By Alex Jones
Quwontay Hunter has changed a lot over the past few years. Since enrolling at the Workshop School, his teachers, mentors and mom agree: the 16-year-old rising sophomore from West Philadelphia hasn’t just grown—he’s flourished. When the friendly, soft-spoken teen attended traditional public school, “He didn’t really care too much for it,” says Fanta Grant, his mother.
The Workshop School is a public school in West Philadelphia that takes a project-based, hands-on approach to learning. Students work on everything from developing alternative fuel vehicles and constructing a food truck for mobile nutrition education to building a dock for Bartram’s Garden’s boating activities on the Schuylkill River.
Students also create products for sale to the public at Workshop Industries, an after-school program that focuses entrepreneurship. The Jawnament—a laser-cut wooden Christmas ornament developed by students that celebrates one of Philly’s favorite regionalisms—became so popular with holiday shoppers when it debuted last winter that the school sold out.
“The Workshop School [is] promoting me to do a lot of things better,” says Hunter. “I love that school, everything about it.”
Ann Cohen, board chair of the school’s nonprofit wing, has also witnessed his transformation.
Since he started at the Workshop School, Cohen has seen Hunter’s confidence and engagement grow. “Any project that came up, he was there,” she says. “Building a desk for one of his teachers, or building a dock at Bartram’s Garden.” He even works gardening for Cohen during his limited free time.
Hunter also participates in the school’s EVX Team, in which students and teachers collaborate to design alternative fuel vehicles. In tinkering with cars, he may have found his calling.
“My dream is to learn the concept of fixing cars, auto mechanics,” Hunter says. And he wants to find a way to do it that will lessen the burden that car trouble can have on members of his community.
When you’ve got car trouble, “usually you need to have connections and resources. You can’t just go into a shop and say, ‘I need you to help me fix this.’ They’re going to run your tax up,” Hunter says. “You need to have connections. That would be a good resource for somebody to have me, because I can help them with their problems, but I can also make the financial part less of a stress.”
The Workshop School offers three certified programs of study: pre-engineering, automotive technology, and auto body and collision repair. “[Quwontay] has a lot of intuitive, hands-on ability, and the auto technology program is a great one,” Cohen says. “It’s a great career, particularly with his interest in sustainability and alternative fuels. That’s going to be a field that’s going to grow.”
Hunter’s passion for sustainability goes beyond hybrid cars and upcycled materials. Not long after his family moved from Germantown to West Philly in 2011, he started volunteering at nearby Mill Creek Urban Farm, a nonprofit educational urban farm promoting food security and food justice. This is his second year participating in Mill Creek’s summer job training program for high school students.
Over time, “[Quwontay] has become much more of an advocate for the mission, for food justice,” says Aviva Asher, Mill Creek’s Director of Farm and Education Programs. Through learning to grow, harvest, and sell chemical-free produce at the farm, students develop job skills around agriculture, customer service and leadership.
Asher has observed how Hunter is building on his different interests—like carpentry and farming—thanks to programming from Mill Creek and the Workshop School. “Today we were at Overbrook Environmental Center, and he said, ‘You know, we could build you a high tunnel just like that.’ That’s great!”
By his own admission, Hunter likes to keep busy—something he learned from his mother. “She is a hard-working woman, and I think that’s where I get my hard working from,” he says. “Hard work is a good quality of work. You can’t never go wrong when you get hard working.”
His effort is paying off: This year, staff at The Workshop school nominated Hunter for the Triskeles Program’s prestigious Green Career Pathways Youth Entrepreneurship Council, where he’s collaborating with students from other schools and mentors to teach city youth about urban farming.
After high school? Hunter and his mother agree on one thing: college is the next step. “I just want him to be successful, for the main part,” Grant says. “I’m very proud of him.”