Meeting District Needs

High School Students Learn, Earn By Tasting College Life

By John Gehring — September 06, 2000 5 min read
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Fay Allen could have spent her summer vegging out in front of the TV set or hanging around with friends at the mall. While she took part in her share of those typical teenage pursuits, the 17-year-old from Philadelphia also spent part of her vacation learning research methods from professors at Temple University.

Ms. Allen, who is entering 11th grade, begins the school year eager to propose ways to improve her school after participating in a program sponsored by the nonprofit Philadelphia Futures. The program allowed 650 low-income Philadelphia students to improve their academic skills and learn about higher education by studying at 12 colleges and universities in or near the city.

A guiding principle of Youth Works College Bound, made up of 19 different programs, is giving young people an opportunity to learn during the summer. Instead of making french fries at McDonald’s, the students built their computer skills at Drexel University, learned how to create a business plan at Alvernia College in Reading, Pa., produced a play at the University of Pennsylvania, and created a handbook on domestic violence for pregnant and parenting teens at Philadelphia’s University of the Sciences.

“The single biggest barrier to success in the work world is weak academic skills,” said Deborah Weiner, a co-director of the program. “It doesn’t make sense to have kids filing papers and weeding empty lots when they could be doing college enrichment programs.”

Youth Works College Bound mirrors the intentions of the federal Workforce Investment Act, which passed Congress in 1998 and took effect July 1. The legislation is meant to encourage agencies that work with youths to think more holistically about helping them move beyond the usual six-week summer-job experience. The program receives about $700,000 in federal funding. (“Cities Scrambling To Maintain Summer-Jobs Programs,” July 12, 2000).

‘College Material’

Poring over abstracts and other weighty articles, Ms. Allen and other high school students in her Young Scholars group at Temple delved into research about school climate. They also created an evaluation instrument that assessed curriculum, safety and security, and physical structure. Learning what she called “big college words,” Ms. Allen analyzed her own school, the 2,500-student William Penn High School in north-central Philadelphia.

She concluded that rules about not smoking in the restroom, for example, should be more strictly enforced, and that issues of overcrowding should be addressed.

Simply being on a college campus for five weeks and learning from professors opened up new possibilities for Ms. Allen, who hopes to attend Temple University, a private, state-related institution.

“I felt like college material,” she said. “I felt really good about it, and I’m more independent now.”

Such an experience gives students the motivation to be active participants in their own communities, said Sonya Peterson-Lewis, an associate professor of African-American studies at Temple who leads the program’s research portion. With knowledge of how to conduct surveys and do ethnographic observation and content analysis, she said, students become more powerful players in debates.

“They have a responsibility not to just sit around and ask for things at their school,” she said. “We are trying to build activists who command an audience.”

For students attending often overcrowded and underresourced schools, she added, a visit to Friends Select, one of the best private schools in Philadelphia, was a powerful lesson in how issues of class, race, and opportunity intersect to create a particular type of school. Many of the students began thinking about how to make their own schools stronger after the trip.

“If you come with an informed opinion, you are a force to be reckoned with,” Ms. Peterson-Lewis said. “This gives them the skills and confidence to have a voice.”

Scholarships and Credit

Participants in Youth Works College Bound each received an untaxed $3-an-hour stipend. Ms. Weiner admits it can be a tough sell to persuade students to forgo jobs where they could earn more money, but she tries to show them that, in the long run, the payoff will be better for someone who is prepared to enter and graduate from college.

In 1975, the average college graduate earned 57 percent more than the typical high school graduate, while by 1997 that figure had risen to 77 percent more, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

This year, the program has been expanded with a year-round component. At Temple, for example, students will spend three Saturdays each month during the school year on campus, working on math, computer, or research skills. Many of the programs are coordinated over multiple years, so that students have a continuous learning experience at a particular college.

Many of the participating colleges give full or partial scholarships to students who have completed the three-year sequence and are accepted for admission. The 215,000-student Philadelphia school district also gives credit toward high school graduation if a student has completed a multidisciplinary academic project and meets district standards for improving work-readiness skills.

Continuous Support

Olney High School, a 3,000-student public school that occupies a full city block in Philadelphia, has teamed up with the Community College of Philadelphia in a year-round relationship. Even with students divided into six career academies, the school is one where a student can easily get lost.

Myra Olshansky, a veteran teacher who directs Olney High’s Academy of Travel and Tourism, sees the college-bound program as a way to hook teenagers. She recruits them in the second half of freshman year; they stay with the program until senior year. With the help of community college faculty members, Olney students incorporated writing skills and technology to create their own magazine, took cultural trips to places like Independence Hall, and completed service-learning work in a neighborhood elementary school.

“With disadvantaged students, a one-month summer program is not enough,” Ms. Olshansky said. “They need continuous support throughout their high school career.”

While the advantages to students are obvious, college administrators say their institutions also reap benefits.

At Holy Family College, a small, Roman Catholic liberal arts school in northeast Philadelphia, about 30 high school students who recently arrived from Bosnia, Ukraine, China, Vietnam, and South America took part in a multicultural program. New to the urban schools in Philadelphia they now attend, the students came together to work on their writing and computer skills and produced a booklet about their respective cultures.

“This was designed as an enrichment program for the students,” said Leonard Soroka, the dean of the school of education, “but they really enriched our lives on campus with their own culture.”

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