And now they have one.
The College and Career Center at Olney High School opened just three weeks ago, stocked proudly with computers, college videos and brochures, financial-aid materials, and information about military, law-enforcement and vocational careers. A guidance counselor is there at all times to assist students, and the plan is to have the center open until 6 p.m. on school days.
"It was basically the students' design and their idea, and they went all over town lobbying for this, which is so impressive," said Rebecca Rathje, executive director of Youth United for Change.
According to Rathje, the student leaders on the college center were Jones, an aspiring film director headed for Pennsylvania State University; Erica Highsmith, who will study psychology at Temple; and Lucette Jackson and Taaliyah Barnes, also of the Class of 2001, who are still deciding.
Rathje said that in the Olney chapter, with approximately 15 people, major roles were played by underclassmen Raheem Dukes, 15, an educationally ambitious sophomore who volunteers at an area elementary school, and Derrick Smith, 16 and serious-minded, the group's computer whiz.
They lobbied their idea to school district officials and eventually won the support they needed.
Principal Johnny Vann, who came to Olney in 1999, attested to their diligence.
"I don't think there was a day that went by without them asking, 'How's the access center?' " Vann said.
Lacking a district model, the students studied the college information center run by the Philadelphia Education Fund at the Gallery mall. They got other parts of the school involved, like construction students, who crafted the center's signs. The school district and Youth United funded the project.
The students ran into roadblocks, Rathje said, but they never gave up on the project - or on their education.
Who are these young people?
Well, coming from a student body that is 81 percent low income, their backgrounds are modest. Some work in addition to going to school. Most will be first-generation college-goers, and most had families who stressed the value of education.
Of the seniors, Jones, 17, outspoken and funny, said he came to Philadelphia by way of public housing in Queens, N.Y. He wants to be the next Steven Spielberg, and he said he's always on his four younger siblings to do well in school.
Highsmith, 17, is "our true leader," Rathje said. Gracious and diplomatic, she tends to moderate her other group members in conversation. Achieving, she said, has always been her passion, and Youth United has helped her find her voice.
Barnes, 17, said that she was a shy child who shadowed her older sister, but that Youth United had made her "bold."
Jackson, 17, is the daughter of a Haitian immigrant who didn't complete her education but, Jackson said, urged her children to do so.
And that hasn't always been easy for these young people in the often-troubled Philadelphia public schools.
Dukes, the driven sophomore, recalled being put in special education from third to fifth grade, before he tested out and skipped a grade.
"I kept telling my mom the work was too easy," he said.
At Olney, there have been frustrations as well. Smith, whose goal has always been "to go to college and take care of my mom," was dismayed by the lack of computer access when he first came to the school. The seniors complained of one long-term substitute teacher who gave them word games to play instead of teaching biology, and an art substitute who gave them photocopied magazine pages to color with crayons.
The seniors' years coincided with turmoil at Olney. In 1997, then-Superintendent David Hornbeck attempted to designate Olney as an academically distressed "Keystone school" so he could transfer most of the faculty. Passions flared. Hornbeck wasn't successful, but many teachers left anyway, and the school went through several principals and security problems.
But changes for the better are taking place.
Vann points with pride to the school's ongoing advances in computers and technology. Smith concurs.
Fire calls to the school decreased in the last year. There is a school band. A new performing-arts program is well-regarded; Jones and Highsmith just wish they had had it earlier in their education.
And now there is the new college and career center. Highsmith, for one, said she plans to come back after graduation and volunteer. The center, they hope, will be part of changes for the better at their school.
"We didn't just build it for us," Dukes said. "We built it for the future."
Said Jones: "As someone so eloquently said, we have to leave footsteps. And we'll be leaving footsteps for the other students coming up."
Rita Giordano's e-mail address is email@example.com.