by Lou Mancinelli
Amost one-fifth of Philadelphia’s adult residents have yet to finish high school or equivalent programs, according to a 2011 report by the Pew Charitable Trust. In a city of 1.5 million, where 60 percent of the population (900,000) is between the ages of 20 and 65, that means about 180,000 adults are lacking a high school degree.
With her group “Voices,” actress, educator, singer and author of a recent novel, “The Soul of a Chanteuse,” Mt. Airy resident Tamara Anderson works to provide adults younger than 25 who lack high school diplomas a chance to improve their situation.
“I want to add a voice to those numbers,” said Anderson, 38. “So when you sit at a table and make educational decisions [those voices] are not ignored, which is what we’re doing now.”
This year, Anderson’s own voice was published in “The Soul of a Chanteuse” (self-published, LuLu.com), a collection of short stories and poems Anderson wrote mostly from 2001 through 2004. At the time, she was a single mother working full-time as a professional actress in New York City. (Still a single mother, Tamara’s daughter, Maya, was born in 2001.)
Voices is the writing workshop that Anderson, a 1996 graduate of the University of Illinois Champaign, where she studied theater and reading education, operates for students who have dropped out of the school system.
At the headquarters of the E3 North Group, located at Broad and Thompson Streets, she helps homeless teens and other struggling young adults develop a narrative to illuminate their stories. Their tales tell how they became removed from the school system and their struggle to reinvest in themselves and join GED or high-school diploma equivalency programs.
“Just recently something happened that made me want to finish my GED,” wrote J.R., one of the young men who attend her writing workshops. “My wife was murdered, and she was expecting our first child. I now take care of her son from an earlier relationship ‘cause his father ain’t really doing s—-. When I finish, I want to join the army.”
J.R. is one of the many adults below 25 Anderson strives to assist and guide at Voices. And while in Philadelphia the number of schools performing at acceptable levels on state tests has supposedly grown from one in five to at least half over the last nine years, Anderson says the quality of graduates remains in question. A lot of important teaching is undermined by preparing students for the material they will see on state tests, known as “teaching to the test,” she insists.
Anderson has experienced reform in urban schools firsthand. When she taught in Chicago public schools after graduating from college, the superintendent of schools was Paul Vallas, a man who would later become Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District.
“I’ve always worked at schools nobody wanted to work at,” she said.
After working in a blighted Chicago public school for three years, Anderson wrote a grant that enabled the school to be awarded a $2.5 million grant from the Goodman Theatre, Chicago’s award-winning regional theater. Students at the school went from giving performances once a year to performing once a month.
Last Friday Anderson, who appeared in the movie “Barbershop 2” and is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, participated in “Mt. Airy’s Got Talent,” a fundraiser for art supplies at the Emlen School, 6501 Chew Ave. The event raised $400, which will be matched by Thrivent, a financial institution affiliated with the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia (LTSP) in Mt. Airy.
In 2006, Anderson moved to Philadelphia almost by accident. Since 2001, she lived in New York, where she performed in numerous roles in “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Cinderella,” etc. In 2004, she produced “Duplex,” a one-person cabaret, but in 2006 she moved out of New York because of a role she got in a play called “Yellowman” in Providence, Rhode Island.
Later she moved to Mt. Airy, where she taught for a year at the New Media Charter School, a technology-oriented school, before teaching a year for the Philadelphia School District. In 2009, she left the district to focus more on her work with dropout students and Della T Solutions, her professional writing business. At Della T, Anderson utilizes the knowledge she has acquired throughout her 14-year teaching and educational advocacy career to offer her services for grant writing, editing, dissertations and other written word-related tasks.
Tamara also still performs music and theater. She will host a Cabaret and Dinner Theater Friday, Dec. 2,, 7 p.m., at LTSP, but she cannot pull herself away from teaching. “Illiteracy has a current and expected death toll,” she has written. “This is a metaphorical death, the inability to live life to the fullest because your world is devoid of language and knowledge.”
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 267-283-8273 or visit www.dellatsolutions.com. “Soul of a Chanteuse” is available from Lulu.com and BarnesandNoble.com. For tickets or more information about the LTSP Cabaret and Dinner Theater, email email@example.com.