At Sayre High, pandemic puts the brakes on college aspirations

Counselors say the shutdown creates new challenges for students, especially for those who must overcome financial and social hurdles to succeed.

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

Neya Foster is aiming high – she wants to go to Harvard University. In a normal spring semester, the Sayre High junior would be scheduling college admissions tests, planning her campus visits, working on essays, and considering financial aid packages that could help her achieve a lifelong goal.

Now, the coronavirus shutdown has stalled Foster’s college dreams. Exactly when and how they’ll start up again, she’s not sure.

“I wanted to come back to school, but I can’t, as you can see,” said Foster, as she stood outside Sayre in West Philadelphia, her brand-new laptop in hand.

College remains a core goal, and Foster is counting on the Philadelphia School District’s online learning program, slated to start next week, to help her stay on track. As a proud member of Sayre’s honors society, Foster is committed to doing what she needs to do to keep her dream alive even as the coronavirus shuts the school’s doors.

“It’s disappointing to me that I missed my SATs – but I know I can work my way up,” said Foster. Online learning is “something I’m willing to do, rather than go to summer school.”

On this sunny Tuesday morning, Foster and her mother are part of a small but steady stream of families who have come to Sayre to pick up books and laptops. They’re hoping that the material and devices will help Sayre students successfully wrap up a profoundly disrupted school year.

In the best of times, keeping focused on college at Sayre is difficult. A small neighborhood high school at 58th and Walnut Streets that draws students from one of the city’s most troubled communities, it is plagued by low attendance and a four-year graduation rate of 53 percent. Just 16 percent pursue post-secondary education right out of high school.

Sayre has its share of school spirit and resources, but the District’s school performance assessments rank its college readiness progress in the lowest of four possible categories. And now, with the arrival of the coronavirus shutdown, parents and students at Sayre say a new layer of uncertainty has been added to what was already a challenging process.

One such parent is Paul Timms, who came to get laptops for his two sons, a sophomore and a junior. Timms hopes that both young men will eventually go to college, but right now neither has clear post-secondary plans. The shutdown isn’t helping, he said, and it’s unclear what will come next.

“Hopefully this pandemic goes away so they can go back to school, and everything goes back to normal,” said Timms. “If not, we’re going to see if they’re going to get prepared at all to go to college.”

Timms said he’s willing to give the District’s new online programs a chance.

“They gave us the laptops for a reason. If everybody follows directions, they should be all right,” he said.

But Timms also wonders about the quality of instruction to come. This school year might be a rubber-stamp affair, he said, with students getting promoted to the next grade even if they didn’t learn much. This year’s transcripts may not be worth much to a college admissions office, he said.

“I think they’re passing everybody regardless, ain’t they?” asked Timms. “Even the kid that’s failing should get passed. Otherwise, how you gonna get through this?”

Hardest on most vulnerable

In the month since what some Sayre students call simply “the corona” upended American life, the nation’s college and universities have been scrambling to respond.

Campuses have been closed, ending student visits. SAT tests have been cancelled through June, and may be held online next fall. It’s not even clear how many campuses will be open come September.

Likewise, families are rethinking their own priorities. A national survey found that “four out of 10 parents say the COVID-19 crisis may prompt their children to delay going to college.” The study by Philadelphia’s Brian Communications surveyed 405 families who were “likely” to send students to college.

In Philadelphia, college counselors say the pandemic shutdown creates new challenges for students of all kinds, but especially for those who must overcome financial and social hurdles to succeed in college.

Paula Crawford is a counselor at the U School, a small citywide admissions high school with a focus on project-based learning and college preparation. Crawford said she’s seen Philadelphia students successfully defeat all sorts of challenges, and with help, they can beat this one, too.

“They are resilient. These seniors were all born while we were grieving 9/11. That was their transition into the world,” Crawford said. “I really want to believe that as long as the adults keep motivating them, these are very resilient kids.”

But her students are frustrated and worried, Crawford said. The shutdown has gummed up the entire college preparation process, “especially for our most vulnerable students,” Crawford said. “This creates another barrier.”

Right now, freshmen and sophomores should be getting their introduction to college goals and options, Crawford said, and building relationships with the teachers and mentors whose support will be essential in the years to come. Juniors should be taking SATs and AP classes, exploring school options and career goals, and working on applications and essays.

And seniors should be visiting campuses and working out financial plans, Crawford said, even as they take part in milestone rituals as class trips, proms, and graduation.

The financial aspect is particularly challenging for current seniors, Crawford said. Many have already been accepted at one or more schools, but their final choices can depend on financial aid packages, which in turn can be affected by grades and SAT scores.

Likewise, the shutdown affects jobs and income for parents and students alike, Crawford said. That leaves many seniors unsure of what they’ll be able to pay come fall, Crawford said, and leaves her and her colleagues to fight hard to be “the barrier against apathy.”

“My kids have some grit to them, but this is something they’ve never had to deal with before,” she said.

The U School recently held a “virtual town hall” for seniors, and “the despair I heard in our children almost crippled me,” said Crawford. “This is affecting even students going to [trade] school or cosmetology school.”

At the nonprofit Philadelphia Futures, director of college access Oneda Horne specializes in helping vulnerable Philadelphia students get into college and stay there.

Horne says the coronavirus shutdown is vividly exposing longstanding inequities, including those around college access.

“It’s absolutely throwing old issues into the limelight,” said Horne. Futures serves more than 650 students in its direct service programs and thousands more through outreach and engagement, many of whom are trying hard to keep their college plans on track. “We’re finding that our students really want to fill their time with meaningful activity,” she said. “They’re engaging with our staff at a much higher rate.”

Horne says the coronavirus has laid bare the advantages that wealthier districts offer their students in the highly competitive world of college admissions. After schools were closed statewide a month ago, districts with robust online learning programs were able to quickly return to “business as usual,” keeping students abreast of all the requirements for college preparation: instruction, grades, counseling, and planning.

Meanwhile poorer districts like Philadelphia’s have been forced to essentially stop teaching for weeks. College preparation has been left to students, families and whatever school staff they can connect with for informal support. All this could leave Philadelphia students at a “significant disadvantage” when it’s time to apply to college, Horne said, especially next year, when current juniors will have little or nothing to show from the current semester.

Even if students aren’t learning much, “colleges still have their requirements,” Horne said. “It’s been heaviest on our 9th to 11th graders, because their learning process has been so badly disrupted before they could produce evidence of their learning,” she said.

Horne said that current seniors face disruptions of their own. Many have already applied and been accepted at various schools, and much of the basic admissions machinery is still operating as usual. “Admission letters and financial aid letters are still on schedule,” said Horne.

But unlike in years past, once seniors are accepted, they’ll be unable to follow up by seeing campuses and meeting professors in person. “They’re making their decisions but they can’t make their campus visits.”

Horne said that she won’t be surprised to see more colleges relax their admissions policies to accommodate the millions of students nationwide whose 2020 school year has been a near washout. Many mid-level schools have already gone “SAT optional” to level the playing field, she said, and in response to the pandemic, some highly selective colleges like Swarthmore and Haverford have joined them – at least temporarily.

But for now, with so much changing so fast, Horne said she’s advising current juniors to keep prepping for the SATs, even if it’s not clear when they’ll be offered again or whether they’ll even be necessary.

“We’re still messaging to juniors, plan on taking it,” Horne said.

Looking for help in ‘a ghost town’

Back at Sayre, when parents and students look to graduation and beyond, all they see is uncertainty.

“It’s a hold on everything right now – you can hardly wipe your butt, you know what I’m saying? It’s hard in society,” said Albert Seidel, father of a Sayre student. “Everything’s stopped. It’s like a ghost town.”

Seidel and his son Jamaal came to Sayre to get the sophomore’s laptop. Jamaal said he has a general interest in college – “criminal justice and basketball,” his father chimed in – but little in the way of specific plans to get there. Since the shutdown began in March, Jamaal’s education has slowed to a crawl, the pair said.

“I’ve been in touch with a couple teachers – they reached out to me, just saying, be careful,” Jamaal said.

The elder Seidel says that his son will be all right “as long as he stays positive.” But he also feels his family is very much on its own to navigate the shutdown and its aftermath. From District headquarters to City Hall to the White House, he sees few public officials who can be trusted to provide reliable leadership right now.

“Anybody in office – they all lie,” Seidel said.

Another sophomore, Yasin Williams, arrived at Sayre on his own to pick up what he said was the first laptop he could ever call his own.

“This is my first jawn – gonna get this work done, pass my grades, achieve,” said the slender young man with a smile.

For Williams, the shutdown has been almost devoid of academics so far. Mostly what he’s done is hang out with friends: “Play games, talk, have fun, get with girls,” he laughed.

The laptop and the District’s online learning program may get him back on track: “It wasn’t nothing until I got this computer,” Williams said. “Now I’m doing something, till summer.”

But where a typical sophomore’s spring semester might include getting showered with college information by teachers and counselors, Williams will spend this spring on his own. He’s not thinking about anything beyond “trade school,” he said.

That’s also the case with Illnora Trader’s son, a junior. Trader came to Sayre to get the young man a laptop so that he doesn’t have to rely on the family computer. Right now, Trader said, her son is not thinking much about college, and he hasn’t heard from any school counselors or other Sayre staff. Instead, his biggest influence is whatever comes through the mail slot.

“He wants to be a computer tech,” said Trader. “We have some flyers and advertisements coming in. He has to decide.”

Trader said her son is “having a great time” during the shutdown. “PlayStation, X-Box all day, he loves it,” she said with a rueful smile. “I have to keep on him to give me at least two hours [of schoolwork] a day.”

But like other families at Sayre, Trader said her household has largely been on its own to navigate the shutdown, with only occasional, informal contact from school staff. “A teacher called three weeks ago, on a Sunday, very brief. Just to say hi,” she said.

And like Albert Seidel, she has little confidence in elected leaders, locally or nationally. “I’m at a loss,” she said. “Watch and pray. Watch and pray, that’s all I can do.”

Another parent, Jabbar Tyler, said that it’s nothing new for students at neighborhood high schools like Sayre to find themselves at a deep disadvantage when it comes to college. He has two sons at Sayre, a freshman and a junior. Since schools closed a month ago, his family hasn’t heard a word from anyone there, so the laptops and the promised academic programming are welcome.

“That’s public school systems for you – that’s why you got to take advantage of whatever,” said Tyler.

But Tyler’s sons were already behind the curve for college, even before the coronavirus shutdown. One of his sons aspires to an athletic scholarship, but Sayre doesn’t have the team sports needed.

“I got a junior. He’s thinking about college, but only on the athletic side of things … [but] he’s in a school that doesn’t offer sports like that,” said Tyler.

Neya Foster, the aspiring Harvard student, said that the coronavirus shutdown had already taught her one thing: to be proactive. Since school shut down, she’s had contact with one teacher, who helped her get the family computer working.

“I reached out to her – you’ve got to make that move sometimes. I was trying to figure things out, because I didn’t know much of anything, and I remembered that a teacher had given me her email,” say Foster. “I said, ‘I should shoot her an email. I should be the one to just step up and do that.’”

Foster’s mother, Wanda, is confident that her daughter, an excellent student, can navigate the disruption. “She’s honor society, she worked real hard,” Foster says. But Wanda tells Neya, “Just keep studying. Go over what you already learned, keep it fresh, keep it real.”

Nonetheless, the elder Foster worries about what her daughter will be missing as long as school buildings remain closed – not just proms and class trips, but mentoring, support and friendship. Such relationships are important not just for getting into college, but getting through life, the elder Foster said.

“It’s the friends. It’s the communication with the teachers, the one-on-one. Even the socializing,” Wanda Foster said. “It’s so much more to school than school.”

Editor’s Note: this article has been revised to reflect an updated count of students served by Philadelphia Futures.