Kyle Werder will receive his diploma at Central High School's graduation at the Kimmel Center next week.
But he and 31 other seniors from Philadelphia public high schools already have marked another important milestone: completing a pioneering program developed by White-Williams Scholars that helped catapult them onto college campuses in three states.
"Little did I know that filling out that four-page application would help to change my life," said Werder, who is the oldest child of a North Philadelphia single mother and is heading to Harvard University.
He was in the first cadre of ninth graders who signed up in January 2007, when the venerable nonprofit announced College Connection, an intensive program designed to make sure that talented low-income students not only get to college but have the academic, social, and emotional skills they need to survive, excel, and graduate.
The program, which the teens call C2, "has helped us to broaden our minds to the idea that we can do whatever we set our minds to, no matter where we have come from or the issues we have had to face in our lives," Werder, 18, said during a recent celebration at Temple University.
All but five of the ninth graders who signed up for C2 with Werder made it through the rigorous program. They showed up three times a month for intensive English and math instruction, leadership development exercises, and sessions to hone their study skills. They mentored younger students, received individual college and career counseling, and survived up to four weeks each summer in dormitories on campuses acquiring independent-living and college-survival skills. They learned yoga and tips for reducing stress.
"It was a big-time commitment at first," said Angela Turner, 18, a senior at Franklin Learning Center who was raised by her grandmother in South Philadelphia.
"I committed because I knew what the benefits would be. The people you meet and the connections you make will last a lifetime," said Turner, who will attend Voorhees College, an historically black school in Denmark, S.C.
White-Williams Scholars traces its roots to 1800, when it was called the Magdalen Society. Every year it helps more than 1,000 high-achieving public school students from low-income families prepare for college. The nonprofit offers weekend enrichment activities, as well as academic support. Students, who must earn A's and B's, receive stipends to help cover expenses so they can focus on academics and not have to work part-time.
But a few years ago, White-Williams decided it needed to become more involved in the scholars' lives because many were not completing college.
"They were prepared to enter, but they did not have all the skills they needed to succeed," said Amy Holdsman, the program's executive director.
Only 24 percent of Philadelphia high school students who enter college graduate from four-year schools within six years, according to district data. That number is far below the national and state rates. Researchers have found that 53 percent of U.S. college students graduate within six years from the schools they entered as freshmen. In Pennsylvania, the graduation rate for students who entered four-year colleges in 2001 was 64 percent; in New Jersey, 57 percent.
With the financial support from Pew Charitable Trusts and others, White-Williams created College Connection and made it an option for students accepted into its scholars' program.
Karen Campbell, who was hired as a program director, helped develop C2 based on successful models, including the now-defunct Philadelphia Regional Introduction for Minorities to Engineering (PRIME).
"My goal has always been to replicate what I got when I was in that program," Campbell said. She credits PRIME with altering her life through its personalized attention, academic enrichment, and summers spent on college campuses.
"Somebody looked at me when I was in seventh grade and said: 'You know what? We think that girl is going to do something, and if given the opportunity, can go to college,' " said Campbell, a graduate of Carver High School for Engineering and Science and Temple. "It afforded me every opportunity I've had in my life."
The 32 seniors who completed College Connection came from 16 district high schools and are heading to 20 colleges, including Temple, Pennsylvania State University, Ursinus College, Moore College of Art, and Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Seniors and their relatives said the program was crucial to their success.
"They have been a godsend," said Maria Werder, who is sending her son to Harvard in the fall. "They really have been, because I have no clue. I never went to college. . . . It's exciting to me for him to take this big step."
Jenny Hua, 17, a Central senior from Southwest Philadelphia, plans to attend the University of the Sciences. "They have made such a difference in my life," she said.
Hua said C2 staffers were always there to support and encourage her when she felt discouraged. She could even count on Alisha Berry, the college and career adviser, to answer her 2 a.m. phone calls. "This helped me through," Hua said.
Arazi Pinhas, 17, who lives with his single mother in Fairmount, calls his experience with College Connection "life-changing."
Pinhas said he had difficulty adjusting to Central when he arrived from Israel in ninth grade. The culture was so different, and he was used to learning in Hebrew.
"I had a pretty tough time learning in English," said Pinhas, who will attend the University of Pennsylvania and likely major in physics. "C2 was always there. They had my back and supported me."
His grandmother, Vicki Krase, added: "It was a whole different world that opened up for these kids."
Even after the C2 students are in college, they will remain connected. At the celebration at Temple, Campbell and other White-Williams staffers said they will continue to provide help and will track their progress via social media.
Berry, the adviser, promised: "We are still going to be on this journey with you."