Dancing, excitement at College Signing Day with Dawn Staley

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

High school seniors filled the Liacouras Center on Wednesday at Temple University, clapping and dancing to celebrate the schools they will attend next year, while cheerleaders and college mascots from local universities circled the floor. College Signing Day was a chance for these students to celebrate going on to college with performances and speeches from Philly-born artists and professionals.

“I want to remind you that your future is truly limitless,” School Board President Joyce Wilkerson said to the crowd. “Don’t let any obstacles get in your way.”

Before any of the speeches began, the lyrics of Cardi B filled the stadium, and the students got to their feet to dance with friends. Girls from the Franklin Learning Center filled one aisle, their moves drawing applause and attention from others in the arena. Another group of girls wearing T-shirts for Norfolk State University quickly filled the opposite aisle, their dancing shifting the attention back to their side of the room. Then a squad of Franklin Learning Center cheerleaders ran from the floor to back up their classmates — to applause and cheers from the stands. Both groups spent those 10 minutes laughing along with the crowd.

Students from Franklin Learning Center danced in the aisles during College Signing Day, as they looked across the arena at the dancers they were playfully competing with. (Photo: Greg Windle)

Anea Moore, who went to Julia R. Masterman High School and is now a Rhodes scholar about to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, had a few words of advice for the graduating seniors.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Moore said. “And don’t forget where you come from. For centuries, people have known that knowledge is power. That’s why minorities have been barred from it.”

Students cheered for local rapper LGP QUA, who dropped out of school in 10th grade but encouraged them not to take his path. The show also featured a performance by the children of Philly singer Wanya Morris, a member of Boyz II Men. His four young sons sang and danced to various songs, including “ABC” by the Jackson Five.

The sons of Wanya Morris sing “ABC” by the Jackson Five. (Photo: Greg Windle)

Aaron McKie graduated from Simon Gratz High School and went on to play for the Portland Trailblazers before becoming the basketball coach for Temple University.

“Chase your dreams through hard work,” McKie told the crowd. “Commit to your strategy, work through the ups and downs, and you’ll be on your path to success.

“Why not you? It happened for me.”

College Signing Day is a project of former First Lady Michelle Obama through her Reach Higher Initiative. There are about 1,200 such pep rallies across the country to celebrate students’ college acceptances and promote their aspirations. Obama herself attended last year’s College Signing Day in Philadelphia.

Wednesday’s event also featured giveaways of several laptops, book scholarships, and gift cards.

(Greg Windle / The Notebook)

Randomly selected students received $1,000 scholarships toward the cost of books. (Photo: Greg Windle)

High school counselors were lauded and celebrated by speakers and students alike. Amirah Sullivan is a counselor who herself graduated from Strawberry Mansion High School.

“There are trying moments every year as we go through the process together,” Sullivan said. “I am so proud of all of your accomplishments.”

Students gave a big round of applause for their counselors, with cheering students from several schools forming knots around a particular seat – presumably the seat occupied by their counselor.

Student school board members Alfredo Pratico and Julia Frank announced an award for high school counselors. This year, it went to Alexis Musgrove of Lankenau High School.

Student school board members Alfredo Pratico and Julia Frank give an award for school counseling to Alexis Musgrove of Lankenau High School. (Photo: Greg Windle)

“It takes a village,” Pratico said. “So, thanks to some of the adults in our lives who have brought us here.”

That presentation was followed by a performance from Bri Steves, a rapper and graduate of Temple University.

Bri Steves performs at College Signing Day. (Photo: Greg Windle)

The day’s keynote speaker was Dawn Staley, a Hall of Fame basketball player who is now the head women’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina. Earlier, she coached the Temple team for six years.

“I want to give you all a shout-out for all the hard work you put in,” Staley said. “When you go to school, I want you to thank your counselors for the hard work they put in.”

Staley said she was a good student in high school, but struggled when she got to college.

“I almost got kicked out for academics,” Staley said. “When you fail a test or a paper, you’ve got to use those college resources.”

Her advice to students was to get to know their professors and take advantage of their help.

“Go to their office hours and talk to them outside of their classroom,” she said. “The disciplined person can do anything.

“And whatever college or university you go to – take Philly with you.”