When Lavon Howard arrived at West Chester University in the fall of 2000, he thought he was prepared for college. The lifelong resident of North Philadelphia, graduated among the top 10 in his class with a 3.8 GPA from Roxborough High School and had participated in college prep programs prior to graduating.
But once he settled on campus, Howard had a hard time adjusting. Academically, Howard said, he was ready, but being away from home, developing new relationships, and taking on the responsibilities that come with independence was a challenge.
“No one came and talked to me about college life,” he said. “How to deal with roommates, how to deal with financial aid, how to deal with getting involved [on campus,] and time management.”
Fortunately, Howard had no intentions of dropping out, so he forged on and graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. However, many of his peers didn’t.
“I saw a lot of people go to school in the first semester and leave in the first semester. And I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’” he said.
“Things like partying, the homesickness, it gets to them.”
Now, 10 years later, Howard wants to help students transition into college with The Champions Academy, a series of panel discussions where college students and graduates volunteer their time to share advice and insight about the college experience.
The Champions Academy takes place on select Saturdays at the Cecil B. Moore branch of the Free Library and runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. During that time, high school students learn about campus life outside of class covering topics such as college finances, and overcoming obstacles along the way to a degree.
The last one is scheduled for May 6, but another may be added, Howard said.
This event is one of many organized through Path To Greatness, Howard’s non-profit organization focused on youth empowerment.
“I want our youth to be prepared for life,” Howard said. “And surround themselves with people who care for them.
On Saturday, April 8, Howard gathered seven panelists from different colleges including Temple, Howard University, and Chestnut Hill College, for a discussion in the basement of the North Philadelphia branch of the Free Library.
Only two high school students showed up: Salaar Williams, a sophomore at Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, and Ameera Polk, a senior at Philadelphia High School for Girls, who also assisted Howard with the event.
Polk, 17, plans to attend the University of Central Florida to study psychology in the fall. Williams, 16, is considering studying mechanical engineering at Lincoln University when he graduates. Both listened for more than 90 minutes as panelists offered advice on transitioning into college, as well as persisting through college.
Nicolette Mathis, a senior at Temple University, advised them to mind the company they keep in order to stay focused on their goals.
“When you get there,” said Mathis, a biology major, “really surround yourself with people who are trying to do what you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be engineering and psychology. But [should be] people who are trying to move forward in a positive way in life, and are goal-oriented.”
After the event, Williams said the discussion motivated him to “get higher in life” and “keep going and keep pushing.”
The path to greatness
It was 2013. Howard was working as a recess coach at Robert Morris School in North Philadelphia when he came up with the idea to launch Path To Greatness.
While keeping the younger students busy with games during recess, Howard said he noticed there were no activities or programs for the middle school students.
He said students roamed the hallways during class and were disrespectful toward their teachers.
“There were a lot of rowdy kids. Kids who weren’t focused, kids who didn’t want to get involved,” said Polk, who met Howard while she was a student at Morris.
Howard wanted to help the students. So after clearing it with the principal, he began conducting workshops centered on the theme of greatness. He invited guests to speak to the students about topics such as self-esteem, leadership, and communication.
‘I felt like they needed someone to talk to who was not going to judge them or criticize them,” he said. “But someone they could talk to who could help them.”
The workshops were held one Friday each month from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. He said initially, students who participated were reluctant to participate in the workshop, but eventually he saw an improvement in them.
“It felt like a change happened at that school,” he said. “A lot of middle school kids became more involved; they became more active. Their grades started turning around because of that one visit.”
Students became more involved and respectful of their teachers, he said, with some volunteering to help him coach recess.
Polk was one of the first students to participate in the workshop, and continued attending Howard’s workshops and even helping with some of them.
She said working with Howard led to community service opportunities, and developed her public speaking abilities, which eventually landed her a job at the National Liberty Museum.
For the next three years, Howard conducted similar workshops at other schools, including Dobbins, Academy at Palumbo, and Kensington Creative and Performing Arts high schools, and Ethel Allen Elementary school. He also visited churches and community events throughout the city.
But in 2016, Howard got a new job that took up much of his time through the week. Also, he grew frustrated with the challenges in gaining access to schools, which included a lot of unreturned phone calls.
“It was a sign that I had to move on,” Howard said.
So he decided to refocus his efforts on helping students achieve greatness. After recalling his rough time at West Chester University, he started holding college panels to give students in grades 8-12 advice about college life, giving life to the Champions Academy concept.
Another Champions Academy is scheduled for May 6 at the Cecil B. Moore library, though another may be added before the school year ends, Howard said.
As of now, the panels are organized around Howard’s work schedule. He works as a safety officer at Kensington CAPA, and at Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a non-profit organization that helps Latino communities.. In the future, Howard said that he hopes to secure a contract with the District that will allow him to make Path to Greatness his full-time job.
“We want to be there for [their] growth [their] challenges. And we want to be that bridge for when [they’re] about to give up.”