“It’s a whole different world,” said Alicia – just a few minutes away.
Markeeta Hudgens agrees. “Lower Merion is not far from Overbrook High School – not far at all,” she said. “How can you be not even 10 minutes away from another school, and have so much less?”
Hudgens, who graduated from Overbrook last June, is asking a profound question.
Wealthy, White suburban school districts abut poor ones serving students of color all over the country, and it’s common to see stark differences in their property values and their ability to raise taxes to pay for schools.
Years of government policies at all levels played a role in those divides, though they sometimes seem like part of the natural order. But many young people, like Hudgens, see the unfairness in it.
Now, a few days after Labor Day, she’s sitting in a lounge at Cheyney University. College was a priority she set for herself. “I know it sounds crazy, but in many people’s lives, we don’t have people pushing us,” she said. “Even our parents.”
Hudgens credits Overbrook with providing just enough. Honors classes honed her writing skills. Hard-working teachers gave her respect and support. Advisors in the Student Success Center – a room with a handful of computers and a small staff, funded by a federal grant, open to students on their lunch breaks – guided her through college applications. “It would have been hard, doing it alone,” she said. “It would have got done, but maybe not in this way.”
But she also feels keenly that at a school with a 47 percent graduation rate, she’s the exception, not the rule.
“Kids get scared. They don’t know if they can make it,” she said. “With their fear, they pull out.”
Looking back, she feels that Overbrook simply didn’t have the resources to reel those students in. She’s seen the state costing-out study. Lower Merion spends almost $26,000 per student each year, against Philadelphia’s less than $13,000. To her, that explained her sense that the school never quite had enough of anything.
“You couldn’t take the textbooks home. They were all outdated,” she said. “They have basketball, football – but most of the [equipment] was handed down, out of date. There was a dance squad trying to form, but there was no funding for that. A band, no funding for that. It’s not like being an underdog – it’s like not even being in the competition at all.”
At Cheyney, she already feels like she’s playing catch-up. “I don’t feel like I’m prepared like I should be,” she said, “Other kids are more advanced. They have more knowledge.”
She says she won’t give up. But she can’t say the same of most Overbrook students. “We’re not trained to push,” she said. “We’re trained to let it flow. That’s the culture. People become numb. You don’t react.”
On a bright sunny day in mid-September, Overbrook’s principal is standing at a lectern in the library, saying the school can’t solve that problem alone.
“I’ve got a group of kids that’s going to go to college. Their parents have already sown that seed,” said Ethelyn Young. “But I got a mass of kids who, nobody told them that was a possibility. You got to reach out to the masses.”
The only solution is partnerships, she says, and that’s why she’s happy today. Mayor Michael Nutter, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and the head of Millersville University have arrived to announce an expansion of the Student Success Center. It’s gone from half a dozen computers to 30. It’s added extra staff and support.
Earlier in the day, Young announced the partnership to a cheering auditorium full of juniors and seniors. When one guest asked the students how many planned to go to college, almost every hand shot up.
But later, Young explains the reality. Of a typical freshman class of 380, she says, only about 100 will go on to college. “And you want to know how many actually graduate? That’s a different story,” she said.
Young is nothing if not optimistic. She arrived seven years ago to a school in disarray. Things have slowly improved, she says. Teachers work yeoman’s hours to provide extracurricular support. The number of AP classes has gone from two to five. The school now owns nine “laptop carts,” each with about 30 computers. A wide range of partners contribute after school programming, special classes for returning students, career training, and more.
The single biggest factor behind many of these recent improvements is a three-year, $6 million grant from the federal Department of Labor – a grant for which only “persistently dangerous” schools were eligible. That funds the laptops, extra teachers and staff, many programs, and perhaps most importantly, the Student Success Center.
The problem, says Young, is that after next year, the money runs out.
In Lower Merion, district superintendent Chris McGinley says hard times mean leaner budgets. “Lower Merion is not immune to the broader economy,” he said. But the vast majority of support systems at Lower Merion High are built into the very fabric of its budget. A family like the Goffs can count on them not just for a year or two, but for an educational lifetime.
At Overbrook, it’s the opposite story. “There’s no longevity to anything,” said Young. “We’re just now getting [the Success Center] up and running. We have this year, and all of next year. Then I think that’s it.
“I’ll keep the computers. But who’s going to staff it? I don’t have the staff,” she said. “I’ve got to figure out how to sustain these things. Because the kids keep coming.”
||% African American
||% Low Income
Average daily abseenteeism
||PSSA Math -
||PSSA Reading - % proficient
Sources: Pa. Dept. of Education, School District of Philadelphia