Philly high school puts low-income students on path to undergraduate degree with less debt

Students from the Parkway Center City Middle College high school pose with Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite during a program at the Community College of Philadelphia that allows students to earn college credits while still in high school. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Students from the Parkway Center City Middle College high school pose with Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite during a program at the Community College of Philadelphia that allows students to earn college credits while still in high school. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

A partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and the Community College of Philadelphia is celebrating its first graduating class.

The Parkway Center City Middle College allows students to take high school courses while also enrolled as full-time college students, a one-of-a kind program in the city.

Every 2021 graduate of the program has been accepted into a four-year university. Most are departing with a high school diploma and two years worth of college credits, cutting their time in college in half.

The program is meant to reduce barriers of entry for first-generation students, like Elijah Robinson.

“I feel like Parkway helped me grow as a person, made me a better student,” said Robinson at a press conference with district leaders on Thursday.  “I’m really thankful that I got that opportunity that not many people have.”

Robinson said at the start of the program, some professors treated him like he was too young to be in the college classroom. The high schoolers had to earn their respect.

“We really proved ourselves as students,” said Robinson. “We are professional. We can excel in higher education at 15, 16, 14. We were young and we really did it.”

Robinson plans to attend Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia in the fall to study marketing. He is one of the 94 students graduating from Parkway, out of the 130 students who originally enrolled in 2017.

Of the students who made it through four years, 95% are graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Parkway Middle College students also have the option to graduate with another kind of career certification.

The program reduces some of the financial burden that usually comes along with attending a university. The students ideally only have to pay for two years of school to earn an undergraduate degree.

About 52% of the middle college students come from low-income households in Philadelphia.

So far, students have received over $7 million in college scholarships, and more money is still coming in, according to Principal Anh Nguyen.

Nguyen said the program empowers students and gives them a “head start” to succeed in their future goals.

Nguyen added that a lot of the college professors now love having these students in the classroom. “And sometimes they even request for it,” said Nguyen.

Community College of Philadelphia President Donald ‘Guy’ Generals has witnessed Parkway students flourishing.

“I have had, on more than one occasion, faculty come up to me and rave about the quality of these students… and how tenacious they are and how they are among the best students at the college,” said Generals.

The students gradually take more college courses through their four years. By their junior and senior years, students are fully immersed in advanced coursework.

Anissa Wheeler-White, 18, is graduating this year as well. She said as a 14-year-old entering both high school and college courses, she was excited for the challenge.

But she also found, like Robinson, that she had to prove herself to many of the college professors.

“When we actually got in the classroom,” said Wheeler-White, “we showed them the work that we could do. We were able to show that we had more knowledge to give and had a lot to give in general.”

She’s now off to The School of Art Institute of Chicago to complete her undergraduate degree.

The Parkway school takes admissions from students all over Philadelphia. According to Nguyen, they receive over 2,100 applicants a year. Currently, 490 students are enrolled.

When asked if the district is considering expanding the program, Superintendent William Hite said he would like to, but for now, school leaders are focusing on supporting current students.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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