Donald Pressley Jr. started college at age 13.
Now he’s 16, a rising high school junior on track to graduate with his high school diploma and a Community College of Philadelphia associate’s degree in 2021.
His mother, Tanya Pressley, is enormously proud of Donald, and not just because he’s saving the family tens of thousands of dollars when mushrooming student debt has become a national issue and a burden for a generation. He’s the youngest of her three children, one of whom graduated from Pratt Institute in New York, the other still attending Penn State.
“I told him, ‘I don’t care what you’ve got to do, you’re going to Parkway,’” Tanya Pressley said.
Parkway Center City Middle College, a novel Philadelphia School District school designed to let students simultaneously earn high school and college diplomas for free, first enrolled Pressley and his classmates, 121 students in all, in 2017. Eighty-nine percent of that first group — 108 young people — are poised to begin their junior year in high school entirely on the CCP campus. (The others moved away or found the program too rigorous and transferred to other schools.)
Parkway is Philadelphia’s first such program, and Pennsylvania’s only high school completely devoted to a middle college. The concept originated in New York in the 1970s, and has been used as a way to engage underserved youth and help them achieve postsecondary success.
Philadelphia’s school system is paying CCP $4 million over four years for as many as 500 Parkway Middle College students above and beyond the high school’s regular budget. Spots in the program are coveted; 2,500 students applied for 130 spots in this year’s freshman class, principal Anh Nguyen-Brown said.
On Thursday, officials gathered to mark the halfway point for that first class. CCP president Donald Guy Generals beamed at the students assembled in front of him.
“You guys have proved our theory that high school students can, in fact, do college work,” Generals said, adding that when they graduate, the students will have saved their families $50,000 to $100,000 by having two years of college credits behind them.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. noted that of the Class of 2021 students who remain at the school, 97 percent have earned C’s or higher in all their college courses.
“These students are far ahead of the pack,” Hite said.
The school is not just for the city’s academic elite. Parkway is a citywide admissions school, meaning it has some admissions requirements — good grades, attendance, and behavior — but fewer than magnet schools like Masterman and Science Leadership Academy.
Parkway freshmen and sophomores are primarily educated in the high school building on North 13th Street, a few blocks from CCP. They take one college class as ninth graders, two as 10th graders, and then in 11th grade they transition to a full college course load on CCP’s campus — a world of syllabi and professors who don’t hound you to turn in your homework.
Donald Pressley Jr. is ready, he said.
“At Parkway, they were always on us about time management. We’re OK on our own now,” said Pressley, who lives in Oak Lane and wants to pursue a career in engineering or psychology.
At times, managing both high school and college classes simultaneously was tough for some students. Twymon Forth is doing well now, but he struggled at first.
“I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it,” said Forth, 16, who lives in Southwest Philadelphia and travels an hour on SEPTA to get to school. “At one point, I wanted to leave, but my family convinced me to stay.”
When Sonya foza applied to Parkway two years ago, she wasn’t sure what she was getting into.
“The transition was a little challenging,” she said. “I had no idea what it was going to be like.”
But Mendoza, a star student who dreams of a career as a nurse practitioner, has taken classes to bolster her study skills. She’s learned about professors’ expectations, resources available to her as a CCP student, how to manage her time, and how to advocate for herself.
Even with full college loads, the Parkway students will still have three high school teachers dedicated to helping them succeed, plus CCP resources at their disposal.
Nguyen-Brown said the program has been refined as it advances. Incoming students now have to submit writing samples, and a career education component will be added this year to give young people more of a sense of the range of jobs available to them.
The program is open to students from across the city, with preference given to first-generation college students. There are no income requirements or fees.
And the principal is clear: Although they’re taking on adult responsibilities in some ways, her students are still teenagers. Parkway has sports teams; its students will have a chance to attend proms.