Philly celebrates high school seniors heading to college [photos]

The rapper Wale performs for college-bound seniors from Philly public school. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The rapper Wale performs for college-bound seniors from Philly public school. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This fall, Monee Williams-Patrick will attend Lincoln University to study sociology and psychology.

Mercedes Gross decided to attend Cabrini University before pursuing a career as a private investigator.

And Lavon Edwards hopes to be a social worker after he completes his studies at West Chester University.

Thousands of Philadelphia public school students descended on the Wells Fargo Center Wednesday for the district’s third College Signing Day, each with a story and aspirations.

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Modeled after the televised ceremonies where high school athletes announce their college choices — typically by signing a letter of intent — College Signing Day gives Philly officials a chance to fete and reward all the other students headed toward higher education. There are similar events across the country, many affiliated with the Reach Higher Initiative spearheaded by former first lady Michelle Obama.

This year’s version had all the trappings of a sporting spectacle — drumlines, cheerleaders, and even a high-profile halftime surprise.

Rap star Wale treated unsuspecting seniors to a lively concert. He probably could have spared his voice given how many of the students seemed to know every word of every song.

Students also heard from Superintendent William Hite and Mayor’s Office of Education head Otis Hackney.

But the speeches and soundtracks were simply a backdrop for the accomplishments of the students — and the people who made those accomplishments possible. For many seniors, the motivation for attending college was simple and short: mom.

“I’m just glad that process is over and I’m finally here. I can just go to college and make my mom proud,” said Edwards, a senior at Motivation High School. “That’s all she ever wanted.”

High school was a struggle, Edwards said. Early on, his grades faltered and he fell behind. But, in 11th grade, he matured and focused his sights on college.

“Being from where I’m from, in Philadelphia, you’re going to learn how to mature quickly,” he said. “You gotta stay sharp and be on point. There’s a lot of stuff going on out here.”

Williams-Patrick, a soon-to-be-graduate of Eastern University Academy Charter School, said her mother was the first in the family to graduate from college when she got her degree from Lincoln about 10 years ago. Now, Williams-Patricks hopes to follow in her footsteps.

“I just always looked up to her,” Williams-Patrick said. “She always made a way for me and my sister even when we thought we had nothing.”

Tiana Pindle’s mom always told her to stand out from the crowd; in Pindle’s case, that meant focusing on academics over distractions.

“Not many Philadelphia students go to college,” said the senior at Philadelphia Military Academy who is headed to Cheyney University. “So me going to college and being the first in the family is an improvement.”

About two-thirds of Philadelphia’s public school students graduate high school, a number that inched up in 2016. The percent of graduates matriculating to college had also been on the rise, climbing as high as 55 percent in 2015 before falling back to 51 percent last year.

Though College Signing Day provides plenty of smiles, the idea is that one day college matriculation won’t feel so exceptional in Philadelphia. By celebrating those who do attend, Philadelphia and other school districts hope they’ll create more students who expect to get a college degree.

“That’s always been the plan. Nothing less than college,” said Chamir James, who will play football at McDaniel College. “Like when people ask me what [are] you doing after high school, I’m like, college. Ain’t that what you’re supposed to do?”

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