On gaming college admissions and White House ambitions, all at Girard

Listen

It’s over 80 degrees outside, but Brandon Dixon, 17, is wearing a thick blue blazer and a polo shirt with the word “Girard” embroidered just above his heart.

The high school senior has pulled off a pretty big feat.

“I applied to 11 colleges, and I got into all of them. It was Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Kenyon, Middlebury, Duke and…”

He pauses for a few seconds. “I’m forgetting one … Dartmouth. I don’t think I said that one.”

The accolades don’t stop there. “I got the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Millennium scholarship a couple of weeks ago, and that pays for your education all the way through to your doctorate level,” said Brandon. “There’s no word to describe how great that is, because you’re set for the rest of your education.”

Brandon doesn’t attend an exclusive private school, nor one of Philadelphia’s top-tier public school magnets. For the last seven years, he’s studied and lived at Girard College, a selective admission boarding school in North Philadelphia.

The K-12 boarding school began in 1848 with an endowment from wealthy Philadelphian Stephen Girard and a mandatee to educate poor orphans and children of single parents. At first, the school  served only white boys, but after a desegregation battle in the 1960s, its student body now has slightly more girls than boys and is primarily black and Latino.

Today, its 259 students can get an education and live at the school for free, thanks to a “uniquely private/public structure,” said communications director Polly Mitchell.

Boarding school bonds

Brandon resides at the school five days a week, going home to his mom in North Philadelphia on the weekends. While every student has to test into the school and meet the low-income and single or no parent requirements, he said he is somewhat of an outlier in his upbringing.

“A lot of my friends have been in West Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, the harder areas of the city,” said Brandon. “Some of them have seen some of their family members shot or in jail. And I’ve never had that experience.”

Students live in dormitories on the school’s lush 43-acre campus, which stretches across Girard Avenue between Corinthian Avenue and 25th Street. A stone wall encircles the school’s Greek Revival- style buildings, a grand contrast to the typical Philadelphia rowhomes just beyond the gates.

Living at school means students form deep bonds with their teachers and resident advisers, Brandon said. One teacher, Upper School science teacher Scott Sowers, taught him a lesson that he spun into college application gold.

“The essay that I wrote for my Common App essay was about how my physics teacher gave me a Rubik’s cube in ninth grade, and he intentionally turned it so it was unsolvable,” said Brandon. Sowers had taken off one of the “cubits,” the small squares that make up the iconic Rubik’s cube grid, and put it back in a different position.

Brandon spent three months fiddling with the tampered cube. As a member of the schools’ Rubik’s cube club, he could normally solve the puzzles in under a minute.

“He knew that I was the type of person who liked to take on new challenges, and I sort of got ahead of myself sometimes,” said Brandon. “So he was trying to teach me a lesson about humility.”

Finally, on Sowers’ wedding day — the ceremony was held on Girard’s campus — he showed Brandon what he’d done. “I was like, ‘What?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I got you.’ And then he walked away.”

He’s careful to share that many of his classmates are also bound for well-ranked four-year universities. Pointing at seniors seated around the same lunch table, he ticks off his cohorts’ destinations:  “He’s going to Pitt, you’re going to Carnegie Mellon … Charles is going to Wesleyan.”

But the honor students gathered around the table almost didn’t graduate from Girard College.

The fight for Girard College

In the landscape of K-12 education in Philadelphia, Girard College occupies a unique position. While technically a private boarding school, the college is run by a public trust bequeathed by Stephen Girard to the City of Philadelphia in 1830.

His will is administered by the Board of Directors of City Trusts, a group overseeing all the estates left to the City of Philadelphia, of which Girard’s is the largest. The group consists of “12 citizens of Philadelphia, the mayor and the president of City Council, who serve ex-officio,” according to the group’s website. Those citizens include former politicians, lawyers and lobbyists.

When the current seniors were sophomores, the board pleaded that the Great Recession had hit the estate’s bottom line hard, and tried to shut down the high school and the school’s dormitories.

Students, teacher and alumni joined together to protest the board’s decision. Brandon and his peers joined in the response, and he testified in Orphans’ Court about why the school should not cut back.

“I told them … you have a whole campus of kids that have been sheltered their entire life. If you tell them right now that you can’t graduate from school where you’ve been living your entire life, [you’re] pretty much throwing them out into the jungle of Philadelphia.”

In the end, the courts sided with the students. But the board has appealed that ruling.

Even though Harvard is pulling him away from Philadelphia, Brandon said he’s still committed to the cause. “As soon as I find out any information about the appeal or if i can testify in court, then I’ll definitely come back and testify.”

It’s at Girard, after all, where he stumbled upon his passion for administration and politics.

“They call me ‘the head’,” said Brandon. “Part of that is because I have a big head, but also because I’m the head of all the activities on campus.”

His practice leading fellow students, advocating for change to the school’s administration and a catalyzing U.S. history class have left him with one overarching ambition. “My ultimate goal is to be president of the United States,” said Brandon.

If the White House doesn’t work out, his next choice is to start his own school, modeled on the values of Girard College.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.