First-time Philly college students honor the legacy of Octavius Catto

Close up of the sculpture; the face of Octavius Catto seen from the side, looking left

Close up of the Octavius Catto statue outside of City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Almost two years ago, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney created the Catto scholarship with the Community College of Philadelphia.

It would cover tuition, other expenses, and academic support for first-time community college students going to school full time. Two education researchers celebrated it back then as a “rare win-win for Philadelphia” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

It’s named after local civil rights activist, baseball pioneer, and scholar Octavius Catto. In 2017, the city dedicated a statue to Catto in front of City Hall, the city’s first public statue of an African American person.

On Tuesday, the college and the mayor celebrated the achievements of hundreds of those scholarship students, as well as the first graduate of the program, Idris Washington.

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“To hear that there is a program and a scholarship that offers students … a little ease on paying the money for the school, instead letting the students focus on the work and trying to get through the school was just amazing for me,” Washington said.

He is now working on a bachelor’s degree in English at Temple University.

David Thomas, vice president of strategic initiatives and community engagement at the Community College of Philadelphia said people who receive this scholarship are more likely to stay in school.

“While we’re gathered here today to celebrate the accomplishments of our scholars, we also know that we’re just getting started,” he said.

The scholarship is a local example of a “promise program,” which offers college scholarships beyond existing federal and state financial aid for local students.

Back in 2020, city officials had estimated the program could help thousands of students go to school.

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Last year, the president of the college’s Student Government Association and an assistant professor of English wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer that while the scholarship is “a vital move toward free CCP for all Philadelphians,” community college should be free for part-time students as well.

CCP financial aid specialist Paul Tamke also advocated for doubling the Pell Grant, which gives financial aid to undergraduate students without a loan. He pointed to research showing that with the rising cost of colleges, a student who got the maximum amount from a Pell Grant would on average be able to cover less than 30% of the cost of a four-year public university, compared to more than three fourths back in the 1970s.

The scholarship ceremony also comes a few weeks after First Lady Jill Biden said the Biden administration would not include two free years of free community college to eligible students in a social spending plan as promised. President Biden said that is because of opposition from Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

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