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A Doorway Back

With the dropout problem in Philadelphia at crisis proportions, a chance-of-a-lifetime program offers 40 select students a shot at breaking the cycle of failure. But can they take advantage?

First of three parts.

Kandice Davies didn't plan on taking her baby to the first day of the program she hoped would change her life, but she had no choice.

Her boyfriend was already at his laborer's job, and his mother announced she had to be somewhere else. So Kandice, 19, stuffed baby bottles, diapers and wipes into a bag; strapped 5-month-old Jordan into his stroller; and rushed out from her Kensington rowhouse to meet her future.

A half-hour subway ride later, she walked into the Great Hall of Community College of Philadelphia. It was Aug. 31, orientation day for Gateway to College, a chance-of-a-lifetime scholarship program that would pay for a select group of high school dropouts, including Kandice, to earn a diploma and college credits at the same time.

The baby wasn't fussing, thank God. Kandice wanted to make a good impression. She noticed two women from the program giving out folders. She went to get one, but they gave her awkward looks. When they spoke, she couldn't believe her ears:

She couldn't have a baby there, they told her. They went to find a supervisor and a counselor.

Kandice waited in a chair and felt her face go hot. She feared a fate far more damning than just not being allowed to stay for that day's orientation. As she fought back tears, a single thought flared through her head:

Oh, my God, they're going to kick me out.

In fact, failure was the last thing the Gateway people wanted for Kandice or any of the others who had come to campus that day. These young people were some of the faces behind the numbers of the city's staggering dropout crisis. Starting with more than 700 applicants, the program's staff had spent much of the summer testing and talking to 336 prospective students to find the select 40 they believed could succeed despite past academic failures and, in some ways even more significant, the obstacles they faced beyond school.

Students on a mission

To be sure, Kandice wasn't the only student who brought her life to campus that first day. Every one of the 40 had, though perhaps in less obvious ways than carrying a baby.

There was Quevyn Smith, 18, who reported for class in the blue shirt of the Bridge, a residential drug-treatment facility he was placed in after an arrest. He was hoping to return home to his mom, a human-resources worker, and his younger brother and sister in West Philadelphia before the end of the semester.

There was Rakeem Mason, 19, a lanky kid from South Philly who had chosen street corners over school and came to regret it. During the summer, he had read library books and studied a dictionary to get ready.

There was Amelia Figueroa, 18, an eager student in elementary school who got pregnant in high school and dropped out. Becoming a mother made her want to come back.

There was Tariq Beyah, soon to turn 17, a nervous kid given to stuttering and self-doubt. And Breskie Malave, sassy, stylish and 16. She had a tiring commute by public transportation to a below-minimum-wage job after school at a South Street hip-hop clothing store.

There was Amanda Stamatakis, 19, the oldest in the class by a day. She told classmates that she had a husband and money problems at home.

There was Andre Patterson, a philosophical 18-year-old who wanted to be an artist and entrepreneur but, when he looked into his own face, feared he saw a death sentence. In the weeks to come, he would have a big decision to make.

Each was trying to break out of a cycle of failure that has become a too-common Philadelphia story: a dropout problem of epidemic proportions. According to a landmark 2006 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers, only about half of Philadelphia public-school ninth graders graduate in four years. More than 8,000 students drop out each year - enough to fill six city high schools.

On the day he was sworn in to office in January, Mayor Nutter said cutting the dropout rate in half and increasing the number of residents who attend college were among his top priorities.

And no wonder: A report issued with the Johns Hopkins research projected that the dropouts who leave the Philadelphia school system in any one year lose, over their lifetimes, more than $2 billion in income for themselves and cost society $500 million in tax revenue.

Dropouts, on average, have a life span six to nine years shorter than that of high school graduates, another study shows. They are less likely to be able to support a family and more likely to face unemployment and worse. Dropouts are 3 1/2 times more likely to be incarcerated than high school graduates, studies show.

But at Community College of Philadelphia on the morning of last summer's Gateway orientation, Kandice Davies wasn't thinking of all the reasons people would want to help her shed the label of dropout. As she wheeled her baby out of the auditorium and into a hallway, accompanied by program director Brendon Comer and Bryan Sieber, an academic coordinator, she feared the worst.

For all she knew, in a few moments time, she'd be heading back to a rowhouse with an overgrown lot next door and a memorial to a murdered young man down the block. And not just for that day. Forever.

Kandice couldn't help it. She started to cry.

Oh, my God . . .

Her tears caught Comer and Sieber off-guard. Quickly, they sought to reassure the upset young woman. Yes, she would have to leave the orientation that day, but Sieber, a former guidance counselor and teacher who played '40s jazz to relax his students during office visits, made it clear they were not kicking her out of the program. They wanted her back the next week for the first day of class. It would be OK, she was told.

But everything would not be OK.

Obstacles to overcome

Even as the Gateway staff sought to rally the students in those early days, one fact was left unspoken:

Based on Gateway's experience elsewhere, about 70 percent of these students would likely make it to the next semester. The rest would not.

Theirs were volatile, complicated lives, scarred by the shrapnel of a thousand different defeats, big and small. They carried within them the potential for their own undoing - the legacy of troubled families, dysfunctional schools, a flawed education, poverty and violence.

These students' second shot at a future came from none other than one of the richest men in America. Bill Gates, through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, joined with other major foundations and put up $13.3 million to bring Gateway, which began at Oregon's Portland Community College in 2000, to 20 other colleges around the country. The program has spread to 13 campuses, including Philadelphia in 2006. There are plans for seven others.

The Philadelphia School District is a partner with Gateway, paying $3,300 per student. The investment is part of a growing awareness that traditional high schools don't work for all students, and that all dropouts don't belong in the same program.

The availability of these alternatives, however, falls far short of the need. Since releasing the Johns Hopkins study on Oct. 19, 2006, Project U-Turn, a citywide anti-dropout effort, and the school district have worked aggressively to add program slots, raise money and improve policies, according to an update issued during the fall semester.

Despite that progress, the report contained one sobering counterpoint: Of 1,554 youths who called the project's hotline, open and suitable placements were found for only 158, hammering home again how intractable the problem is.

Nutter's education chief, Lori Shorr, said Gateway served a relatively small but significant part of the dropout population.

"It serves a segment of students we're very interested in making sure are successful," she said.

In ways, Gateway students are dropouts most likely to succeed. Just to be considered, they have to test at no worse than an eighth-grade reading level. Only about six in every 10 Philadelphia applicants manage to, which is below the program's national rate.

Philadelphia is arguably Gateway's most challenged site.

More of its applicants test at lower academic levels than Gateway students nationally. Of the students in Philadelphia who start the screening process, only 18 percent qualify for the program, compared with 58 percent nationally.

Gateway refers to other programs those who don't make it. Some may return after remedial work.

Philadelphia is also the only Gateway site requiring that its students have already dropped out of school, targeting the program to the most needy. But they are also students who may be more disengaged from the classroom.

And, in surveys, the Philadelphia Gateway students reported more dysfunction in their lives than Gateway students nationally, citing an unsafe environment nearly twice as much. They also reported nobody caring, family problems and homelessness more often.

Nevertheless, the students who applied for Gateway's fall semester at Community College of Philadelphia were put on notice of high expectations. They were expected to come to class every day, go to tutoring, and meet weekly with an academic coordinator. Students who in the past may have gotten passing grades just for showing up were told to anticipate up to four hours of homework a night.

But they were also promised support from dedicated staff. They might take between one and three years to earn a high school diploma in Gateway. Yet as they progressed, taking college classes that also counted as high school credit meant by the time they earned their diplomas, they could be well on their way to an associate degree.

First, though, they had to make it through that initial semester - what Gateway calls "the foundation semester. " They would take mostly remedial courses. The 40 who made it into the program were divided into two groups. The morning crew called itself Top Klass. The afternoon kids, Kandice's group, were the Twenty Degrees, named for the result they wished for themselves.

In September, 40 young Philadelphians set out to rechart the course of their future. Or at least, to try.

Intense introduction

It was the first week of the semester for the Twenty Degrees. Twenty faces - some eager, some a bit anxious, some wearing the mask of street inscrutability. But they were all high school dropouts, and they were all there.

That day was English class. Their professor was Nichole Webster, 33, a caring woman of almost feline grace who grew up in West and North Philadelphia and, like them, attended the city schools.

They probably wouldn't have guessed it then, but when Webster graduated from Strawberry Mansion High School and went to college, she had to take remedial courses. Her education had not prepared her.

As their professor, she made it clear that she would not accept makeup work, and that she would do everything she could to help them to learn. She told them she was preparing them for a work world that wasn't interested in their excuses, wouldn't cut them slack, and quite possibly did not expect much from them. But she did.

Coming into the program, a lot of students said they feared math. But English composition, with its labyrinths of essay structure and grammar, was to prove the real minefield.

That afternoon, Webster had her students search sentences for subjects, including sneaky ones merely implied, not visible on the page.

Kandice, her long, brown hair pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail, tentatively raised a hand to answer.

"You?" she guessed.

"Correct," Webster said. Kandice gazed down, allowing herself a quietly self-satisfied smile.

It had been three years since she had been in school. A strong student who always had wanted to go to college, Kandice saw her life dissolve into chaos after her mother left the family the summer before her freshman year. While her father worked, she had to help take care of her three younger siblings and the house. Her schoolwork slipped. She missed classes. Eventually she stopped going. But she wanted more, and that desire never died.

When she first read about Gateway online, Kandice cried. It sounded too good to be true. Now she was really here. And she meant to succeed, not only for herself but also for her sons, baby Jordan and toddler Marcel.

That day, the boys were being minded by their grandmother, the mother of Kandice's longtime boyfriend. They all lived together. At home, Kandice read to her sons often. She looked forward to the day she would sit at a kitchen table helping them with their homework when they started school. She wanted for them the support and stability that eluded her youth. But for now, there was English class.

On to prepositional phrases. Many stumbled.

"Not as simple as you thought," said Webster, not uncharitably.

At first literature seemed easier. Look for themselves in the characters? Give an opinion? No problem.

That day, they read Kate Chopin's 19th-century "The Story of an Hour. " A wife's shock at the news of her husband's death is replaced by the jolt of freedom. Taking his turn, Andre Patterson read the ending aloud with a rapper's cadence, his free hand keeping beat.

Breskie Malave wanted to know if women got to go to school back then.

"Yes. Some economic classes were allowed to go to school," Webster replied.

"White women," Breskie whispered, smirking, to a neighbor.

Amanda Stamatakis, who told classmates she was married, sympathized with the wife. "I come from a background where a lot of women were abused," she said. "You don't need to go to college. . . . You're not really valued. You're replaceable. "

Amelia Figueroa thought the wife would be better off: "She had a ball and chain on her foot," she said. "She was in lockdown in her own home. "

Some classmates giggled.

Time for the homework assignment. A few students made the mistake of starting to leave.

"In the future, class is not dismissed until I say it is," Webster said, firmly but not with anger. Some looked surprised.

"Some of you are packing up," Webster continued. "It's rude. People are still asking questions, and they can't hear over your hustle and bustle. Please don't let it happen again. "

In the weeks to come, Webster and her colleagues would warn the students that the work would get more demanding. Still, at first, some students felt relieved.

"It's pretty easy," Kandice said.

But by the third week, one chair was already empty. Amanda, who had spoken in class about women not being valued. Before she left, she told at least one classmate about financial stress.

Some students were troubled that she was gone, but they carried on.

The Thursday of that third week was a big day in Webster's class. The students were getting their first essays back, and they had their first reading test.

Waiting for class to start, Kandice read and reread a review sheet.

"There's nothing to memorize in that, Kandice," chided Jonna Castagno, 16, a self-described former wild child and one of the few from a middle-class background.

"I don't care," Kandice said, giggling. "I'm not taking no chances. "

Finally, Webster gave out the blue test booklets. Kandice started writing, methodically working a wad of gum. Tariq Beyah tapped his pencil, looking a bit lost. Amelia, writing away, shook her hand as if to relieve a cramp. Some students stopped writing only to see they had most of the test period left.

Tests collected, Webster handed out a new story to be read over the weekend.

"It's by a woman named Virginia Woolf," she said.

"This is a short story? " Amelia asked in disbelief.

"Be ready for questions," Webster told them. They also had a writing assignment, due Tuesday as well. Was there going to be a test? Kandice asked.

"You'll see Tuesday," Webster said.

"Oh, man," Kandice whined.

Then Webster handed out the graded essays. A lot of ink. She said anyone with 13 points or fewer out of 20 should make an appointment to meet with her.

"Read those comments closely so you understand what they mean," she said. "The purpose of this class is not to give you answers. It is to give you the resources to find your own answers. "

Kandice eagerly took her paper. But when she had it in hand, she looked it over once, then again, and slipped it under other papers on her desk. Her face was a closed book.

"What did you get? " Jonna asked her.

She slowly showed her the paper, but said nothing. Jonna asked Breskie the same.

"Thirteen. I was so close," Breskie said, with a playful pout.

Not Kandice. When class was over, she was one of the first in line.

Webster reminded her that only students with 13 or fewer had to make appointments.

"I got a 14. I want to see you," Kandice said.

Outside on Spring Garden Street, Kandice still hadn't calmed down.

"This is not all right. This is not all right," she repeated again and again. "I'm mad - mad at myself. I studied the wrong stuff. "

That and the essay grade. "If I got a 14, what's that? A C? "

Anything less was failure in Gateway. It didn't matter to her they were only her first grades.

"The semester is only until December," she said. "This is not all right. "

It had already started to dawn on them:

No, this wasn't going to be easy.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or