Ashlee Upchurch, 16, a junior from Mount Airy, is studying cosmetology in high school while her classmate Chase Kelsey, 16, of Fairmount, is learning about business.
And Brian Ehly Jr., 18, a senior from Upper Darby, is getting hands-on experience in the building trades and using his expertise in carpentry at a paid co-op position at a company that manages off-campus apartments near Penn.
All three are students at Mercy Career & Technical High School in North Philadelphia and are confident the knowledge and skills they are gaining at the Catholic school will launch them toward success.
"I knew [Mercy] would open up a lot of opportunities for me," said Ehly, who arrived at the school as a sophomore. "It was the greatest decision of my life because I no longer resent going to school. I enjoy what I do here. School is fun again."
Mercy is the only coeducational Catholic vocational high school in the country, offering training in six areas, including computer technology and culinary arts. But it has been flying largely under the radar since the Sisters of Mercy founded it in 1950.
"A lot of kids don't know about Mercy," said Kelsey, who plans to study international business in college after he graduates in 2018. "I think . . . the shops are going to give us a leg up in the workforce, and especially in college."
But Mercy has been putting up impressive stats for years: a 97 percent average daily attendance rate; a 99 percent graduation rate. And nearly all who earn diplomas leave with professional certifications or licenses.
In fact, nearly 100 percent of students in Mercy's nurse aide training program hold Pennsylvania Nurse Aide and CPR certificates when they graduate; 85 percent of cosmetology grads have state cosmetology licenses and are ready for immediate employment.
The school is so successful administrators say they cannot meet the demand of employers who want to provide paid work experience for seniors studying computer tech and business.
Officials hope a recent name change from Mercy Vocational High School to Mercy Career & Technical High School will convey the school's focus on 21st-century careers and raise the school's profile.
" 'Career & Technical' is a more modern name for us because our mission is to really help our students with careers we may not even know about yet," said Catherine Glatts, a former systems engineer at Lockheed Martin, who is vice principal for career and technical education.
"I think that the name change does better reflect the mission of the school," agreed George Matysik, a 1999 Mercy grad and trustee who serves as executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Parks Alliance.
"I'm someone who believes in the importance of a trade education," said Matysik, who parlayed his Mercy electrical training into an immediate job in the University of Pennsylvania's housekeeping department. As a Penn employee, Matysik was able to take classes for free. Ultimately, he earned a Penn degree in urban studies.
Sister Rosemary Herron, Mercy's president, said the school aims to equip students with the skills, work ethic, and foundation they need to be successful for life.
"What we say is our students take a nontraditional path to higher education," she said. "Sometimes they really want to begin their career right away, and then they see - which is what we've been telling them - that they need to continue, to be lifelong learners."
Mercy's 328 students mostly come from the city.
As a Catholic school, Mercy offers a faith-based education that includes theology classes and extensive community-service opportunities. Nearly 60 percent of students are not Catholic.
About half the students attended Catholic elementary schools; the others come from public and charter schools.
The student body is 57 percent African American, 20 percent white, and 17 percent Hispanic.
"We are a microcosm of the city," Herron said.
Thanks to benefactors, support from the Sisters of Mercy, and others, the school actually spends $12,500 to educate each student and charges an annual $8,500 tuition. More than 90 percent of students receive financial aid.
"Most people would call our students 'at-risk,' which I guess they are," said Sister Susan Walsh, the principal. "But I like to say 'at-promise.' "
Prospective students take an entrance test. Those who are admitted spend their freshman year taking academic courses and learning about Mercy's career programs. They begin their chosen shop classes as sophomores.
While Philadelphia and other districts operate public career and technical schools that are free, Herron said parents select Mercy because they want a faith-based education and a safe school.
Students and parents say that Mercy's classes are small and teachers and staff are supportive.
"Because it's a small school, it's like your second home," said Upchurch, who is student body president.
"There's a really strong family vibe," Kelsey said.
Brenda Ehly said that as a result of the success her son Brian Jr. had achieved, his brothers Joe, 16, and Bradley, 14, followed him to Mercy.
"Sitting at a desk getting the academics is great," she said. "But as kids get older, they want to work. I think it's so important to be teaching them a skill."
She said Mercy helped with financial aid. "They work with families," she said.
Brian Ehly discovered his talents for finished carpentry at Mercy. But his building-trades classes exposed him to plumbing, electrical, and other fields, and he found another career he wants to pursue after he graduates in June.
"From the small amount of work I've done with boilers, water heaters, and gas lines, I like doing that," said Ehly, who hopes to study that field at the Williamson College of the Trades in Media.
He and his family credit Mercy. "The shop teachers are just so good with the kids," Brenda Ehly said. "I recommend the school to everybody."