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College for a few

A stratified system means long odds for students in Philadelphia's neighborhood high schools.

by Benjamin Herold for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis for the Notebook/NewsWorks

Jamel Haggins, 20, made the leap from being the 2009 class valedictorian at Benjamin Franklin High School to studying architecture at Lehigh University. His former principal at Franklin calls him “the Michael Jordan of students.”

Strolling across Lehigh University's picturesque campus, Jamel Haggins is a striking example of the best that Philadelphia's neighborhood high schools have to offer.

Now a 20-year-old college junior, Haggins is on track to earn his architecture degree next spring. A chiseled 6'3" tall and 255 pounds, he's also an all-conference tight end for Lehigh's football team. Sporting an easy smile and a bright red fraternity sweatshirt – he's the president of the campus chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi – the proud North Philly native is a magnet for attention from students and staff alike.

"He's my everything," gushes Haggins' girlfriend, Allison Morrow, the president of Lehigh's Black Student Union.

Haggins was the crown jewel of the class of 2009 at North Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin High: class valedictorian, a three-time all-Public League football star, and a commanding officer in the school's Navy Junior ROTC.

Listen to Benjamin Herold's report for NewsWorks Tonight

His former principal calls him "the Michael Jordan of students" – someone to be admired, but clearly in a league of his own.

"He's just different," says principal Christopher Johnson.

Different, most tellingly, because his postsecondary success has not been widely shared by his classmates.

Of the 145 students who started 9th grade at Franklin in fall 2005, only 17 enrolled in a four-year college, according to new National Student Clearinghouse data provided to the Notebook by the School District.

Citywide, only 25 percent of students who started 9th grade in one of Philadelphia's neighborhood high schools that year have enrolled in any postsecondary education, compared to almost 80 percent of students who started at the city's most selective magnet high schools.

"It's unacceptable," said Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer.

Mired in deep financial crisis, School District officials are trying to expand educational quality by opening up more seats in top-performing schools.

It sounds logical.

But Johnson is skeptical.

Even a neighborhood school like Franklin can help the Jamels of the world get to college, says Johnson.

If the city's education leaders really want to fix Philadelphia's broken pipeline to college, it's the kids who can't get into the magnets they should be worrying about.

•••

It's Friday evening, and Lydell Boanes is getting high.

On music.

"Drumming is like my drug," says a sweat-soaked Boanes, his four-piece quad still strapped to his massive frame after practice with West Philadelphia's Showtime drill team.

"That's what I love to do."

Also a member of Benjamin Franklin High's class of 2009, Boanes, 22, plays and volunteers with Showtime while working part-time as a security guard.

He was hoping to be an electrician by now.

After graduating from high school, Boanes went to Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster. But he was there for only two weeks before learning that his father – absent in his early years, but with whom he built a strong relationship later – was terminally ill. Boanes left school that day.

Later, he enrolled at Thompson Institute, where he earned an electrician's certificate.

But other than $16,000 in student loan debt, says Boanes, he doesn't have much to show for his postsecondary experience.

The credential "carries a lot of weight for me personally," he says. "But I haven't seen any results yet."

Nevertheless, Boanes, who grew up in a violent, desperately poor neighborhood in West Philadelphia nicknamed "The Bottom," counts himself as a success story.

While his father wrestled with addiction, Boanes spent five years in foster care.

In 6th grade, he got caught bringing a gun to Belmont Elementary School.

He started 9th grade at University City High, but was transferred to Franklin after getting into a fight a few weeks into the school year.

Boanes says his biggest problem was that he didn't believe in himself.

"I thought I was, like, a stupid kid," he says. "I couldn't read that good, and everything that I did, I failed."

Once at Franklin, he fell behind in his classes almost immediately, failing both English and math.

But sitting in summer school after 9th grade, something clicked.

The staff at Franklin took notice.

Inside the school's Student Success Center, a large basement room filled with computers and couches, Boanes found sympathetic adults eager to help him with everything from math homework to college paperwork.

Inside principal Johnson's office, he found another father figure.

"He always stayed on top of knuckleheads," says Boanes.

"He didn't want nobody to fail."

•••

Christopher Johnson wants to be very clear about something:

He's never written a kid off.

"Regardless of what you come through these doors with, regardless of who your parents are, regardless of where you were yesterday, the expectation is that you're going to go to college," he says pointedly.

But Johnson also says it's no secret why Philadelphia's broken college pipeline is largely a neighborhood high school problem.

"Schools are good at the end of the day because of the type of children that go there," he says.

"The children that get removed from charter schools, from magnet schools, from incarceration, they have to go to some school, so they go to neighborhood high schools."

Franklin has done better than most. Since 2008, the school has seen a more than 50 percent increase in the number of its graduates who go straight to college.

District officials say Franklin has done a good job at building a strong "college-going culture," citing especially the school's Student Success Center, which became a model for other neighborhood high schools across the city.

They also praise Johnson's leadership.

"He connects with students, he cares about students, he encourages students," said Fran Newberg, deputy for accountability and technology for the District.

"That can move mountains."

pipeline chartStill, for most of the 145 kids who started 9th grade at Franklin in 2005, the pipeline to college fell apart before it even got started.

Seventy-two earned a high school diploma.

Seventy-three have not.

•••

Now 20 years old, Ayanna Roney is rushing to get to school.

She's back at Benjamin Franklin High.

Three years after failing to graduate with the rest of Franklin's class of '09, Roney is still trying to make up the three classes she needs to earn her diploma. Her latest effort has taken her back to her old school, where the District runs one of its night school programs for over-age and under-credited students.

"My high school diploma is not my last stop. I want to get that out of the way so I can go to college," says Roney.

First, though, she must wrestle her 2½-year-old son, Kaimir, into his clothing.

"It's him that's gonna slow it up," she says, laughing as her son avoids her attempts to put his pants on.

Roney's career at Franklin started smoothly.

Like Boanes, she was a Success Center regular. During daily afterschool visits as an 11th grader, she hatched a plan to go to college to study theater and communications.

But during her senior year, things fell apart abruptly.

"I started hanging around a couple of new people," she says, "and they brought drama with them."

After taking part in a major brawl, Roney was suspended. Her grades slipped. She started cutting more classes.

"It was like quicksand," she says.

At the end of 12th grade, Roney found out that the hodgepodge of credits she had accumulated wasn't enough to graduate on time.

She started summer school, then found out she was pregnant.

She re-enrolled at Fels High, but was derailed when her son was born three months prematurely, requiring extended intensive care.

"I just wanted him to be OK," said Roney. "Everything else was, 'I'll get to it.'"

Later attempts to get into a GED program and the alternative-pathway programs YouthBuild and Gateway to College didn't work out.

It wasn't until Roney placed a call to principal Johnson – three years later, she still had his cell phone number – that she found an opportunity that stuck.

Each day, she makes the 90-minute commute to and from Franklin, including stops to drop off Kaimir in the afternoon and pick him up at night.

"Now that he's a little bit older, it's getting a little easier," she says.

•••

With District leaders juggling a budget crisis, a bureaucratic restructuring, an academic reorganization, and a leadership transition, it's tough to tell exactly what the plan is to help more kids like Ayanna Roney make it to – and through – college.

In April, officials announced that 11 selective high schools across the city would collectively expand their enrollment by 1,700 students.

The policy could have made a difference for Jamel Haggins, who was accepted at prestigious Central High, but declined in favor of a scholarship offer from Roman Catholic High that fell through at the last minute.

It likely would not have helped less stellar students such as Lydell Boanes and Ayanna Roney.

"In the short term, what we can do to help kids is to get them into schools that will be the best places for them," said Naomi Houseman, the District's co-deputy chief in the Office of Counseling and Promotion Standards.

Long term, however, she acknowledges that the strategy might not be the best thing for the school system as a whole.

Plans to provide that kind of holistic support are murky, at best.

Officials say they have hopes that the academic reorganization just getting underway might lead to better-prepared 9th graders down the line – but details have been non-existent.

Principals are being granted more autonomy to figure out their own solutions – at the same time their budgets have been dramatically slashed.

The external funding that has been supporting the city's GEAR-UP programs and Student Success Centers could soon dry up.

In the meantime, then, it's more "high-performing seats."

Shorr dismisses out of hand any concerns that existing disparities among the District's high schools might get worse.

"I don't think we could be more stratified than we are right now," she says.

•••

Back at Lehigh University, Jamel Haggins is getting anxious.

Alone inside a computer lab, he's preparing for a critique with his prickly architecture professor.

"It's always nerve-wracking," he says. "It seems like nothing is ever going to be good enough for him."

Appearances aside, it's not like his time at Lehigh has been a breeze, says Haggins.

On his first big exam, he scored 19 out of 100: "Chemistry just demolished me."

There was also dealing with the culture shock from being around White people his age for the first time: "I never had a class with one before college."

Even on the football field, he didn't know what he didn't know until he got to Lehigh:

"In high school, we didn't even have a playbook," says Haggins, incredulous.

For a while, always feeling like he was starting at the back of the race made him angry.

But Haggins, born to a teenage mother in a violent section of North Philly, has always had an uncanny knack for bouncing back quickly.

Even he's not sure how to explain it.

"You just have to let stuff go sometimes and keep moving forward," he finally offers.

As his architecture professor lays into him for being behind in his preparations for an upcoming presentation, Haggins does just that.

"I learned to convert it into a positive," he explains after class.

"I was like, 'OK, even though this dude is bashing my work, I'm going to take his criticism and apply it.'"

It's that kind of thing that makes his former principal shake his head and smile ruefully.

Students like Lydell Boanes and Ayanna Roney don't lack for talent or heart, says Christopher Johnson, but getting them through college often means everything needs to break just right.

But Haggins?

"He [will] do well in whatever environment he's in," says Christopher Johnson.

"He's just that kind of kid."

About the Author

Benjamin Herold is a reporter for the Notebook and WHYY's NewsWorks.

Benjamin Herold’s reporting on college-going is made possible by a partnership between the Notebook, WHYY/NewsWorks, American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

For more information about the national initiative: http://americangraduate.org.

For more information about  the local initiative at WHYY: http://www.whyy.org/education/americangraduate.html.

Comments (18)

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 05:50.

The "stratification" or tracking of students in Philadelphia schools may be "unacceptable" to Lori Shorr but she isn't doing much about it. Yes, they are opening "seats" in magnet schools but the majority of students will not qualify and remain in neighborhood schools. The members of the SRC with children in Philadelphia either have their children in magnets or private schools. So, who is going to advocate for students who don't qualify for magnets, will not last in a charter, and therefore are in neighborhood schools?

The SRC appears to want to close neighborhood schools but is not providing a viable alternative. We know Mastery will not take students with "multiple disabilities" because of the expense. We also know charters like Mastery will get rid of any student that violates their rules (e.g. no fighting). So, Ms. Shorr and the SRC, the solution is not to "charterize" the district. You have to make neighborhood schools more appealing for a cross section of students. You need allow all neighborhood schools, like Washington and Northeast HS, to have internal, on site magnet programs or special programs which will attract more students. This will benefit all students in the neighborhood schools.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 17:21.

I know a couple of people who work at Mastery. Almost all of Mastery's schools serve the neighborhood kids. Their charter stipulates this. I also know from talking with Mastery employees, including a classmate, that they do have programs for students who need life skills instruction, e.g. at Shoemaker and Clymer. This indicates that they do serve some students who at least have moderate disabilities. I don't know about severe disabilities.

I did field work at Belmont Charter School. The school is full inclusion, and provides pull-out services for students with intellectual disabilities who need life skills instruction. They have some services for children with emotional/behavioral disorders also. When a student's needs exceed what Belmont CS is able to provide, the special education administrator will work to place the child in an approved private school.

The Notebook did an article a year or so ago about attrition at Harrity, showing that Mastery-Harrity does not weed out students. I can't say that all charter schools weed out special education students, but don't assume that they all do, because that's just not true.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 05/19/2012 - 09:52.

The SRC has given Mastery approval to discontinue the classes for students with multiple disabilities at Clymer. This was reported by the Notebook and the Inquirer. Almost any school has students with "moderate disabilities" - with the exception of magnets like Central and Masterman.

Belmont Charter is an exception. They have extensive additional funding. The school has a unique history. That said, I assume the SDP pays for the student to go to a private school or Belmont has funding from its benefactors.

While not all charters "counselor out" students with behavioral/social problems, many don't accept them. While it is a lottery system, there are ways to "weed out" via lottery. Many charters have extensive admission processes which will "weed out" more difficult students. Boys Latin has an extensive admission process and is well known for "counseling out" students with behavioral problems. I have one students who was "counseled out" mid year and now is at my neighborhood high school. Just compare the percentage of students with an IEP at a charter high school with a neighborhood high school - no comparison. I'm sure some charters keep students with learning disabilities but the students with behavioral issues are routinely "counseled out."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 05/21/2012 - 13:53.

All Good Points---Problem is they don't WANT the real schools to succeed. No money there !!!

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 06:36.

As stated in the article by those who are around these children, they are very smart/have great potential. The larger issue of institutionalizing education affects even those at the prestigious magnet schools, Central has reached the point of being a large test taking factory. As PYN is doing, we need to reach out to our businesses. These children who are struggling with this system are the most vulnerable as they have fewer supports at home. With the diminishing tax/government support, it will take agressive leadership at the principal level to involve local businesses in such things as career development and jobs, things that matter to young people and that will bring much needed income. Several years ago when I was looking for grant opportunities for my neighborhood school, I came across a generous one, Lowe's Toolbox for Education that had made generous grants to urban schools for career education. I don't know if this still exists, but certainly the awareness of this need is out there. Also, a school can make businesses aware of the EIC, Education Improvement Credit, where a business can get a 75% credit for donations to a school. We can't rely on our government to do everything.

Submitted by Benjamin Herold on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 06:53.

 Ms. Cheng,

Thanks as always for the thoughtful commentary.

Re: principals seeking outside funding to support students, and especially college-going - please be sure to check out the short profile of Franklin principal Christopher Johnson in our summer edition.  

He speaks directly to this point, acknowledging that seeking external support is a growing part of his job, but asking:"Do you want a principal of a major high school to be a fundraiser, or do you want him to be an academic leader?"

Ben

 

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 07:12.

Even before this latest move to School Based Administration, principals have been given a lot/far too much to shoulder. Mr. Johnson, whose main job should indeed be academic leader, should know that there are caregivers willing to help. We only ask that the principal support our efforts.

If the principal and his/her team of teachers are allowed, as hinted they would be, to be creative, perhaps more real world experiences/connections can be integrated into the curriculum and be the "carrot" that leads to more academic interest.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 07:57.

The SDP needs to offer more ways to administrators/teachers to access resources, including people, who will help with the fundraising. Magnet schools like Central have an alumni association, SLA has a Home and School, Masterman has alumni and a Home and School, etc. While some neighborhood high schools have alumni associations (Northeast, Frankford, Overbrook, West, etc.), others do not or do not have an alumni association which raises significant funds.

The other problem is the SDP grants office. They are very inefficient and disconnected from schools. For example, the School Improvement Grant (SIP) that was to be awarded to a number of high schools this year has been a train wreck. The grants office should service schools - not be an impediment.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 08:10.

I so agree with you. This in itself would qualify as a grant proposal, that is, creating an organizing entity to build volunteer capacity at schools. Even more valuable than money (which we all know doesn't always reach its target) is the time that volunteers give.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 06:57.

I know this young man and his family. They have to take a bow now. There is a lot of belief from them that all is possible and will get done. The family has not had it easy and know that hard work is just a requirement of this life. It is not going to be handed to anyone and they take that in stride. This young man is proof that hard work means a lot and will get our children into the right places. I am proud to say I knew Jamel when...

Submitted by Frank Murphy on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 08:08.

Jamel,

Good Job! Good Job! 

Give my best to your Family.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on Fri, 05/18/2012 - 17:10.

First of all, kudos to Jamel! He's a student-athlete, has a demanding major and a demanding sport, and is involved in a fraternity at a very good university. In order to be in the architecture program, he's likely a very, very good student as well. He is truly an example of the best that Philadelphia has to offer. I knew people who studied architecture in college and it is a very, very demanding major. I went to a state school on the west coast and knew a lot of student-athletes. At my alma mater, it was rare for student-athletes to have demanding majors like architecture or engineering, particularly for those in the high-profile sports like football and basketball. Based on my experience, what he's doing is very impressive.

Unfortunately, he's the cream of the crop and not representative of most students who attend neighborhood high schools. Although he came from a tough situation, he has the kind of inner qualities and talent that allow him to rise above his circumstances. Being on the football team, he may also be receiving a full-ride scholarship. Unfortunately, not everyone has the talent or the inner qualities to do well in any situation. Some students have disabilities. Some students suffer from abuse. Some received ineffective teachers year after year.

I know how important coming from a stable family with resources can be. I have a mild disability. However, both of my parents have college degrees and I always had good health insurance so I was able to receive good treatment for my condition. My parents could afford to send me to high-quality Catholic schools and even though I never had an IEP, they provided documentation and worked with counselors at my high school to ensure I had accommodations like extra time. They saved up for me to go to college so I didn't have to take out loans or work long hours to pay my own way through college. I have been able to cope better because I had a better family situation.

I know that students with disabilities who come from poor families may lack the resources to have the best health care. Also, if parents are immigrants or refugees, particularly if they are not well-educated, these parents may have a difficult time navigating the school system, especially if they don't speak English well. Kids who come from affluent communities like Lower Merion and Springfield aren't going to have to deal with being caught up in the streets and if they mess up (e.g. get caught with drugs or have a DUI), mom and dad may have money to ensure they have a good lawyer instead of an incompetent lawyer.

THE MARGIN FOR ERROR IS SO MUCH THINNER for kids who come from low-income families and/or rough neighborhoods. I have done field work at the Belmont Charter School--formerly Belmont Elementary School, where Lydell went to school--and that neighborhood is very rough, among the roughest in West Philly. (Belmont Charter School is a neighborhood charter school). The school takes up a whole block and on every adjacent block, there are abandoned houses. The playground is decrepit. The original building is old (1927) and beautiful (inside and out), but the District didn't maintain it very well so it needs a lot of work on the inside (e.g., refinished floors). The 1960s addition of the school feels like a prison. Unemployment is high in the neighborhood. Many of the kids there come from single-parent families. Some have family members in prison. 100% of the kids at the school qualify for free or reduced lunch (http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/annual_reports_...). Even if a child from that neighborhood is smart enough and has the motivation to go to college, most of their parents don't have enough to pay for a 4 year school. I know from talking to staff and teachers at Belmont CS that there are some students who live in shelters and foster care.

Middle of the road students in a wealthy neighborhood or suburb can mess up a time or two and it may not matter too much, but for a middle-of-the-road student in the inner city, it could be disastrous. Some people don't want to recognize that poverty is often institutional or a combination of institutional and personal factors, not just personal factors! I love hearing stories like Jamel's, but let's not forget that coming from his neighborhood, he's the exception. He's had to work hard, be extra motivated, and stay on the straight and narrow in order to be where he is. He was a valedictorian and a good athlete, so he had the opportunity for a full ride. College is expensive and a family's financial situation can make college, especially a 4-year college, out of reach for low-income students.

Let's face it, it's really hard for a lot of kids who live in the rougher neighborhoods in this city because the margin for error is so thin. Especially compared to students from middle-class an wealthy families, that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have to do everything right in order to succeed. And even then, they're still at a disadvantage compared to kids whose families are better off financially!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 07/28/2012 - 23:31.

I don't think anyone could have made your point(s) any better! I agree with your points and I think there are lots of people out there who think that there is a level playing field for children of different socio-economic (including family) circumstances. It's just not true. Most people need special support and a buffer from failure at many times in their lives and people who grow up in difficult financial, familial or educational circumstances have very little buffer -- or as you put it a "slim margin of error." We need to find reliable, methodical solutions to support students who grow up with any type of limited resource. It takes a village.

Submitted by Zahid (not verified) on Sun, 12/02/2012 - 06:42.

These children who are struggling with this system are the most vulnerable as they have fewer supports at home. With the diminishing tax/government support, it will take agressive leadership at the principal level to involve local businesses in such things as career development and jobs, things that matter to young people and that will bring much needed income. discount codes

Submitted by bradholister (not verified) on Tue, 05/14/2013 - 15:34.

f they have great teachers which they respect, they are more likely to do better. The passion & thirst for knowledge will most probably rub off onto the student. Don't you realise how you only truly remember the greatest teachers when you look back on your school years? Imagine if they were all great!

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