Only about 10 percent of students in the Philadelphia School District go on to higher education and graduate with a two- or four-year degree within ten years of entering the ninth grade. Out of 210,500 students in the district, 96 percent want to go on to college but lack knowledge about the application process.
Parkway West Partnership on the Web
Jomaira Salas ’13 uncovered these alarming statistics during a Bryn Mawr Summer of Service internship in Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s office last summer. This inspired her to get involved with college-access issues as Bryn Mawr’s student coordinator for the Parkway West High School Partnership Program.
Parkway West High School is a public “special-admit” high school (students are required to apply for admission) operated by the School District of Philadelphia. With just over 300 students and a focus on encouraging students to return to urban schools as teachers, Parkway West offers the promise of individual attention to students who might feel lost in a large public high school. A large proportion of its students is from economically disadvantaged families.
The Civic Engagement Office at Bryn Mawr began its partnership with Parkway West in 2008. In 2009, an Americorps VISTA grant allowed the CEO to hire Zanny Alter ’09 to take on the full-time position of program coordinator of the Parkway West High School Partnership Program.
Alter played an integral role in developing the relationship between Bryn Mawr and Parkway West High as an undergraduate and was well equipped to fill the new position after graduation. Last year, the program began to focus more specifically on enhancing college-access programs and awareness.
‘We wanted to involve college students in service,’ says Alter, ‘and help Parkway students get into college and be successful in whatever they choose to do.’
“Identity, Access, and Innovation in Education,” taught by the Bryn Mawr-Haverford Education Program’s Jody Cohen, is a Praxis course with an important field component, as is a special mural-arts course taught by Shira Walinsky and Jane Golden of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program.
The mural-arts students’ primary project is a mural on the subject of women’s leadership at a West Philadelphia location just two blocks from Parkway West.
Students enrolled in these two courses were a critical factor in the creation of Parkway West’s “Student Success Block.”
The Student Success Block, Alter explains, focuses on building skills that will help Parkway West seniors to evaluate and communicate their own preferences and strengths and to focus on practical steps toward attaining their goals, especially admission to college.
A starting point for the program was a quotation from essayist Wendell Berry: “If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.”
“A lot of the work we do is about developing introspection and tools for self-expression,” Alter says.
With more than 30 Bi-College students participating in the Student Success Block, there are college students working with the Parkway West seniors every day of the school week.
This allows Parkway West students to work in one-on-one sessions with college students, and this kind of attention helps seniors navigate the often complex college-application process. Bryn Mawr students also initiate group activities where students develop leadership skills.
The personal relationships the students have developed “have been profoundly enlightening for both the high-school students and the college students,” Alter says.
Parkway West has a flexible academic program which, according to Salas, ‘really allows Mawrters to respond to the students needs. There is mutual accountability.’
For Salas it is important to ‘make sure you are empowering the students. You have to remind them they can’t slack off.’
To enhance creativity and foster self-expression, Bryn Mawr students have tried to incorporate more art in the Parkway West classrooms. The most visible aspect of this effort is the Parkway West students’ involvement in the College’s mural project, which was designed in collaboration with neighborhood residents.
The Parkway West Partnership is determined to make issues of educational access more visible on the Bryn Mawr campus, as well. Along with the Social Justice Partnership Program, the Parkway West program recently sponsored a screening of the film First Person, which tracks five Philadelphia high-school seniors as they navigate the college-admissions process in an urban environment that offers little encouragement. A panel discussion on issues of college access followed.
Yet college acceptance is only the first hurdle. Many first-generation college students struggle once they arrive on campus. In the spring semester, both Alter and Salas expect to start focusing more on issues of class, race and gender on college campuses and, most importantly, trying to build a support network for Parkway West graduates in college.
Access to higher education is one of the thorniest issues of our time, and BMC students are learning about the complexity of this problem. As Anna Chiles, a senior sociology major and education minor, notes: “It is challenging, which is both good and bad. It pushes you out of your comfort zone.”
The “success” of the Student Success Block depends on the on the relationships that have developed between the two groups of students. It rests, too, on their passion, of which there is no short supply.
—Antonia Kerle ’11