This spring, Cassidy — a soon-to-be Central High graduate, poet, artist, philosophy enthusiast and generally extraordinary teenager — was accepted into 10 of the country’s most elite colleges.
This would be a remarkable achievement for anyone, but particularly for a young woman like Cassidy: when she steps onto Yale’s campus with a full ride this September, she will be the first person in her family to attend college.
I met Cassidy just before her sophomore year, when Philadelphia Futures matched us through their Sponsor-A-Scholar mentorship program. The organization provides Philadelphia’s low-income, first-generation students with the tools necessary to reach — and succeed in — college. In its 30 year history, the nonprofit has made incredible strides towards educational equity: in a city with a 69% graduation rate, nearly 100% of Futures students complete high school; in a country where one-third of all first-gen students drop out after three years, the projected graduation rate for Futures’ most recent classes is over 75%.
While the recent college admissions scandal may have been salacious, it was hardly news. We’ve long known that money and wealth grant access to opportunity in America, in ways both shocking (see: Lori Loughlin in court) and quietly insidious. The real scandal is that our country squanders talent, and far too often relegates low-income, minority students to a path that does not allow them to achieve their full academic and professional potential.
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From the moment students join Futures in high school, the organization enfolds them in a comprehensive system of supports. Cassidy spent her sophomore summer in a French language program, received assistance from a math tutor, participated in career exposure panels, endured SAT prep. She traveled around the country to visit colleges and, after her junior year wrapped up, she spent two weeks with all her peers at Futures’ College Admissions Marathon, which ensures that rising seniors start the fall with a college essay.
I sat with Cassidy, her mother, and her Futures coordinator while a college advisor mapped out the colleges that might be a good fit for her, and then Futures staff guided them through the financial aid process. And best of all — Cassidy has been nurtured by a supportive community that celebrates students’ accomplishments and encourages bright minds to flourish, finish high school, attend college and reach the finish line.
Futures mentors work with students for several years, providing ample time to serve as a guide, sounding board, and cheerleader. Through trips to the orchestra, BlackStar Film Festival, Philadelphia Museum of Art, (and yes, Tony Luke’s for cheesesteaks), I have watched Cassidy absorb information like a sponge. She schooled me on philosophers, classic novels, and the use of the word “shook;” she crushed me at bowling; and she reminded me how hard high school is. Cassidy will make Yale — and the world — a better place.
Futures students are curious, poised, engaged, accomplished, ambitious. The Class of 2019 is heading off to a remarkable array of higher education institutions, where they will enrich their campus enormously.
Research has confirmed that higher education is a critical stepping stone to economic mobility. In a city wrestling to reduce its 25% poverty rate, investing in an organization that so effectively connects students to academic success seems to be a clear solution. We know that Philadelphia’s economic prospects are intertwined with our talent pool, so cultivating that talent through programs like Futures should be a critical piece of our growth strategy.
As college acceptance season wraps up, it’s time to ask ourselves: are we going to breathlessly follow the college admissions scandal while we allow great minds to go to waste, or are we going to act? The sheer talent of Philadelphia’s student body demands that we act. They demand that we invest in their future — as mentors, supporters, and guides through a world they have yet to experience but are hungry to access.
We should act because these young people are amazing, and because our city will rise or fall based on whether or not we choose to realize and unleash their potential.
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