Steppingstone Scholar program gives students an early opportunity to succeed and the resources to make it last

Donning crisp white dresses and shiny black suits, 36 sixth-graders were excitedly abuzz as they lined the halls of William Penn Charter School on Saturday.  

Beaming with pride from ear to ear, they walked across the school’s stage to become the twelfth graduating class of Steppingstone Scholars to complete a rigorous 14-month academic program which sets them on a path to enroll in the most competitive private schools and four-year colleges.

“Believe in yourself and never give up,” echoed the words of Lenora Thomas, a sixth-grade graduate and student speaker at the ceremony. “If anyone ever tells you that you can’t do it, you won’t make it, and there is no hope, the exact opposite is true: you can do it, you will make it, and there is always hope.”

Michelle Thomas, a graduate of the first class of Steppingstone Scholars in Philadelphia and now Executive Assistant to Villanova University Men’s Basketball Head Coach Jay Wright, addressed the scholars next.

“I used to be sitting where you are now,” said Thomas. “Steppingstone will open doors for you… this year your class has the opportunity to raise the bar,” she added.

Creating opportunities early on 

Steppingstone Scholars, a college access organization based in Manayunk, is an intensive academic program that urban students enter in the fourth grade to prepare them for placement in top area college prep schools. With over 30 partnership schools throughout the Philadelphia region, including William Penn Charter School, Steppingstone Scholars combines a program of academics, mentoring, and support to create opportunities that ultimately lead to college.

A unique model, Steppingstone Scholars is a subsidiary of the Steppingstone Foundation which began in 1990 in Boston, and, since being launched in Philadelphia in 1999, has served over 350 students in the Greater Philadelphia area.

When asked what sets Steppingstone apart from other college access organizations, Eddie Mensah, Director of Programs at Steppingstone, said it’s the age that they start accepting students.

“We get them early, in the fourth grade – and we stay with them through the whole process to high school and even once they get to college.”

The other thing that sets them apart is the family component, Mensah added. 

“We demand from the parents so that we’re making a transformation that works not just for the kids but for the families as well, and every year there’s about five to six stories where parents are inspired by their own children to go back to school.”

One such success story is that of commencement speaker and esteemed Villanova student Laura Thomas, who inspired her own mother to go back to school and advance her education – a narrative that repeats itself over and over at Steppingstone.

The Steppingstone scholar is no ordinary student, nor is the journey that brings them to the program. Not only must students be nominated by a counselor or community member in order to participate, they must undergo an extensive application process that includes consideration of their essays, report cards, standardized test scores, and an interview with students and parents. Over 400 students were nominated last year, but only 36 were selected for this year’s bright, young cohort.

Ensuring student success 

The 14-month program that ensues is intensive, and recruits some of the best area teachers at schools like Mastery Charter for small, focused learning environments. They cover a robust curriculum of math, reading and writing, foreign language, and test-taking preparation classes, to mention just a few, all of which are designed to prepare them for the competitive admissions process of applying to independent schools.

“The teachers never give up on you, no matter what,” said Kyeal Young, a new Steppingstone graduate and student at William Penn Charter School. “Whenever I had a problem, my teacher would drop everything until we figured it out.”

Steppingstone stays with its scholars – and with their families – every step of the way. Once scholars complete the 14-month academic program, counselors continue to guide them through their middle school and high school careers and offer whatever academic support is needed.

“From Saturday drop-in tutoring days at Drexel University to internship placements, college visits, and family workshops on important topics such as financial aid or changing schools, we make sure our scholars have the resources and support they need to thrive,” said Elaine Leigh, Director of High School Support Services at Steppingstone.

“There were some many times when I felt like throwing my hands up and giving up, but Steppingstone came right in and told me to ‘hang in there’,” said Riashe McNair, a parent of a Steppingstone student. “We hung in there, and he made it.”

Graduation rates 

For Steppingstone, academic rigor and hard work are the keys to success, and their model seems to be working.

Over a three year average, 96 percent of Steppingstone Scholars graduate from high school and 100 percent of scholars who graduate from high school matriculate at a college or university – an impressive statistic in a city where 37 percent of students who start sixth grade will dropout before graduating, according to a School Reform Commission task force report from 2010.

When asked what she was most proud of, newly graduated Steppingstone Scholar Allyson Paul exclaimed, “Graduating – it’s hard – and getting into my new school, William Penn Charter.”

A scientist, a game designer, a pediatrician, an engineer, President of the United States – these were some of the answers heard when asked what plans she and other students had for their future. Observing these scholars in action, it becomes clear it isn’t a question of whether or not these students will attain these goals, but when.

“We’re poised for great things,” said Mensah. “For a long time, Steppingstone has been a well-kept secret, and I think we’re ready to be thought leaders and show others how to proceed and make this happen in Philadelphia.”

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