Chester students overcome struggling schools to land Gates honors

Justin Platt and Kamri Staples are graduates of Chester Upland's STEM Academy at Showalter High School. They are the second and third in the district to win the scholarship.
Justin Platt and Kamri Staples are graduates of Chester Upland's STEM Academy at Showalter High School. They are the second and third in the district to win the scholarship. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 22, 2014

Kamri Staples was determined to let nothing stop her drive to a career in medicine - not the chaos in Chester's struggling public schools, not lack of money, not even a bureaucratic screw-up that evidently robbed her of a chance to transfer to elite Episcopal Academy.

Now, by winning a national honor that makes her a rarity in the troubled district, the 17-year-old can laugh at what she calls her one moment of high anxiety: when she got to watch a gall bladder removal during a Lankenau Science Symposium, right around lunchtime.

"I said, 'I'm going to have to pick a new career if I can't handle this,' " she recalled.

Staples' lunch stayed down, and her trajectory continued upward - to valedictorian and student government president at Chester Upland's STEM Academy at Showalter High School, en route to Cornell University this fall.

For Staples and 18-year-old classmate Justin Platt, bound for Xavier University of Louisiana, the goal of a college education was secured last month when each won a Gates Millennium Scholarship. The program, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, pays all college costs, as well as graduate school and related expenses, for selected high school graduates from low-income communities.

They became only the second and third Chester Upland students to win the coveted scholarship in the 15 years of the program. The other one: Staples' brother, Kameron, also class valedictorian. He is entering his sophomore year at Brown University. Both graduated with all A's and a 4.33 GPA.

Staples and Platt are among 1,000 students, 16 of whom are from the Philadelphia area, chosen from 52,000 applicants nationwide.

The story of what these three had to do to break out of Chester's rugged, violence-heavy streets is not for the faint of heart. They say their focus on achievement - in a school that did not offer music, art, health, gym, or many advanced classes - meant shunning most of the usual social pursuits of an American teenager.

"I just stayed in the house," Platt said. "I chose to distance myself."

Statistics suggest that the push to get more Chester Upland students into science and math careers has a long way to go. According to the STEM school's 2012-13 Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, fewer than 15 percent scored proficient or advanced on the Keystone Exams for math or Algebra I, and fewer than 8 percent reached that level in science or biology. The school's overall score was 15.8 out of 100.

Instead, the students credit much of their perseverance to support at home. Staples' father, Karl, a retail manager, pushed his son and daughter constantly - sending them to summer school when they didn't need it and demanding that they read books in their spare time.

"I remember reading Please Explain by Isaac Asimov when I was maybe 10," recalled Kameron, 19. "He said it doesn't matter if you understand it, you will later."

"They thrive because I hold them accountable and because I accept no excuses," said Karl Staples, who also has two younger children. He said he was "heartbroken" when he had to drop out of Drexel University in his junior year for financial reasons. But he made use of his old textbooks, giving them to Kamri and Kameron to start reading in fifth grade.

Karen Smith, Platt's mother, said she rarely had to push her son, who seemed born with a unique determination.

"People who have met him for the first time tell me, 'That little boy is going to be something in this world,' " Smith said.

Platt said his grandmother's death from heart disease made him want to become a cardiologist.

Kamri Staples said she's wanted to become a neurosurgeon since eighth grade. "I love a good mystery, and that's what the brain is, so I fell in love," she said. Her brother's goal is to become an aerospace engineer and a lawyer.

The scholarship winners said their ambitions often hit a wall in the chronically underachieving Chester Upland schools, where teachers might get halfway through a 20-chapter book in an academic year and only two AP courses are offered.

For the Staples siblings, however, the biggest disappointment came when they were middle schoolers and won full scholarships to Episcopal Academy - only to learn that Chester Upland administrators had failed to submit paperwork on time and the money was gone, they said.

An Episcopal spokesman said records show the siblings' application was incomplete. School district spokeswoman Becky Taylor wrote in an e-mail that the district could not find their records or "undo the past."

The newly minted Gates scholars say Chester Upland's woes have failed others. "I get so upset when I look at students and see they don't know anything," Kamri Staples said. "It's not their fault." Principal Alexis Greaves said the school was addressing gaps by adding music education, SAT prep, and two more APs. And student achievement is on the upswing, with only one senior dropping out this year and 85 percent bound for some secondary education, he said.

In the absence of better resources, "what we have is students who are resilient, who learn to make their way out," Greaves said.

In addition to excelling academically, Kamri Staples was captain of the girls' tennis team, her brother was a star in track and field, and Platt earned enough money working at Just Pizza to buy a car.

Now, when Platt thinks about his future "it makes me feel kind of emotional," he said. "It's a big mark for my family. . . . It's a big weight on my shoulders."

Kamri Staples said anything she gave up in high school for her studies was well worth it. "This is my goal and where I want to be in life, so I have to make sacrifices," she said.

"I always say, 'Work hard now so you can have fun later,' when I'm where I want to be."


kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@kathyboccella

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