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Simply the best: Meet four Philly School District seniors from Class of 2022

The Class of 2022 excelled in the classroom, served their community, won awards and made memories that will last a lifetime.

After years of hard work, late nights and a lot of determination in the face of a global pandemic, these four seniors have shown exceptional leadership, courage, dedication and endurance during their time in the School District of Philadelphia.

These graduates come from all walks of life — different high schools, programs and extracurriculars — but together they’re poised to become the next generation of leaders who will make a difference in their communities.

Tatiana Williams-Taylor

Tatiana Williams-Taylor is passionate about giving back to the community and assisting others. She is the president of the National Honor Society at Constitution High School and has been a part of New Options More Opportunities, a youth development nonprofit, for the last several years.

She was involved in various projects and programs concerning the study of the brain and nervous system at Ivy League colleges like Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania during her high school years.

Williams-Taylor is one of 150 students nationwide to be awarded the $20,000 National Coca-Cola Scholarship and the only student in the School District of Philadelphia to receive the award in a decade.

“It’s truly an honor to be named a Coca-Cola scholar,” Williams-Taylor said. “It’s a very competitive scholarship where only 150 students are selected nationwide out of over 65,000 applicants. I’m looking forward to connecting with their alumni in the future.”

She plans to attend Duke University on a full scholarship and study neuroscience.

Souleymane Diarra

A student-athlete, Souleymane Diarra has maintained above a 3.5 GPA while being a part of his school’s wrestling program at Overbrook High School.

“I never wrestled before until I got to high school,” Diarra said. “One of the coaches at my school told me about the sport on my first day of school when I was a freshman. I went to try-outs and I’ve been wrestling ever . since.”

This year, Diarra won the gold medal in the 172-pound weight class at the District XII Wrestling Tournament, leading to his competition in the PIAA Regional Wrestling Championships.

He was also selected by Public League coaches for the Most Outstanding Wrestler honor and the Larry Imgrund Award — an honor bestowed on one wrestler who exemplifies dedication and leadership.

After graduating from Overbrook, Diarra has plans to attend college and continue wrestling.

Skyy Brooks

Skyy Brooks has been singing since the age of 3. As a student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Brooks was a vocal major and participated in her school’s concert choir.

“I want my voice to spark change in not only the music I make, but also my community,” Brooks said. “I’m very passionate about uplifting the Black community and using my platform to make a difference.”

Brooks plans to attend Harvard University and the Berklee College of Music, with all five years of school paid in full. She is one of 20 students in the world to receive dual admission.

She plans to work toward a Bachelor’s of Arts in African American studies at Harvard University and a master’s degree in vocal performance at Berklee College of Music. She hopes to study abroad in Spain while studying at the Berklee College of Music.

Darus Travis

As a student of Benjamin Franklin High School, Darus Travis participated in the precision and machining career and technical education (CTE) program.

He is among a group of students involved in the school district’s in the Pennsylvania Talent Pipeline where select CTE students will learn the skills and ability to secure high demand and well-paying jobs in critical and re-emerging trades directly out of high school.

Once Travis graduates, he plans go into the Army National Guard and work at the Naval Foundry and Propeller Center.

“I’ll be working at the Navy Foundry and Propeller Center a week or two after I graduate before I leave to do my time service, which will be for a few months,” Travis said. “Once I come back, I’ll be returning to the Naval Foundry and Propeller Center.”

Philly officials want you to reimagine the Ben Franklin parkway

Philadelphia is embarking on a new phase of its long-term plan to redesign the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The goal is to transform the area from Logan Circle to the Philadelphia Museum of Art into a more welcoming space for pedestrians and cyclists.

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation on Tuesday announced the Reimagine the Benjamin Franklin Parkway planning effort, a collaboration between Parks & Rec, the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, & Sustainability, and international design firm Design Workshop.

Philly officials say they want to work with the community to create a “world-class public realm plan” for permanent changes that will improve the iconic parkway in terms of appeal, functionality, and traffic safety. The city characterized the changes it seeks as “people-centric.”

Officials outlined a four-phase plan in which the city will collect public feedback, both in person and digitally, that will eventually inform preferred plans for the parkway. To kick off Phase 1, the city wants to hear from residents about their vision for the parkway’s future.

Matt Radar, president of the Parkway Council, said in a statement that the project represents the next stage in a “decade-long journey to right the balance between ‘park’ and ‘parkway.’”

The parkway has evolved since its inception in the 1870s. Inspired by the Champs-Élysées in Paris, it aimed to improve connections between Center City and a growing Fairmount Park.

In a 2013 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s PennPraxis, researchers noted the parkway became “less an elegant pleasure drive to the park and more an automotive conduit to the city.”

The 1960s redesign of Eakins Oval as a traffic circle, the authors wrote, “tipped the balance in favor of the car over the pedestrian experience.”

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, in announcing the initiative, said the city wants to hear from both residents and visitors as it makes the parkway a greener space that is more accessible and inclusive.

Those interested in getting involved can take the city’s first parkway survey, which will be open through Aug. 15 and is available in 10 languages.

On Saturday, June 18, the public is invited to participate in an interactive design and planning event at The Oval XP, a pop-up festival situated at the base of the art museum steps. Visitors will be able to weigh in on their preferences for the parkway’s future, touching on transportation, amenities, programming, and attractions.

The design team will also collect public feedback at the Wawa Welcome America concert slated to take place on Monday, July 4. Local ambassadors will similarly gather resident feedback through door-to-door canvassing and community conversations.

The engagement initiative comes in the wake of a drawn-out and often heated process of soliciting public input and weighing plans to narrow Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia, considered one of the city’s most dangerous streets.

A wrench was thrown in that process last week when City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson refused to introduce legislation to make the changes in his district. Safety advocates have since urged the city to press ahead with narrowing the corridor.

Biden says decision on gas tax holiday may come this week

President Joe Biden said Monday that he’s considering a federal holiday on the gasoline tax, possibly saving U.S. consumers as much as 18.4 cents a gallon.

“Yes, I’m considering it,” Biden told reporters after taking a walk along the beach near his vacation home in Delaware. “I hope to have a decision based on the data — I’m looking for by the end of the week.”

The administration is increasingly looking for ways to spare the public from higher prices at the pump, which began to climb last year and surged after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Gas prices nationwide are averaging just under $5 a gallon, according to AAA.

Biden said members of his team were to meet this week with CEOs of the major oil companies to discuss rising oil prices. Biden lashed out at oil companies, saying they are making excessive profits when people are feeling the crunch of skyrocketing costs at the pump and inflation. But Biden said he would not be meeting the oil executives himself.

“I want an explanation for why they aren’t refining more oil,” Biden said.

The Biden administration has already released oil from the U.S. strategic reserve and increased ethanol blending for the summer, in additional to sending a letter last week to oil refiners urging them to increase their refining capacity. Yet those efforts have yet to reduce price pressures meaningfully, such that the administration is now considering a gas tax holiday. Taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel help to pay for highways.

The Penn Wharton Budget Model released estimates Wednesday showing that consumers saved at the pump because of gas tax holidays in Connecticut, Georgia and Maryland. The majority of the savings went to consumers, instead of service stations and others in the energy sector.

In an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen expressed an openness to a federal gas tax holiday to give motorists some relief.

Strolling on the beach with his daughter Ashley, granddaughter Naomi, and his granddaughter’s fiancé, Biden stopped frequently to chat with beachgoers who were spending the Juneteenth federal holiday at the beach.

He took a moment to offer assurances about inflation — the consumer-price index increased to a nearly 40-year high of 8.6% in May from the same month a year ago — and growing warnings from economists that a recession may be around the corner.

“We’re going to get though this, guys,” Biden told one group of beachgoers.

Last week, the Federal Reserve stepped up its drive to tame inflation by raising its key interest rate by three-quarters of a point — its largest increase in nearly three decades — and signaled more large rate increases to come.

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that in his estimation, “the dominant probability would be that by the end of next year we would be seeing a recession in the American economy.”

Biden said he spoke with Summers, who served as treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, on Monday morning.

“There’s nothing inevitable about a recession,” Biden said.

Philly is poised to give more money to violence prevention groups, but earlier grantees still haven’t been paid

Geanna Williams-Davis beams at the entrance of a basement room in the Shepard Recreation in West Philly, greeting a line of still-waking adolescents headed in for breakfast. They take plates of baked goods, fruit and cereal before sitting down at an arrangement of folding tables that will serve as their classroom for the day.

The first Saturday in June marked the start of the summer session for Positive Choices, Williams-Davis’s program designed to teach children emotional management and life skills that could prevent them from getting involved in gun violence. Week one was a multimedia production workshop.

“Our kids, all they see is murder, drugs, violence,” she said. “We’re trying to show them something else.”

Positive Choices is one of 41 nonprofit-led efforts selected in September 2021 to receive support from the City of Philadelphia’s Targeted Community Investment Grant (TCIG) program, then in its fourth round. The city will soon announce the fifth round of the program, which will set aside more money for a new cohort of recipients.

City leaders have touted this grant program as a core feature of their gun violence prevention strategy. But nonprofit leaders who were selected for the last round of TCIG awards say the program has been plagued with difficulties and delays. Multiple groups said they had to cover program expenses out-of-pocket for longer than anticipated, fell behind on contractor payments and youth stipends, or had to eat the cost of certain events or supplies because their requests for payment were denied. Groups had the option of spending upfront and getting reimbursed or having the city’s fiscal sponsor pay for program expenses directly.

“It’s a bit much, if you’re awarded a grant in September and it’s almost September again,” said Williams-Davis. As of June 13, she said she hasn’t yet been paid any of the $18,000 promised to her nonprofit through TCIG. “They earmarked this money to help these kids with this anti-violence promotion. It’s earmarked for them, so give it to me.”

The latest data from the Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC), which is the fiscal sponsor responsible for doling out the city grant money, shows eight of the 41 awardees had received none of their TCIG funding as of June 13. An additional three had received about half of what they were promised, and only 12 organizations had been paid more than 90% of their allocation.

The city has attributed the delay to a change-over in UAC’s accounting system and vowed to make improvements to the payment process. They originally said organizations would be paid out in the spring, but many nonprofits were still fighting for their funds at that point.

The city set a payout date to mid-April and then pushed it to mid-May, citing understaffing and technical delays related to the funding distribution process.

“I won’t make excuses for the challenges that our grantees have faced, that has never been our intention in how we wanted their experience to be,” said Erica Atwood, director of the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety, in February.

As of May 27, the city said it is “in the process of fully closing out cohort 4,” or the fourth round of grantees, but would not provide a full list of which organizations have been paid out and to what extent. They said in April that they would be reviewing the payout system and “looking into other payment options, such as prepaid debit cards, depending on the grant amount.”

Meanwhile, some nonprofit leaders say they were spending an unreasonable amount of time each week filing forms and sending emails asking for the funds. They said the delays made them reconsider whether to apply for the fifth round of TCIG.

“With the assumption that the 5th round of TCIG grants will remain the same or even similar to what we experienced in the 4th Cohort, we won’t be applying again,” said Kwaku Owusu, finance director and treasurer for a youth nonprofit called Collective Climb, via email. “[We] would much rather use the many hours that would have been dedicated to administrative and reporting work to find other more flexible funding sources.”

The delay raises the question of whether the TCIG money is actually making a dent in Philadelphia’s rising shooting tally — there have been just over 1,000 shootings this year.

Advocates and officials following gun violence spending have questioned whether the city is adequately evaluating the impact of dollars spent on anti-violence programs.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart brought up the point on a recent segment of WURD Radio, referring to the $155 million set aside for violence prevention in the 2022 budget.

“What we haven’t seen is real accountability around it,” she said. “The city needs to be evaluating the outcome of the dollars, and then making decisions around whether something is working or not.”

The city says it’s “compiling reports” on this for TCIG, but didn’t give an estimate for when they’d be released.

Meanwhile, they’re continuing to funnel dollars into the separate but related Anti-Violence Community Expansion Grant program, which offers up to $1million in funding to violence prevention programs that run for a year. The 2022 budget funneled $13.5 million into this model, and the proposed 2023 budget currently includes an additional $12 million for community-based organizations focused on reducing violence through “trauma-informed healing and restorative practices.”

Scott Charles, a trauma outreach manager at Temple University Hospital and gun violence prevention advocate, said the shift toward giving dollars to mom-and-pop nonprofits is a good one, but only if it’s rolled out with precision and support.

“Those organizations aren’t prepared for what’s being asked of them in many cases, and not a lot of technical assistance has been done,” he said. “If we don’t help them, they’re going to fail. And then the funders are going to say, ‘see, we tried and it didn’t work.”

Those familiar with the grant distribution process say there’s likely to be a lot of variation in the nonprofit experience with a program like this, depending on the size of the organization and how familiar they are with reimbursement paperwork.

During the course of the fourth round TCIG distribution process, WHYY heard from more than a dozen selected organizations, but most didn’t want to speak on the record about their experience. Some said they found the payment process reasonable, while others said it was tedious and time-consuming.

Some said they were denied reimbursement for simple charges such as pizza parties because they didn’t have an adequate paper trail or because the UAC wouldn’t accept their receipts. Others couldn’t get paid back for hiring a speaker for a presentation if the name of the guest changed from what was in their original grant budget and application.

Nonprofit leaders suggested the city give organizations the funding up front and then ask for reports back at the end, so that they’re able to serve young people with urgent needs in a timely manner.

“I understand as this is taxpayer money there has to be some sort of accountability process, but certified 501©3 and other nonprofit organizations shouldn’t have to report this intensely how the funds are spent,” said Owusu.

When asked about these issues, UAC said they “are only permitted to distribute funds to grantees that provide accurate paperwork and documentation for payment per the rules of the City.”

Many nonprofits that received partial repayment or delayed repayment said the grants did ultimately enable them to launch programs that they wouldn’t have been able to put on otherwise, and that it was still worth participating in spite of the onerous paperwork.

Williams-Davis decided to apply for the fifth round of TCIG money, and hopes to be selected.

She said she’s expecting the same difficulties in the next round. But this time, she’s prepared to spend her own money, rely on help from donors and partner organizations, and ask her presenters and other contractors for flexibility in the payment timeline.

“It’s going to be tough, I’m going to tell you that,” she said. “We all chip in also to make things happen for the kids. So it’s just, you know, it’s a team effort.”

The rest of Williams-Davis’s summer program will include a gun safety course for kids who might encounter firearms at home or in public, and a Boy Scout-led merit badge program to cultivate practical skills and volunteer work.