Gearing up for college

These high school programs prepare students for postsecondary success.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Even though Juwann Bennett maintained a solid B average through 9th and 10th grade at Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP), a special admissions school, he never thought about going to college.

Well, at least not at first.

"When I was younger I thought of college as some foreign place. I didn’t think it was attainable," said Bennett, now a Temple University student.

"When I heard of someone graduating from college, I thought of it as like someone performing brain surgery," he said.

But Bennett’s thinking changed in the summer of 2009, right before his 11th grade year, when his mother called the District about a program to prepare for the SATs. Instead, the District told her about its dual enrollment program, an initiative that allows 11th and 12th graders to earn college credits at several local colleges and universities while still in high school.

Many District schools have programs that give middle and high school students a head start on postsecondary studies. Among the others are the Advanced Placement Program, which offers college-level courses at 56 high schools, and GEAR UP, a federal- and state-funded program that provides enrichment activities, tutoring, and other college-ready supports.

Since Bennett met the academic criteria for dual enrollment, he was willing to give it a try.

He had several choices: Community College of Philadelphia, University of the Sciences, Cheyney, Eastern, Holy Family, Lincoln, and St. Joseph’s Universities – all of which partner with the District. Bennett opted for CCP because it was close to GAMP and home. He took the required entrance test, placing him on college level – no remedial courses were allowed – and signed up for a criminal justice course, Intermediate Algebra, Psychology, English 101, and Biology during his first two semesters.

"I was like ‘Wow, I get to experience the college life,’" remembered Bennett, who is a criminal justice major.

"I remember picking out a whole wardrobe of what I would wear."

Bennett, who participated in the program his junior and senior years, admits that signing up for dual enrollment made his schedule "crazy." His day started at 7 a.m. with band, followed by a seven-hour school day, and nearly two hours of football practice before heading to CCP for his evening classes.

"There was no eating or sleeping," he quipped. "I pulled a lot of long nights, but it matured me and helped me plan things."

When Bennett graduated from GAMP in June 2011, he had earned 37 credits through the dual enrollment program, all of which he was able to transfer to Temple, making him an incoming sophomore instead of a freshman.

Bennett’s experience is not the norm. Most Philadelphia graduates don’t go straight to college, according to the latest data. A meager 39 percent of public school graduates enroll in college the first fall after they graduate high school. For those who graduate from neighborhood high schools, that number is even lower at 29 percent.

Here is a close look at three programs designed to increase college-going rates of city high school students: GEAR UP, Advanced Placement, and dual enrollment. The school profiles identify what college access programs high schools are offering.

Dual enrollment

To enter the dual enrollment program, students must have a 2.5 grade point average and 90 percent or better attendance record, no disciplinary record, and demonstrated academic ability and motivation. Each of the colleges and universities that partner with the District has its own entry requirements, which can include essay-writing and placement tests.

Students can take courses at any of the participating schools and forward the credits to the college or university of their choice. In the 2010-11 school year, 440 District students and 264 nonpublic/charter students participated.

But the program is in jeopardy due to drastic cuts in state aid. Last year the District got nearly $900,000 to cover students’ books, tuition, fees, and some transportation. Now, with the state eliminating that funding, Ted Thompson, deputy chief of the District’s Office of Secondary School Reform, said the District is working with its university partners to leverage more cost-friendly options. Among them: online classes and using District teachers with master’s degrees as adjuncts to offer courses at District schools.

"At this point schools with grants that afford them the flexibility to create an option for dual enrollment are encouraged to use that as an option," Thompson said.


Makiya Mayes’ list of potential colleges isn’t especially long, but this 13-year-old knows what she wants.

"I want to go to Lincoln, Penn State, Florida State, or Spelman," Mayes said without pause.

"And I want to be a lawyer because I like to talk and prove my point."

To help prepare for college, Mayes, who admits to "having a lot of Cs" while at Kearny Elementary School, decided to participate in a program offered through the District called GEAR UP.

GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is a national initiative that provides six-year grants to states to provide services at high-poverty middle and high schools. Services include the creation of learning plans, tutoring, classes on how to become more college-ready, college tours, and parent seminars and workshops with information about how to engage students about the college-going process. There are two types of GEAR UP grants. Partnership grants are awarded by the U.S. Department of Education directly to districts and local partners. State grants are given to state agencies to support activities in multiple districts.

The program serves an entire cohort of students starting in 7th grade and follows them through high school.

In the 2010-11 school year, 1,461 10th graders at Fels, Furness, Germantown, and Overbrook participated in State GEAR UP. Students at Edison, Frankford, Ben Franklin, Lincoln, Roxborough, University City, South Philadelphia, and Vaux are also supported by the Partnership GEAR UP, as well as 7th and 8th graders at 26 schools.

Partnership GEAR UP provides all the supports of the state, but additionally offers three courses designed to prepare students for postsecondary experiences: College Ed, Career Choices, and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination).

AVID, seemingly the most popular of the three, teaches study habits, organizational skills, and the Cornell Note-taking System. Students are armed with a large binder for homework, tests, quizzes, and other papers that must be kept orderly at all times and is subject to weekly inspections.

AVID students are also tutored by college students and take part in seminars where they learn how to dialogue in group settings. Thompson said parents are engaged in the process to ensure students’ success because it is so rigorous and time-consuming.

"Parents and students sign a contract that they understand that they will be getting additional work, but also additional supports around their binder work and how you organize," he said.

Lashawnda Gonzalez, who starts The Promise Academy at University City High in September, said she feels better prepared to pursue her college goals because of the AVID program at Rhoads Middle School.

"I can’t say that I was interested in GEAR UP at first, but it was something to try. So I did, and since I’ve joined my grades have improved and it has gotten me on the track of wanting to go to college and become something in my life," she said.

Advanced Placement

Nearly every District high school offers college-level courses through the College Board Advanced Placement Program. AP courses are designed to be rigorous and include more complex reading and writing assignments than regular courses.

There are 28 different courses offered ranging from psychology to calculus to history. Every class is approved by the College Board. Students can earn college credits, but that is up to the individual college or university. Students take an AP exam at the end of the course. Most colleges grant credit or upper level course placement for scores of 3, 4, or 5.

According to Thompson, in the 2010-11 school year, there were 6,885 AP enrollments; many students took multiple AP classes. Some courses, he said, are offered over the summer.

Not all students do take the tests, however, and in past years, most Philadelphia students who took them failed to score 3 or higher.

This past summer, Thompson said every AP teacher went through the College Board’s training to make sure they knew how to keep the course on a high standard. The District also worked with principals and teachers to ensure that other courses adequately prepare students for the AP offerings.

Isabella Tognini, an 11th grader at Science Leadership Academy, took an AP European History course over the summer at Benjamin Franklin High School and plans to take more this school year.

"I think the speed of the class is going to definitely help me with things like taking notes," said Tognini, who wants to attend Hobart College, a small school in upstate New York, to study business.

"I’m also learning how to follow a teacher and catch everything they are saying," she said. "In college you really don’t have time to slack off and put your pen down and take a break."