Chris Felix wants to shatter the misconceptions about students in the Philadelphia School District.
“When somebody hears that I come from Northeast High School, they expect me to be failing half my classes, they expect my pants to be sagging below my behind,” said Felix, 18. “But … when I walk down Market Street and I have a tie on, my shirt’s tucked in, pants are above the waist, belt on, I just know that I’m breaking through that stereotype.”
For Felix, breaking stereotypes extends well beyond the world of fashion. As the son of a single mother who emigrated from Haiti, he’s out to prove that kids from Philadelphia’s neighborhood public schools can compete at the highest levels of post-secondary education.
His mother, who moved to America in search of a better life for her two sons, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“One thing that I will always remember that she told me, she said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a millionaire. I don’t care if you’re poor,'” he recalled, “‘as long as you can finish high school and finish college, my life will be complete.'”
Felix is one of 43 in this year’s graduating class of students in the Philadelphia Futures Sponsor-A-Scholar program.
Futures works exclusively with the district’s high school students who come from low-income households and hope to be in their family’s first generation to graduate college.
Students receive a $7,500 pledge of financial support from a local benefactor ($6,000 of which pays for college expenses such as books), a mentor to guide them through the struggles of their sometimes harrowing personal lives, as well as a rigorous college preparatory program that demands their time after school, on weekends and through the summer.
In order to be selected as a Futures scholar, students must have good grades and attendance in middle school and have the recommendation of a teacher or counselor. About 40 percent of those who apply are accepted into the program.
Felix, who characterized his mentor as “like a father,” says the Futures program saved him from “slipping into a hole.” During the school district’s ongoing financial crisis, he says Futures often filled in the gaps created by years of austerity budgets.
Along the way, he’s grown confident that he can not only attain – but exceed – his mother’s dreams for him.
“I told myself, ‘OK, my mom is not going to pay a dime for me to go to college.'”
With singleminded focus, Felix became one of Northeast’s top students while working 25-plus hours a week at an after-school job to help his mom pay the bills.
Felix’s story is a study in the physics of will and determination, where actions produce only equal and opposite reactions. To Newton’s delight, Felix will attend Lafayette College in the Fall with a full scholarship.
Oasis of success
In recent years especially, against a backdrop of ongoing fiscal turmoil that’s seen city classrooms stripped to the core, Philadelphia Futures has been an oasis of success for students who otherwise risked being lost in the perpetual shuffle.
Districtwide, just 64 percent of students who started ninth grade in 2009 earned high school diploma in 2012-13. Past year’s records show that 67 percent of the district’s students end up graduating within six years.
Statewide, 86 percent of Pennsylvania’s class of 2012-13 graduated high school.
Of those who graduate high school in Philadelphia, including from charters, 54 percent of students enroll in college.
Of the Futures high school class of 2014, 100 percent are graduating high school and have been accepted to college.
North Philly’s Asazina Cooper will attend Dickinson college’s pre-med program in the fall and hopes to become a pediatrician.
She’s graduating from Bodine High School for International Affairs, a magnet that, due to budget cuts, didn’t have a guidance counselor for the first three months of the year.
Some of Cooper’s classes were so crowded that some students had to share desks.
Where the district’s resources lacked, Futures picked up many of the pieces. For college applications, Cooper received help from her mentor who works as a counselor at the University of the Arts.
With beaming pride, Cooper expressed a tremendous relief to have risen above the pressures of a neighborhood plagued by low-expectations. “I’m definitely not a statistic,” she said.
Cooper’s drive to succeed comes in large part from her seven-year-old brother.
“I want to be a great example,” she said. “I want him to exceed everything that I’ve accomplished.”
So far, her passion for education seems to be rubbing off.
“He’s like so excited about me going to Dickinson,” she said. “He’s always like, ‘I’m coming to Dickinson. I’m coming to Dickinson too.’ He printed out a paper at school and then colored it for me. And he said, ‘hang it on your door when you get there.”‘
Defying the odds
The Futures program emphasizes not just college acceptance, but college persistence.
Of the Futures students who graduated high school in 2010, 54 percent graduated college in four years. Futures estimates that 87 percent will finish within six.
Since Futures inception, of 1161 Sponsor-A-Scholar students (some of which are still in high school), 1019 have graduated high school and 509 have graduated college. An additional 150 students are still enrolled in college, putting Futures’ total potential graduation rate at 65 percent.
The city’s last comprehensive study found that only 10 percent of students who started high school ended up with diplomas from a two- or four-year institution. (This was a longitudinal study that followed district students who began high school in 1999.)
West Philadelphia’s Farrad Mclaughlin, the youngest of seven children, says he easily could have been in the 90 percent who fail to make it through.
Now 22, he says everything about his life was turned upside-down in 2007 when one of his older brothers was murdered.
“I was 15 years old, and me and him were very tight. He was 20 at the time,” Mclaughlin said, “just caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Shot and killed.”
The brother left behind two young children.
Instead of allowing the loss to destroy him, Mclaughlin resolved to become a pillar of stability – for the kids’ sake as much as for his own.
“Just trying to be able to work hard, and show them that we could overcome this and create a better life for my family,” he said, “setting a new standard for our family, like an example for generations to come.”
Mclaughlin graduated from Sayre High, a school that’s been on and off the state’s persistently dangerous list, in 2010. That fall he enrolled in the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Transitioning to college proved challenging, he said, but all the support he received from the Futures program, including a mentor he called “a model of success,” buoyed him along.
By junior year, he could count on one hand the number of kids from his graduating class at Sayre who were still in college. But whenever he doubted himself, the memory of his brother pushed him forward.
“I remember just sitting down crying on my 21st birthday, because he didn’t make it to 21,” he said.
When the clock struck midnight, tears welled in Mclaughlin’s eyes.
“I was just overwhelmed with emotion,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, I made it. I came from the same place. We all came from the same place.'”
Just last month, Mclaughlin defied the odds and graduated from IUP.
He hopes to get a job coaching college basketball, but says he’s still probing the job market for an opportunity. In the meantime, as Mclaughlin walks the streets of his West Philadelphia neighborhood, he’s emboldened by the thought that he’s so far escaped the two fates that he says have swallowed up too many of his peers: incarceration and death.
“Things happen in our neighborhood, and some people don’t survive it,” he said. “And I was able to survive it and finish college as well.”