster session. The students solved algebra problems, wrote conceptual essays, and invented linear scenarios before presenting their projects with aplomb.
“They started out saying they hated math, but by the end, they seemed really into it,” says Canzoneri, who, along with Xavier Lee ’17, of Maplewood, N.J., gained experience with writing a lesson plan and leading a classroom.
The program also brought popular artists onto campus, such as poet Lamont Dixon, who helped the students to hone their poems for the slam, and Afro-Brazilian percussionist Alex Shaw ’00, who helped them to compose drumming compositions that fused samba and hip hop. Both raved about the students’ efforts.
“We got a chance to bond and for them to grow outside of their comfort zone and come together,” says Shaw. “It’s incredible what they accomplished in just a few sessions, a testament to their talent and creativity.”
“I’m amazed at how quickly they took to poetry,” adds Dixon, "especially the boys. It’s usually like pulling teeth. To see the development over just a few weeks is amazing.”
Capping the summer program, the ensemble drumming performance shook the Scheuer Room, and the poetry slam both challenged and delighted the crowd. As the students filtered out with their friends and families, Henry stood in the back of the room smiling, feeling like a “proud parent.”
“Seeing these kids transformed by their experience tells me that we’re doing something very important for the community,” she says. “With just a little help and belief in who they are, you see them becoming their best selves.”