District touts success with Philadelphia’s first college-degree granting program

Leaders praise President Biden’s plan to provide access to education beyond K-12

Annissa Wheeler White, is a part of the first cohort of students to graduate from the Parkway Center City Middle College program.
Annissa Wheeler White, is a part of the first cohort of students to graduate from the Parkway Center City Middle College program. (Johann Calhoun)

Elijah Robinson, a senior at Parkway Center City Middle College, is the first in his family to pursue higher education, thanks to a degree program offered by the Philadelphia school district and Community College of Philadelphia.

The initiative, which began in 2017, allows district students to earn their high school diploma and associate’s degree in liberal arts. It’s the first of its kind in the city and the only high school program in Pennsylvania devoted to earning college credits. This year’s class is the first to graduate from the program.

When Robinson graduated at the top of his eighth-grade class, he chose Parkway over Central High School for the opportunity to get a college degree. “Me graduating with a high school diploma and an associate’s means a lot to me. It’s going to put me in a good situation, in terms of colleges, they will give me scholarships.”

The students enrolled in the program attend a combination of rigorous high school courses and college courses within four years. It begins in the summer before high school with the Summer Bridge program, where students take their first college course at Community College of Philadelphia, or CCP.

In admitting students to the program, school officials don’t necessarily look at grades, said Parkway Center City Middle College Principal Anh Nguyen.

“Our criteria for admissions is not as high as people think,” she said. “All students have to have A’s and B’s and then one C in their primary core courses. Attendance is key, you have to be present and have to participate … and also PSA test scores.”

Nguyen said the program gets at least 2,100 applications every year and they look to “possibly up to 60 percentile” on the state aptitude test for students to be admitted.

During the ninth and 10th grade, most of the courses are at the high school with one or two courses at CCP.  When the students get to their junior and senior years, they then become fully immersed at the college. 

When Elijah Robinson graduated at the top of his eighth-grade class, he chose Parkway over Central High School for the opportunity to get a college degree. (Johann Calhoun)

The students then graduate high school earning an associate’s degree in liberal arts through the completion of a minimum of 48 college credits, or industry certification in computer programming or entrepreneurship. 

“This unique program is empowering for our scholars, giving them a head start on pursuing their future goals by equipping them with a degree while simultaneously removing the potential financial barriers,” Nguyen said. “And while we may not have seen each other in person for this school year, I look forward to safely celebrating each of their accomplishments on our graduation day, which is June 9.”

Annissa Wheeler White, a senior at Parkway Center City Middle College, told Chalkbeat the program experience has been “surreal.”

“I was 13, 14 going into college, walking through community college buildings that I normally drove past on my way to high school,” she said. “I genuinely think that if I had not been in this program, I would not have had the confidence to put myself forward and really push myself to go to apply to an Ivy League school.”

District and community college officials want to better prepare district students for college. In 2019, only 22% of 12th grade students achieved the college readiness benchmarks on either the SAT or the ACT tests.

Donald “Guy” Generals, CCP’s president, wants to help improve those numbers.

“The college degree is no longer an option in today’s economy,” Generals said. “We know that by the year 2025, anywhere between 60% to 70% of all jobs will require some level of post-secondary credential. So this fits right into that narrative, the importance of stressing college education and our post-secondary degree education.”

Part of President Biden’s massive American Families Act plan announced to Congress Wednesday night focuses on investing in community colleges, making it free for U.S. citizens. Generals said Biden’s plan is on par with the mission of the program.

Generals said he has had conversations with Superintendent William Hite about the public education system being “more of a K-16 or K-14 model.”

Next year Robinson plans to stay local and attend Chestnut Hill College, while Wheeler White is committed to attend the School of Art Institute in Chicago.

“I am so, so, so excited,” Wheeler White said. “I’ve also been accepted to the honors program, where I’ll be able to study abroad and do more interdisciplinary work.”

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