When the Philadelphia School District made the decision to close more than 20 schools in 2013, Melissa Rowe turned this bleak situation into a teachable opportunity. As the former college and career coordinator at Germantown High School, one of the schools closed, Rowe helped students compete for college scholarships and write college admission essays. Subsequently, when the high school closed, federal funding stopped.
"I felt sadness, disappointment, and anger," Rowe said. "I knew that if I waited for federal, state, or local policy makers to prioritize college coaching and scholarship writing for Philly's students, I'd be waiting a long time."
That's when the idea to create the Capture Greatness program began.
In the initial stages, Rowe spent the summer of 2013 blogging online and giving high school students college prep tips. She even created a scholarship writing workbook that was available free on her website. Her work took notice. During the 2013-2014 school year, Rowe was invited to more than 10 schools and non-profit organizations to coach students.
"It was in doing the work, that I realized, 'Hey, this is more than college preparation. This is capturing the greatness that lies within each one of these young people."
Today, Capture Greatness students have earned over $1million in scholarships, including three Gates Millennium Scholars. Getting announcements that her students received the Gates Millennium Scholarship was one of Rowe's most memorable experiences.
Many students that Rowe works with are first-generation college students, and often, their families do not know how to navigate scholarships applications. She also works with a population of students who do not attend college-preparatory schools.
"I've found a niche in offering writing instruction and support. Most Philadelphia students are intimidated by writing. They don't know what to write about themselves, how to stand out and be unique, or even understand the purpose of a narrative essay."
Rowe does acknowledge other college prep programs throughout the City, but she said there are still often obstacles for students. For example, some programs require that students participate starting in middle school, mandatory parental commitments, or college-prep classes conflict with students' work schedules. Capture Greatness participants overcome these challenges because youth workshops are brought into schools, some workshops are free and the organization trains other educators, counselors and youth workers.
"My work, through Capture Greatness, helps students build confidence in themselves as they pursue higher education. We start by exploring what makes the individual great. We don't discuss GPA or test scores and don't compare one student to another. Everyone's story is beautiful and everyone is worthy of pursuing their dreams."
Rowe nominated Alexis S. Greaves, principal at World Communications Charter School, as an American Graduate Champion. Greaves was last principal of Germantown High School and former principal at the Walter Showalter Academy in Chester, PA.
"In every school, he's raised the bar for his students, bringing in AP classes, forging partnerships and tapping his network for support and resources. He is a true Champion."