Kristen Graham | City teens head to summer school

Posted: June 27, 2007

Earlier this month, they marched up a long Convention Center aisle to cheers, applause and snapping flashes.

They are the Class of 2007 of Philadelphia Futures, the nonprofit organization that picks at-risk teenagers from city high schools and prepares them - from ninth grade - to earn college diplomas. There are mentors, tutors, and financial and emotional support.

On Monday, some of the newly minted high school graduates will be back in class for a new, intensive summer boot camp aimed at preparing them for the colleges they'll attend in the fall.

For five weeks, the 15 students who chose the Summer Institute will spend three hours a day in intensive writing, math and research classes. There will be homework, and plenty of it, said Joan Mazzotti, executive director of Philadelphia Futures.

It will cost $10,000 - money secured from the Brook J. Lenfest Foundation - to educate the students, who come from high schools such as Fels and Germantown High Schools. The money is well worth it, Mazzotti said.

Philadelphia Futures successes are in the stories, and in the numbers. Since it began in 1990, the "Sponsor-A-Scholar" program has shepherded 710 students to high school graduation. Of that group, 694 - or 98 percent - have gone to college; 246 have graduated.

"What we are finding is a total lack of academic rigor in the neighborhood high schools," said Mazzotti. "We help these kids believe in themselves, give them the expectation that they will go to college and they will succeed. We're just leveling the educational playing field for them."

Philadelphia Futures students are attending colleges and universities from Bryn Mawr to Drexel to Bloomsburg.

Some knew they wanted to go to college, but didn't know how to get there. Others didn't realize their potential. Some needed an extra push, and then another.

But the tie that binds them all is perseverance.

Azsherae Gary, 19, graduated from Roxborough High and is now headed to Bryn Mawr College. On the night of the Class of 2007's celebration at the Convention Center, she was relaxed, happy and looking forward to this summer.

Gary will juggle work as an intern at the American Red Cross with her Summer Institute workload. But after four years in the program, Gary doesn't mind the time crunch. Philadelphia Futures has "shaped me to think new things, have experiences I might not have had otherwise," she said.

"It's been opportunity after opportunity; I feel like I've had so many advantages," Gary said. "SAT prep, summer programs. They paid for calculators when we needed them."

Varonnica Richardson, a William Penn graduate, 17, is heading to Gettysburg College with nearly a full scholarship. The teen practically bubbled over when she talked about the difference the program has made.

"Being in Futures has meant everything," she said. "It has really brought me a long way - helping me with my writing, with math. It's kept me focused. Without it, I probably would have slacked off and maybe not have worked as hard."

She's learned about networking and developed a strong bond with her mentor, Barbara Link, who does publicity for the organization.

"She's always here for me," Richardson said of her mentor. "We go everywhere. She takes me to the Shore. I'm a part of her family, and she's a part of mine."

Futures has influenced her career decision - Richardson wants to earn a Ph.D. in psychology and work as a school counselor, challenging students like herself to push harder and graduate from college.

"If everyone, every school, could have a Philadelphia Futures, that would be perfect," she said.

Kali Avans, who will attend Dickinson College in the fall, recently collected his diploma from University City High School.

"The kids in my school are underprivileged," Avans said. "I was lucky to get to do these things that no one else got to do."

He took summer trips to colleges and enrolled in academic programs. Last year, he sat through an intensive weeklong session to write his college essays. This year, he's maintained a high grade-point average, played on his school's football team and was in the National Honor Society chapter along with other activities. He also worked at a fast food restaurant.

He has another busy summer ahead of him, but isn't worried.

"The workload is going to be very rigorous, but the Summer Institute will position me well," Avans said.

Kim Grandy is one of many Futures' success stories. She earned her degree in English from Dickinson College last month, and the Futures staff helped her make the most of her college experience, she said - from shaping her college decision to helping her gain a study abroad experience in Africa.

"They've helped with formal support and programs, but also just by being there. I'd call and say, 'Oh I'm going crazy with school, and I need to talk to someone,' " Grandy said. "They've been that force behind me that's always helping me to strive to do better."

Grandy will work this summer as an instructor at the Summer Institute. What will she tell her students?

"We know how bad our [city schools] system can be, so we'll give them a boost. Grammar and math. Extra help. I'll tell them, 'Your first semester is rough, but you'll make it through,' " she said.


Contact reporter Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com. To comment, or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/schooltalk.

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