As a high school principal working to get Philadelphia students into college, Kahlila Ames says her challenge is fundamental: "When you've got a population that may not be believers, how do you make them believe?"
Ames' students face major obstacles. They need good grades. They need money. They must navigate a long, confusing admissions process. They must manage countless family obligations and social distractions.
As a 1989 graduate of Overbrook High in West Philadelphia, Ames overcame these barriers herself. Today, as the first-year principal of William L. Sayre High at 58th and Walnut, her goal is to convince her students that they can do the same.
"I see myself in them," she said. "I knew I wanted something different, even though there wasn't anybody to tell me what something different looked like."
Ames believes that every Sayre student can and should graduate with some kind of postsecondary education plan. But to bring a "college culture" to Sayre, she's learning that she must establish something even more basic: a schoolwide culture of collaboration, achievement, and respect for learning.
The achievement indicators for the school are not good. In 2010, fewer than 20 percent of Sayre 11th graders scored proficient in reading and math. The four-year graduation rate is 54 percent, below the District average.
Ames said that in her first year, she's seen students taking more responsibility for maintaining a safe and respectful school climate, but changing their attitudes about the importance of classroom work has been harder. Sayre uses a system of academic probation that allows Ames and her staff to monitor struggling students and help them keep their grades up. But she says she wants to see students do more to hold each other to high academic standards.
"I think we're still striving to do that for the scholar part, the educational part – them holding each other accountable, understanding that a 65 [on a test] is not good enough."
Some success, but …
On a sunny morning in May, Ames is standing in Sayre's auditorium, surrounded by about three dozen seniors who have been accepted to college.
Each has a letter: Shippensburg, Penn State, Temple, Community College of Philadelphia. Some have scholarships lined up and careers in mind: graphic design; social work; automotive technology; medicine. Others aren't sure how they'll pay or what they'll study. Some have been preparing for college for years. Others arrived in September without a shred of a plan.
Leona Sheridan counts herself among the latter group. When she started her senior year, "college wasn't nowhere," Sheridan said. But Sayre's teachers hammered home a single message: "If I want to be something, I have to go to college."
Asked if those teachers told her she could be something, Sheridan said, "Yes."
Asked if she'd ever heard that message before, Sheridan paused a long moment and said simply, "No."
This is the fundamental challenge Ames confronts every day. "Most of my students want something different," she said. "They may not know how to articulate it. But if you show them, they will rise to the occasion."
Ames is not the first to bring a college emphasis to Sayre, a former middle school that graduated its first seniors in 2007. Partners like Project GRAD, Philadelphia Futures, and the University of Pennsylvania provide in-school and afterschool programs. A "Success Center" offers computers and college information. Freshmen have been given college-preparation lectures for years.
But the results have been uneven. In 2007, according to District data, 42 percent of Sayre seniors entered college the fall after graduating. In 2008 that figure dropped to 18 percent. In 2009 and 2010, 33 and 23 percent of Sayre graduates entered college, respectively.
This year, Ames estimates that about 40 Sayre seniors have been accepted, out of a senior class of about 150. Not all of those 40, she says, will actually make it to college next year.
And in a school where many students struggle with academic and social issues, about two-thirds of Sayre's students remain beyond the reach of its college supports, Ames said. Engaging those students is her biggest challenge.
Lamar Boyd is a success story in that department. Now admitted to Community College, Boyd said he was "wild" for years. "I wasn't thinking nothing about college," Boyd said. "But now, I see, I need a plan. After high school, I don't want to be doing just nothing."
The difference, Boyd said, was Ames – starting with her command that he "get out of the hall" and into class. "She will stay on top of you, like she was your mom," laughed Boyd.
Other students agreed: Steady attention and high expectations made the difference. "This is my third high school. I never had a principal that actually wanted everybody to go to college," said Cherie Simmons. "I wanted to go for all the wrong reasons. But [Ames] got me thinking that school's more than partying."
Victor Lee, an aspiring artist, said Sayre's staff gave him "the extra boost, and the confidence I needed" to study film at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. Zafir Crawley said that without a push, he'd have been satisfied with a high school diploma. "I started thinking that I didn't want to settle for anything less than a career," Crawley said.
Many students said family and friends also helped push them towards college. But some said family can be an obstacle. Parents often balk at sharing the personal information needed for financial aid. "I'm like, 'What you mean, you don't have it? I need it!'" said one senior. "Tax returns, W-2s, Social Security numbers. [Mom's] like, 'Who you giving my information to?'"
Financial pressures can also play a significant role. "With this economy, because the parents are unemployed, [the student] needs to go get a job," said Sayre's counselor, Carolyn Fox Radford. Nor is it always easy to give students steady attention. "There's so many kids that transfer in and out," Radford said. "You look up and they're gone."
Ames' seniors with college plans agreed that these were all real barriers. But they held fast to the notion that a good mindset is the key. Asked if more Sayre students could go to college if they tried, Ames' seniors agreed unanimously: they could.
Plenty of room for improvement
Ames doesn't think college is for everyone. But all Sayre students need a post-graduation plan, she said. That's why she's hoping for more than just a "college culture." She wants a culture of learning and collaboration that engages everyone in the building.
To do that, she says, Sayre must improve the systems it uses to monitor and support students.
A good example, Ames said, is the tedious task of transcript management. Many students earn enough credits to graduate without taking all the classes they need to get into college. It's up to Sayre to spot the gaps. "We have to make sure we roster [students] into the correct classes," Ames said. "The only way that you can do that is … review the transcripts every single year."
Then there is the issue of the quality of the classes themselves. Ames, like other principals, struggles with ways to help her staff teach writing and promote critical thinking, crucial college skills.
Ames has a long list of other improvements in mind for her second year: better support and resources for her staff; better collaboration with nonprofit partners; more academic enrichment programs; a retooled writing program.
And while the challenge can be daunting, she also knows that a little can go a long way. As a student at Overbrook, Ames knew almost nothing about college and careers. The turning point came when a civil engineer visited her chemistry class to talk about her profession. That inspired Ames to seek the diploma in science education that ultimately led her to a job she loves.
So what she hopes to create at Sayre is a culture that gives all students the chance to set goals and experience success with the support of a community – lessons not about college, Ames said, but citizenship.
"These are things that are applicable to being an American … that allow you to contribute to society," Ames said. "It doesn't always take money. It takes people, relationships, being there. I don't like to close my door. I need them to come to me."