While many college-bound students make a long list of universities they'd like to attend, Dominique "Peak" Johnson had only one school in mind.
"My main focus was Temple, even though I remember my 9th grade counselor telling me not to put all my eggs in one basket," Johnson said.
For Johnson, the university was close to home and his job. And for the aspiring writer who wants to pursue journalism, Temple – which has a strong communications program – just seemed like the right fit.
So, during his senior year at Delaware Valley Charter High School, Johnson applied to Temple for the fall semester of 2007.
But he didn't get in.
Four years later, Johnson (a former intern at the Notebook) has just received his associate's degree from Community College of Philadelphia and is vying once again for admission to Temple.
Like Johnson, a large number of District graduates end up at CCP, even if their original aspirations were elsewhere. Since 2003, 32 percent of those who went on to college after graduating from District schools enrolled at the community college, making it far and away the number one choice. That represents more than 2,000 Philadelphia public school students each year.
But new District data show that only 17 percent of those earn a degree within six years of finishing high school.
Many simply aren't ready for the academic rigors of higher education because of a misalignment between secondary standards and postsecondary demands. In short, often due to ineffective teaching and watered-down curricula, students fail to acquire in high school the skills necessary to excel in college.
As a result, a large number are forced to enter remedial education courses at CCP to help bridge the instructional gap, which translates into lost time and dollars. Students must often spend a year or more trying to satisfy basic requirements that they should have fulfilled in grades 9-12.
"Remediation is the taxpayer and students paying twice for the same education, and in Pennsylvania that's almost $100 million" (in the 2007-08 school year), said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, which is focused on helping the nation's K-12 systems produce college-ready graduates. "So we need to get it right the first time, and that is in high school."
According to an Alliance policy brief, remedial education is a major issue nationwide, not just in Philadelphia. About one out of every three students entering postsecondary studies will have to take at least one remedial course.
In 2007, Johnson's need for remediation blocked his best efforts to get into Temple. After his rejection, he worked some connections to get into Temple's summer bridge program with the assurance that if he passed three classes – freshmen seminar, English, and math – he could have a second chance. But Johnson failed the math class, knocking him out of contention yet again for a slot on the Broad Street campus.
"The math they were teaching at Temple, I didn't know it because in high school my math was completely mixed up. In 10th grade I got Algebra 2 and I never even had Algebra 1. Then they put me in Geometry and that was terrible because the teacher wasn't good," said Johnson.
"It was a huge blow to me to not get in Temple, and I was mad at my high school for not preparing me."
After Temple rejected Johnson, an instructor at his afterschool program suggested he apply to CCP for spring semester 2008. Like every incoming student, he took the placement test to assess his academic abilities, and once again he came up short in math.
Johnson was placed in CCP's basic remedial math class. He had to take the second level of remedial math twice before getting to his credit-bearing courses. Still determined to achieve his goal, in 2009, Johnson entered CCP's dual admissions program, allowing him to accrue credits that also count at Temple, and he expects to transfer there in the fall. Associate's degree in hand, he's filled out the proper paperwork, satisfied all the academic requirements, and is waiting on his final acceptance.
A preparedness barrier
College-bound doesn't necessarily mean college-ready.
Eileen Abrams, a CCP English instructor, said that 70 percent of incoming students are not ready for credit-bearing courses.
"Typically students in my developmental class can't put a standard five-paragraph essay together," she said. "They have a hard time understanding what a thesis statement is and how to create and develop one. On the reading side, students have difficulty discerning main ideas from examples and details, and a really big issue is vocabulary development," she said.
CCP has four levels of remedial classes in English and math, each of which must be satisfied before students can take credit-bearing courses toward their degree.
Clifton Clemons, a second-year CCP student and business administration major, wanted to attend North Carolina State University. But he waited too late to apply, so CCP became his fallback, and remedial math and English is where he had to start.
"At first I was mad because most people who go to Philadelphia public high schools know they kinda push you through, and if they give you a B, you know it's not like a B from Masterman," he said. "You might have only done C work to get a B."
Clemons said he attended Olney East High School before being "kicked out" in the 10th grade and graduated from Hope Charter. He decided to see the positive in remediation.
"I thought maybe CCP could help me with my literature, English, science, and math," he said. If he had gone straight to North Carolina State University, "then I wouldn't have the skills to do well there and would have been ready to drop out."
Clemons, 20, plans to graduate in 2012 and also wants to transfer to Temple.
Closing the gap
Remediation is not a viable solution to the preparation gap between high school and college.
"We need to be doing a better job of preparing students and aligning what they learn with what higher education is requiring, and that's not just on K-12," Wise said. "That's also on higher education to be in better communication [with high schools] about what students need to be successful in a two- or four-year institution."
The District is working on this alignment through the Philadelphia Council for College and Career Success, an effort supported by Mayor Nutter and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Through the Council, the District, institutions of higher education, and local business people are collaborating on ways to reduce the instructional gap. Representatives from eight colleges are participating on a subcommittee of the council called College Completion to get the work done.
"We're trying to collect some data around this issue to look at what the transition is like for students," said Linda Chen, deputy chief of the District's Office of Teaching and Learning. "But we know from a lot of anecdotal data that our students are not ready for CCP or other universities and that's why we're doing this."
The project is part of the District's preparation for the transition to the Common Core State Standards Initiative — an effort to increase graduation requirements that was led by the states through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The Common Core defines the knowledge and skills students must acquire so they can graduate from high school ready for college and careers. Forty-four states have adopted the standards, which cover reading, writing, language, listening, and speaking. Pennsylvania signed on in 2010.
Though college completion rates are grim at CCP, some District students do get a head start by taking advantage of the District's dual enrollment program that allows them to earn college credits while still in high school. CCP participates along with Cheyney, Eastern, Holy Family, Lincoln, and St. Joseph's.
Juwan Bennett, a senior at Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP), juggled band, football, and track while participating in the program for two years.
Bennett, 18, has already earned 40 CCP credits, which he will transfer to Temple in the fall.
"I think the dual enrollment program should have a lot more exposure because it helps you get involved in the college process," said Bennett, who plans to study criminal justice.
While some students feel as though their high schools failed to prepare them for college, Brittany Perry doesn't. She blames herself for not being ready.
Perry, a third-semester CCP student who took remedial English and math, won a scholarship to Chestnut Hill College while at Overbrook High School. But she lost it toward the end of her 12th grade year because her grades slipped.
"I just didn't care any more," said Perry, who was raised in the foster care system. "I was hanging with my friends and that became more important than me doing my schoolwork."
Perry, now 20, said Overbrook offered classes and workshops that helped students prepare for college, but she, like many of her peers, simply didn't take advantage of them.
She said that she was chosen in 9th grade for Overbrook's scholars academy. "In that you take AP and honors courses … but I didn't pay attention in any of the classes, so when I came to CCP I was tested and referred to take remedial courses."
Though Perry got off to a slow start, she's excited now about college and wants to study nursing.
For college-bound students she has this piece of advice: "Let 11th and 12th grade be the years you be more serious in school, and really pay attention in your classes instead of playing around like I did."