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Student Success Centers open to address needs of oft-neglected high schoolers

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Simon Gratz High School’s guidance counselor bears a caseload of some 600 students, to whom she is assigned to help with college applications, roster concerns, work permits, counseling referrals, and much more.

If that workload seems a bit heavy, then Simon Gratz Principal Delores Williams has made her point, in explaining the creation of the school’s “Student Success Center.”

Standing outside what had previously been known as Room 217, Williams says of the new Center, “It’s a good resource and a concept that’s long overdue.”

The concept was presented two years ago by the activist group Philadelphia Student Union. It had initially sought centers for the four local high schools in which it had a Student Union chapter. Ultimately, the District decided on a total of 10 schools to house Centers. The other nine are Overbrook, Kensington, West Philadelphia, University City, Bartram, Frankford, Franklin, Penn and Edison High Schools.

The centers were a response to findings from a Student Union survey:
· 68 percent of students said no one in school supports them with personal problems, and,
· 43 percent of students from neighborhood high schools reported that they had never met with their counselor.

“This lack of attention,” the Student Union argued, “contributes significantly to students dropping out of school.” The group noted that in some schools, the guidance counselor-to-student radio is 1 to 1,200.

Student Union Executive Director Eric Braxton, on hand for the Gratz opening, noted that the Student Union and Success Center organizers were “pleased” the Centers were starting up, but stressed that there is “still a lot of work” to be done.

Organizers visualized “a place where someone can come with a problem, whether in school or out of school,” Braxton said.

Each school’s Center – three of which opened last school year, with others opening this fall or later in the year – is unique in its offerings. Each school provides a dedicated room, while the School District equips each Center with a conference area, computers for researching college and financial aid, and cubicles for both professional staff and student-led programs, such as student government. Professional staff comes from such programs as the Philadelphia Youth Network, the Philadelphia Education Fund’s College Access Program, and the School District’s GEAR UP Program.

Schools chosen for a Success Center either had a Student Union chapter already in place, or the school was a large, comprehensive high school that had available funding sources, such as the GEAR UP program, according to Courtney Collins-Shapiro, assistant director of the District’s Office of College & Career Awareness.

At its Nov. 10 meeting, the School Reform Commission is expected to approve a $411,000 contract with Resources for Change, for what Braxton considers the most important component of the Centers – professional social workers. When approved, the contract will provide for seven full-time social workers -- who will provide full-time coverage in five centers and part-time coverage in the remaining five. The funds will also provide for five University of Pennsylvania social work interns.

Meanwhile, each school’s own students assist in such services as peer mediation.

Gratz’s Student Success Center dons colorful bulletin boards containing college pamphlets, financial aid materials, and job information. It includes a College Access Program, an Education-to-Career coordinator, a master’s-level social worker, and a member of the Devereaux Community Services of Philadelphia, to help with behavioral health and social services.

Gratz’s Success Center has already shown one sign of success. Although it officially opened October 18, since its unofficial launch at the beginning of the year, up to 50 students a day have taken advantage of it, according to Gratz Student Government President Johnny Patterson.

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