This profile is one in a series of five, spotlighting the finalists of Integrity Icon Philadelphia, the first U.S. iteration of a global initiative to honor public servants who go above and beyond their job descriptions to uplift their communities in meaningful ways. Please read the other profiles here, then vote for your favorite Icon here.
Carlos Aponte wears many hats—literally.
“Let’s see, I’ve been Abraham Lincoln, William Penn, various Romans…,” the Philly native says one cold December afternoon, chatting by phone while on a walk outside.
As a history teacher at One Bright Ray Community High School, which has four campuses around the city, dress-up days aren’t a gimmick for Aponte—they’re a way to connect with students who don’t learn best by traditional methods, through no fault of their own.
“Teaching in an alternative high school, I work with 16- to 21-year-olds who have previously dropped out of the School District. And the overwhelming majority of them are not reading anywhere near where they should be,” he says.
According to Read by 4th, nearly 60 percent of third graders in Philadelphia are not reading at grade level. “That was the biggest challenge for me when I started in January 2014: coming into school thinking I could focus on the history content, and then learning how to basically be a reading and English teacher.”
It’s a challenge with many layers. “The school environment itself is actually a traumatic space for many students,” Aponte says. Yes, there are those students who see school as a safe haven—a place to get food and love and care. But among a student body that has returned to school after having dropped out, school is often completely daunting.
“I have a student population that has frequently had to relive not knowing how to read, every single day in a classroom, and then continually meet new teachers who may not know that, who might assume that they should know more because they’re in the eight grade,” Aponte says, adding that that pressure is akin to a student being on stage talking to a thousand people in an audience.
“If you don’t know how to read and you’re called on to read in class,” that’s brutal—“especially as a teenager, when you think you’re the center of the universe,” Aponte says.
Change of scene
There’s been that hurdle, and then there’s been Aponte’s journey to cultivate a deep understanding of all of the other traumas that come with being a teenager today in the poorest big city in the country.
It was through Aponte’s five-year involvement with Students Run Philly Style, the nonprofit that empowers and mentors Philly students through running, that Aponte had a revelation: Changing students’ environment—getting them out of the four-walled classroom—allows them to let their guard down, build relationships. Thrive.
Aponte felt compelled to build on that idea, for the good of his students, and the city.
But first, he had to convince his students that plugging into the community had its rewards. So he did something…strange: He strapped a GoPro to his head, and traveled to various neighborhoods throughout Philly, performing random acts of kindness. Then he showed the footage to his classrooms.
“They’d be like Woah, are you at Kensington and Allegheny, just there by yourself talking to people? Did you just buy that person Chipotle? And I’d tell them Yeah—because if you give love, you get love.”
“That was the biggest challenge for me when I started in January 2014: coming into school thinking I could focus on the history content, and then learning how to basically be a reading and English teacher.”
It’s that sentiment—that giving love brings it back to you—that underlies the afterschool program-turned-accredited-class (and 501c3) that Aponte now spearheads, on top of his history teaching duties: We Love Philly.
The idea is for students to be involved in their communities, and to take ownership of everything they produce. During pre-Covid times, the class met every day after school, for an hour and 15 minutes. Each session would (and, even virtually, still does) begin with a guided meditation and journal writing, to foster a safe space. Then, the class segues into some sort of entrepreneurial skill that students can use to start their own business. Aponte also brings in visiting teachers once every week.
Pre-pandemic, students then went out into the community to help with projects like street cleanings, or spending time at Rec Philly to produce their We Love Philly podcast, which interviews nonprofit leaders from around the city. They’ve volunteered to help with food and clothing drives, participated in and run their own table at Venture Cafe, joined protests, prepared food with Vetri Community Partnerships, gardened. Students have made and sold beauty products, provided video editing, baked goods, launched clothing lines…the list goes on. (During the pandemic, the class has been meeting every day online, during third period.)
Since its first event in late 2018, more than 60 students have been a part of We Love Philly, and the program welcomes new students to the program every 14 weeks.
“Entrepreneurship is more like the syringe, while the medicine inside the syringe is that social emotional learning that I didn’t get growing up in Philly, and that a lot of students in Philadelphia are still not getting,” Aponte says.
In August, the group raised $10,000 in the span of just one month, which they recently used to purchase a school bus; students will soon decorate it under the tutelage of a local artist, and have it ready to transport them on experiential learning opportunities throughout the city. On top of fundraising, Aponte is also currently applying for grants, with the hope of expanding his program District-wide, and beyond.
For now, support comes from…his debit card. “I’m just learning the grant-writing game now,” he says. “I want to be in different public schools, I want We Love Philly to be an option that I can teach other teachers how to do, so that they can run it in their school and then we can all be united and all be a family working together to supplement what students are not getting in your typical math, reading, English classes.”
His next big goal is to secure funds for a shipping container, so that students can work to refurbish it as a livable space—learning plumbing, electric skills—and then rent it out on AirBnB, to turn a profit. “Philadelphia is gentrifying rapidly, and the students see it,” he says. “So I want to give them at least the knowledge and the fighting chance to educate their families to know that, hey, we’re getting this education, we might be able to buy one of these homes and do something with one of these homes or fix up our own home and bring value to our families.”
And he’s looking for collaborators, for folks to help him expose students to the breadth of people and neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia. “We need to be Philadelphia, not these little tiny mini-tribes that we’ve been put into and redlined into, and all the other crap that’s happened in our history,” he says. He’s rotated throughout all four of Bright Ray’s campuses—Strawberry Mansion, Kensington, Fairhill, and Elmwood—and encourages his kids to explore the city outside of their own enclaves too.
Filling a gap
Aponte says he always wanted to be a teacher, for two reasons. There was his own experience of growing up in Philly, and having what he describes as terrible teachers—a disconnect he couldn’t understand.
“In high school I was like How do you have all of history to work with, and you don’t make it interesting? You have all of time to play with and it’s still boring? What are you doing?”
And then there was his turbulent childhood. “I’d bounced around between family members, and didn’t really develop a relationship with my dad until after high school,” he says. “I was always looking for that sort of male mentor in my life.” He knew that many people saw their teachers as father figures—and figured why not try to provide that for kids who’d grown up like him?
“I haven’t gotten an award since ‘Perfect Attendance’ in high school. So I’m super honored and grateful.”
Now, he feels incredibly grateful to be named an Integrity Icon. “I haven’t gotten an award since ‘Perfect Attendance’ in high school. So I’m super honored and grateful,” he says.
And while he hustles to scale We Love Philly, for the immediate future he and his students are focusing on holiday cheer. Which brings us to yet another costume in his repertoire: Santa Claus.
Earlier this month, We Love Philly organized a “12 Days of Wishmas” initiative, asking people to purchase gifts from a registry for the younger siblings of Aponte’s students. Talking to Aponte on that cold afternoon, he was eager to receive and wrap the toys with his students, then board their new bus together—clad in his red velvet and white beard—to deliver the presents, and so much love, to unsuspecting little ones around the city.