A student’s turnaround gets him to Penn, despite painful new challenges
The two of them strode down the hall in University City High School, Glen Casey’s strides long and loping, the smaller Rich Neal, Glen’s caseworker at NorthEast Treatment Centers, struggling to keep up.
“Glen got a B on his report card and he was livid,” Neal recalls.
“He said, ‘There’s no way. I didn’t get a B in this class. This is a mistake. I wanna go talk to the teacher right now.’”
“I said, ‘Glen, calm down. Calm down. We’ll go talk to the teacher.’ So we’re walking down the hall and we see the teacher who gave him the B at the other end, and he says, ‘Glen, don’t worry about it. It was an A. I’m going to change it,’ before Glen even got one word out of his mouth. So that’s the jump he made from 9th grade to 11th grade.”
Up until that time, Glen explains, he had been “stuck between, who do I want to be? … Do I want to be, like, this smart, intelligent guy that everyone likes and gets along with, or do I want to be this cool kid, you know, hit the scene with girls, smoke weed, and be the ultimate badass cool kid?”
He says that having his daughter when he was in 11th grade was a big part of the decision to leave his old life behind. So was having a series of violent experiences on the streets. In one case, someone pulled a gun on him.
“My daughter saved my life, because, at the same time, I knew that I wanted to be out of the streets,” Glen says. “I saw my daughter as an opportunity to take myself out of the streets.”
And once that decision was made, attending University City made it easier for him to follow the new path.
Glen’s daughter, Ariel, in a photograph taken in 2013, when she was 1 year old. (Photo: Courtesy of Glen Casey)
A.J. Schiera, one of Glen’s former teachers at University City, says, “He saw some of his friends going to jail. He had become a father. He saw he had the capacity to make choices. He narrated his educational autobiography.”
Da Sheila Williams, his therapist, says that at first, some teachers were slow to sense how quickly Glen had changed. Sometimes she would go to the school personally to give that message.
“The more responsibilities he would get, the more he enjoyed it,” Neal said. “That’s when we started seeing a lot of progress.”
One of the teachers who first saw his potential was Schiera, who taught an urban education class combined with a summer leadership academy.
Another was Patrice Berry, who headed University City’s Student Success Center, a program operating at several high schools that prepared students for college socially and academically. She remembers inviting Glen to a presentation on college readiness and being impressed by the quality of his questions.
“He’s been a reminder to me [of the] the importance of persistence,” she says.
“It would have been easy to give up, for both of us, when his girlfriend got pregnant. He could have used that as an excuse, but he didn’t.”
Giselle Saleet, then a Drexel University undergraduate, also mentored him at the school’s Student Success Center and remembers him as a shy boy who had trouble making eye contact.
“I’ve seen him grow from a child into a young man,” Saleet says.
In his junior year, he participated in the Leaders of Change program, run during the school year and summers by students at University City and two other high schools. The program helps students hone their leadership skills and become agents of change in their own communities.
Another person who helped influence his life was Jeffrey Johnson, then a University of Pennsylvania student. They met in the fall of 2012, when Johnson, a senior at the Wharton School, was a teaching assistant in Schiera’s urban education class.
“Something just clicked between him and me,” Johnson says. “I realized that Glen had a really similar story to tell.”
Like Glen, Johnson came from an impoverished background, in his case the slums of Atlanta. Both his parents were drug-addicted. Glen told him, “I’m so used to Penn students coming into this place, but you’re the first one that really made sense to me, where I didn’t feel it was just community service. You’d been through these situations.”
Until then, Glen had seen Penn as “this enchanted place” for “rich White kids.” Now he could imagine himself there, so he asked Johnson, “What do I need to do to get there?”
Johnson told him flatly what Berry was also telling him – that his grades weren’t good enough. “Penn’s not going to accept you on the first round.”
But Temple University had accepted him, and Johnson said to him, “To prove you can survive at Penn, you’ve got to go there and kick butt.”
Getting to graduation
Glen Casey sits in his mother’s old bedroom. Wilhelmina Casey played an important part in getting Glen to leave the streets and focus on his education. (Photo: Dorian Geiger)
Getting to Penn was just one challenge. Glen had another battle to fight. Before his graduation, he was rallying to keep open the high school that had given him so much. He and other students at University City knew that the District would be closing several schools, that his high school was in disrepair, and that it sat on valuable real estate that could bring a high price.
He spoke at several School Reform Commission meetings and at community engagement meetings, protesting the proposed closure.
“The students had built relationships with teachers for three years, and they were going to be transferred to schools that had not done as well,” says Glen.
Glen and his fellow students cited the academic progress that the school had made and the achievements of programs such as the Student Success Center.
But in March 2013, the SRC crushed their hopes of saving the school, voting 3-2 to close University City.
Three months later, Glen received his diploma, his mom looking on proudly as his eyes filled with tears.
His was the last graduating class of that school. His mother had been in the school’s first graduating class of 1973.
In Glen’s freshman year at Temple, Johnson, who is now a teacher and nonprofit strategist, started what amounted to a campaign to get him admitted to the University of Pennsylvania as a transfer student, recruiting other Penn alums to help.
“Coming from a low [socioeconomic background], it’s really hard to get into these schools – and harder to graduate,” Johnson says.
He remembers a crucial moment that year as Glen was preparing his transfer applications and his mother’s health was failing.
As the two sat in the Mad Mex restaurant by the Penn campus, Johnson told him, “I definitely understand what you’re talking about, but in the grand scheme of things, if anything were to happen to her, she wouldn’t want you worrying about her. She’d be worrying about you setting yourself up for all these grand things you’ve dreamed about.”
His mother, Wilhelmina Casey, lived about another year, not quite long enough to see Glen admitted to Penn as a transfer student.
More than a year after her death, Glen stood in her old room and spoke haltingly, as if holding back tears. “It was rough when the day came to clear it out,” he said, picking up the box that holds her ashes.
“Anything that reminds me of my mom brings a well of emotion.”
Looking to the future
Glen sits in a classroom at Sayre High School in West Philadelphia. (Photo: Dorian Geiger)
In addition to his Penn coursework, Glen is now teaching a 10th-grade course in bioethics at Sayre High School in West Philadelphia under the student-managed Silverman Fellows program for Penn undergraduates.
“They’re inspired by him,” said Saleet, who is now Sayre’s site director for Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
“They look to him as a source of hope. They always ask me, ‘When’s Mr. Glen coming back?’”
In the future, Glen said that he sees himself as a teacher and then an administrator.
“You’re everything to them and you’re one of the few people that they have in their lives that can at least try to keep them focused,” he says.
”A lot of these kids are going through things I’ve gone through in the past. I can communicate with them.”
Looking further ahead, Glen said, “I want to get involved in the political side of education one day, to be the head of the Department of Education. … If not, I would definitely like to be the superintendent of a school district.”
He also sees a future where he is involved in West Philadelphia, both at Penn and in the “forgotten city.”
“Philadelphia is one of the many cities right now that are in the process of revitalizing their urban centers, and in the process they are marginalizing the already marginalized,” he said.
“I think it’s my responsibility to give back and bridge those two places that are so foreign to each other. Even though they’re the same place.”
Paul Jablow is a regular freelance contributor to the Notebook. Dorian Geiger is a multimedia journalist who has previously covered summer learning loss for the Notebook.
This story is the last part in a three-part series by the Notebook on student behavioral health, with support from the van Ameringen Foundation.