And up front sits Alexander Warrick, who's skinny and 17 and wants to be an actor. No, no, scratch that. He wants to be a model. On third thought, he says maybe he'll be a rapper like Puff Daddy or Jay-Z. Or maybe an acting-rapping model.``I want to get into as many things as possible,'' Alexander says, nodding with each syllable.
As pie-in-the-sky as their goals may seem, Basil, Shanija, Alexander and their classmates have all learned one lesson that's very much down-to-earth: Without a college diploma, they won't be able to do much of anything. And when you have unlimited aspirations, as they do, but limited bank accounts, as they do, getting into college - much less graduating - can seem impossible. But for these young people, even the impossible seems within reach.
They take part in a program called College Access, which works closely with about 3,000 students across the city each year to help children who have set a goal of getting a higher education but who don't have the resources to do it.
``There are a lot of kids out there who are straddling the fence about continuing their education because they don't know how they're going to pay for college,'' said Reuben Mills, who manages College Access in seven North Philadelphia schools. ``We try to tell them, `This is possible. You can do this.' ''
In ways large and small, from counseling students about what college to choose to even helping students pay for their education, the program helps kids grapple with student-aid forms, scholarship applications and self-doubt.
It helps in other ways, too: On Thursday, Mills and the College Access folks organized a bus trip to Washington, D.C., for Basil, Shanija, Alexander and about 30 of their classmates at William Penn High School. In the nation's capital, they toured the campuses of Georgetown and Howard Universities - a trip that some wouldn't have been able to make without the program.
``A lot of these kids come from single-parent homes, and even those that don't face obstacles because they come from communities where going to college isn't stressed,'' Mills said.
That includes kids like Alexander. A resident of Yorktown in North Philadelphia, he lives with his mother, who works as a bail interviewer at the Roundhouse. Even though she attended college and encourages him to attend, Alexander admitted that the pressures are great for kids his age.
``It's hectic out here, man, real hectic,'' Alexander said as the bus ambled down I-95. ``A lot of kids are into so many bad things. Stealing. Drugs. I don't know what's up with their heads. They're not focused. I don't hang around with them.''
Instead, Alexander divides his time between his school work, his job at the Fresh Fields supermarket in Franklintown, and acting classes at the Freedom Theater.
And if all that wasn't enough, the budding hip-hop star has even made up a rap to keep himself focused, one that he whispers to himself like a mantra:
Every day/I wake up/I get more disciplined/focused/and committed. . . .
Trying to do my thing, man/Sometimes it works/Trying to do my thing, man/Sometimes it hurts
IMPORTANCE OF SUPPORT As the bus pulled up outside Gothic-looking Healy Hall on Georgetown's campus, Mills explained there are a lot of kids like Alexander - good kids trying to do the right thing - but who don't have support.
There are more than a few academic all-stars in College Access, Mills said as a tour guide lead the group across the campus. There are some students such as Alexander, who says his grade-point average is like the soft drink - ``Hi C.'' And there are kids such as 17-year-old Dawine Bostic, who work hard but whose grades are still lagging.
``But I'm going to get them up this quarter,'' Dawine said cheerfully.
``That's a promise?'' Mills asked, playfully giving him a noogie on the back of his head.
``That's a promise,'' Dawine concluded, rubbing the spot where Mills got him.
``There are so many other variables pulling at these kids,'' Mills said after Dawine walked away. ``The fact that they're here in this program, that they made this trip, says something.''
Besides the trips, the College Access folks also organize career and college fairs, SAT prep courses and one-to-one coaching through the sometimes-bewildering college-application and financial-aid processes.
`LAST-DOLLAR' SCHOLARSHIPS College Access also takes the extraordinary step of providing ``last-dollar'' scholarship money to its participants. That is, if a student has been accepted to a college and its financial-aid package doesn't cover everything, College Access will step in with a $6,000 grant that can be used over four years.
Last year, the program gave out nearly a quarter-million dollars in such scholarships. Since it began in 1990, the program has helped put more than 500 young people through school via last-dollar grants.
Run by the Philadelphia Education Fund, College Access is supported by donations from individuals, such organizations as the the William Penn Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, federal dollars, and gifts from private corporations.
The only qualification for students who want to participate is that they meet federal poverty guidelines.
When the Georgetown tour ended, Basil gave the campus the ultimate teenage compliment: ``It's cool, man, it's cool. I'm feelin' it.'' And Shanija gathered her classmates in front of Healy Hall for a group portrait.
As for Alexander, he was still reeling from the tour guide's declaration that Georgetown can cost as must as $32,000, including room, board and travel expenses.
Next, there would be a tour of Howard University, then a meeting with Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia. Then, back to North Philly where, with what they saw on this trip, their dreams would have more fuel to fight reality.
And Alexander, for one, would make sure he stayed focused. As he climbed on the bus after the Georgetown tour, you could hear him whispering: ``Every day/I wake up/I get more disciplined/focused/and committed. . . .''
FOR MORE INFORMATION * To find out more about the College Access program, call the Philadelphia Education Fund at 215-665-1400.