Educational SuperPowers: Philadelphia Futures & Gettysburg College

Philadelphia Futures students

Five hundred high school students, collegians, parents, mentors, and supporters braved the cold weather and snow covered streets to answer the challenge to “Discover Your Power.” That was both the theme and the spirited call-to-action of the Philadelphia Futures 2014 Annual Conference held on January 4 at Drexel University.

Philadelphia Futures, a non-profit union of White-Williams Scholars & Philadelphia Futures was established in 1989 to help promising Philadelphia public school students reach their full potential by obtaining a college education. Futures provides low income, first-generation-to college students with the tools, resources and opportunities necessary for admission to and success in college. They assist in removing barriers that “…have historically excluded students living in poverty from college success.”

In 2001, Philadelphia Futures formed its first strategic partnership with Gettysburg College, a prestigious, private liberal arts college located on an idyllic campus in historic Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In subsequent years, twenty-eight Futures students have earned their degree from Gettysburg and seven students are currently enrolled. The 12-year collaboration was recently celebrated by the two organizations. “It’s the right thing to do,” said Janet Morgan Riggs, President of Gettysburg College, in a recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We don’t want to close our doors to students who have great potential but not the right financial wherewithal. And we benefit, too…” In the years following the groundbreaking partnership with Gettysburg, Futures has expanded its reach by forming partnerships with six additional Pennsylvania area colleges and universities.

The conference was opened by Joan Mazzotti, Executive Director, who left a lucrative corporate position almost 14 years ago to take the helm of Philadelphia Futures. A seemingly tireless dynamo, Mazzotti leads her staff of twenty-seven in the delivery of multi-faceted services to Philly students. She is not only the organization’s leader, but also an enthusiastic cheerleader as evidenced by her comments: “…I care deeply that our students make good choices…”

Her comments were followed by a discussion among a three person panel consisting of H. Pete Curry, Dean of Intercultural Advancement, Gettysburg College, Maribel Hernandez, M.D., Main Line Health Systems, and Justin Ledesma, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions, Villanova University. Ms. Mazzotti has commented on more than one occasion that Dean Curry “has her on speed dial.” Close contact between Futures staff and college partners is key to the success of the program. Mazzotti explained: “This service that we provide to our collegians really distinguishes us from other college access programs because our services for students start in ninth grade and don’t end until the student graduates from college.”

The always welcoming and very approachable Dean Curry, was very much in his element as he made his way through the crowd of 500 plus students, parents, mentors, and staff. As Gettysburg’s “ambassador” to underrepresented students and winner of one of Philadelphia Futures’ 2012 “Hats Off to You” awards, Curry has mentored and guided many of the organization’s students as they earned degrees from the prestigious institution. He and his staff maintain close contact with students to monitor their academic progress, social adjustment, and to otherwise ensure that they are partaking of the full Gettysburg College experience. Curry has been consistently impressed with the academic preparedness of Futures students: “It’s rare to find a (Futures) kid that’s overmatched,” Curry commented.

The comments and testimonies of students and parents during the workshops clearly expressed their satisfaction with the overall experience, as well as their appreciation of role of Futures, Gettysburg, and the other partner colleges in opening the door to higher education. Tammy Hilliard-Thompson’s workshop provided pointers and basics to parents and mentors with children on campus. As Philadelphia Futures Associate Director of College Retention & Success, Ms. Hilliard-Thompson did an outstanding job of fielding questions, offering suggestions and sharing anecdotes of the college experience. The workshop was highly interactive — parents eagerly asked questions and shared their experiences and concerns. One parent told a very poignant story about her child’s downward spiral in high school. After receiving guidance and mentoring from Futures, her daughter blossomed into a very bright, industrious, goal-directed student.

Another Gettysburg parent described how delighted she was that her daughter still had “someone to talk to…” while at Gettysburg. Recognizing the challenges students face leaving the inner city, Futures prepares them socially and academically for the college experience. Futures conducts a soft transfer to Curry, and his staff continues with the one-on-one student assessment and monitoring while they are on campus. Students participating in Sponsor A Scholar (SAS), the cornerstone program, receive year round, individualized staff support beginning in grade nine and continuing throughout their college years.

The workshop facilitated by Life and Career Coach, Anna Papalia offered tips to collegians on how to demonstrate their strengths to potential employers while interviewing for internships or career positions. The college students in attendance exhibited a high degree of interest and had many questions and comments. The Gettysburg seniors in the group, felt they could put many of the takeaways into effect immediately. The session also gave students an opportunity to reflect on their academic interests and connect these to career development opportunities.

Philadelphia Futures is very proud of the strides it has made with the help of its college partners. Since 2001, in addition to providing essential on campus services, the seven partner colleges and universities have made over $16 million in institutional aid available to Futures students, with $6.2 million of this amount provided by Gettysburg College alone. Nonetheless, the organization is cognizant of the daunting challenges faced by its students, young African American males in particular. A recent report published by the Schott Foundation for Public Education provided a disturbing statistic: nationwide, the graduation rate for black males is a paltry 47 percent. In some major cities, such as New York City and Philadelphia, the rate is much lower. (http://schottfoundation.org)

“One of our underlying interim objectives is to create a peer group of like-minded students,” says Mazzotti. “Because for many of our students, their peers in their schools do not have the same dreams and aspirations. And that is especially important for our young men. The numbers for African American boys in Philadelphia are terrible. I think it’s something like twenty-four or twenty-five percent graduate high school. So we do everything we can to promote a positive peer group for boys in this program.”

This is accomplished through the Young Men’s Initiative (YMI). YMI provides extra support to this at-risk population. Through counseling, round table discussions, job shadowing and cultural activities, the young men increase their leadership potential, prepare for college and connect with peers who share their educational goals.

In October 2013, Philadelphia Futures released its 24th annual edition of Step Up to College: Philadelphia’s Guide to College Admission and Financial Aid. The organization is especially proud of this publication. The Step Up to College guide is a comprehensive resource providing detailed instructions on the college and financial aid application process. It includes a pull out workbook of interactive activities, timelines and checklists. More than 40,000 copies of the guide are distributed free of charge to public, public charter and parochial schools in Philadelphia. Branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia and many community based organizations also receive copies. Students can access the Guide via Facebook and Twitter and a pdf version is available at www.philadelphiafutures.org/step-up-to-college-guide.

The conference was very inspiring and a great success. It provided the perfect setting for the Philadelphia Futures community to reflect on the accomplishments and successes of the past year while also looking ahead with renewed confidence and determination. Futures is continuing to expand its services and to be unwavering in its commitment to provide college access, retention and success.

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