Coming up on the middle of his first semester in a program he knew could give him the future of his dreams, Andre Patterson had a big decision to make.
Since September, the West Philadelphia 18-year-old had worked diligently to shed his high school dropout status and put himself on a better path.
Yet old fears remained. Because of them, Andre was considering taking a hospital cleaning job and leaving the program to make his own way - some of the very same reasons he wanted so much to be in it.
And he wasn't the only one finding out the past was not so far behind.
One day two weeks before the midterm, English professor Nichole Webster looked over her classroom at Community College of Philadelphia and saw a broken circle.
"We're a little short today," she mused aloud.
That day, only 14 of the 20 seats were filled.
The week before, some of the students talked about pushing aside the chairs of the classmates who were straying or even giving up. Those chairs were a distraction they didn't want or need. They had called themselves the Twenty Degrees, but now they weren't so sure.
"It's easier for people to look down on their work and not participate," said Kandice Davies, a determined 19-year-old who had not missed a day.
Andre, Kandice and their classmates were students in Gateway to College, a scholarship program that gives a select group of high school dropouts the opportunity to earn diplomas and college credits at the same time.
For these students, the empty chairs were personal. They all had known failure. Many had tried to make a go of it at multiple high schools and programs. Some had even attended competitive magnet schools such as Central and Girls High. Many of them had been able students who lost their way in school, in life or in both.
"What the world needs to know is these are not stupid kids. These are not bad kids. They're not disposable," said Bryan Sieber, academic coordinator for the Twenty Degrees, one of two classes of 20 that started in Gateway last fall. "These kids have hopes and dreams, and they're intelligent. Given another start in life, who knows where they'd be right now? "
Part problem-solver, part cheerleader, part cop, Sieber was there to help them stay on track. A single man of 40 with spectacles and a soul patch of whiskers above his chin, Sieber referred to his students as "my kids. " Raised in Salem County in a family of educators and an engineer father, he started his career teaching low-achieving students down South. He loved it. Years later, he was just as passionate about his Gateway students.
The Twenty Degrees were supposed to meet with Sieber as a class each week, as well as one on one. If they cut class, he'd call, e-mail, try to get to them through their friends, even their MySpace pages.
But despite the best efforts of him and other staff, not to mention attempts by students to reach out to some of the missing, program leaders knew that about 70 percent would likely make it to the next semester.
Indeed, by the middle of that first semester, the body count was mounting.
Of the original 20, only 13 remained.
One student was arrested. Another took ill. One young man decided he wanted to try trade school. One young woman found out she was pregnant with her second child and needed to work. For some, family turmoil got in the way.
Those who were left were trying to juggle course work that was getting more and more taxing with the demands of their complicated lives. Most were poor. Some were skirting volatile family situations; what started out as support could be snuffed with one argument. Others had jobs they couldn't - or felt they couldn't - give up.
Breskie Malave, 16, a spirited girl from North Philadelphia, was still in Gateway at the midterm, but she was in trouble. She had been put on "success contract" - essentially academic probation. Among her problems, her $6-an-hour job at a hip-hop boutique on South Street was keeping her from getting the tutoring that Sieber told her she needed. Gateway students aren't told they can't work, but they may be asked to meet conditions to help ensure their success.
"My AC, he keeps telling I have to cut my hours. I can't do that," she complained. All the time, people came into the shop, asking for work. If she couldn't do the hours, she'd be replaced, she said.
At home, her mother told her to choose school over the job.
"I refuse to do that," Breskie said. "She's putting up a front, like everything is going to be cool if I quit, and I know it's not. I would be broke, and she would be putting off bills. This is my life I'm living, and I'm not going to be putting this on my mom. "
Breskie, who aspired to be a speech therapist, was having a hard time with her subjects. She conceded she had missed days and assignments. But at the midterm, she said she was trying to live up to her success contract. She met with Sieber and program director Brendon Comer. Her boss had cut her hours somewhat, which she didn't like, but, she noted, it gave her more time for schoolwork. She said she was trying.
One day, Breskie was summoned from class. She was gone a while. When she came back, she looked upset. She gathered up her belongings. Then she left the room.
Breskie was out, suspended from the program.
The Twenty Degrees were down to 12.
A teacher who's been there
One day around the middle of the semester, Nichole Webster was in her office, a room the size of small storage room that she shared with another professor. It didn't matter. She was at Community College of Philadelphia because she loved teaching these students.
"Because it could have been me," she said. "It certainly could have been me. "
An A student at Strawberry Mansion High School, Webster, now 33, had to take remedial courses in college. She had wanted to be a lawyer, but she became pregnant while in college. A single mother, she decided a career in education would be more conducive than law school to raising her son.
She was not shy about sharing her life experiences with her students.
In her nearly 10 years working with at-risk students, Webster had found that the kids who succeed aren't necessarily the most academically facile. Often, she said, they are the ones with lower skills but who try harder. Family support is crucial, she said, but so is that spark within.
"The ones who do make it have more drive and determination," Webster said. "They don't allow life to get in the way of achieving this goal. "
At the midterm, the remaining Twenty Degrees were all passing math and Freshman Orientation Seminar, a college-preparatory course. That, of course, could all change by the end of semester.
Even though Webster said this group was probably the strongest she had seen in Gateway, some students were failing one or more of her classes. One student, Rakeem Mason, could go either way - pass or fail, she said. Nevertheless, he was the student who impressed her most.
In the beginning of the semester, she said, he didn't work very hard. His demeanor was casual, even a bit removed. He'd fold his lanky frame behind a school desk and work his gum.
"The first thing I said to myself was I'm going to have to wring this one's neck because I don't know what's going on here," Webster recalled.
But then came the day she gave the class' first essay assignment back to the students. She told them that anyone who had gotten 13 points or fewer out of 20 should make an appointment to meet with her.
"He was the first one to come see me," she said. "And after that, he's just been building, building, building. "
Rakeem, 19, wasn't showy in class. But in his application essays, he had written about his "relentless attitude. " It took him three tries before Gateway accepted him.
Rakeem, who lived with his mother, a housekeeper, and a sister in South Philadelphia, wrote about turning away from friends who sought to tempt him back to hanging on street corners instead of studying. He told of wanting to be an engineer and a daily regimen he designed - waking at 5 a.m., reading, doing math from a workbook he bought, studying a dictionary. He wrote about not having a father in his life and of an uncle in prison who warned him where gangster ways would lead.
One day right before the midterm, Rakeem was standing on the steps outside CCP. Like a lot of days, he was early. He mentioned he was going to tutoring for English and math.
"I'm not worried. I know that I'm probably failing right now," he said, smiling ever so slightly. "But I won't be. "
Amelia Figueroa was failing English composition at the midterm, even though she had always liked writing and, she and her mother said, had tested into a gifted program in elementary school.
For Amelia, the problem wasn't lack of effort, Webster said. It was a matter of skills.
"Some of the English stuff I've never seen before," Amelia said. Comma splices? Say what? By the time she got to the eighth grade, she felt a lot of her teachers didn't care. "There are teachers who let kids sleep in class, and they'll still pass you anyway. "
The eighth grade was when, she said, she started hanging out with the wrong people. She got into fights. Her grades suffered. Nevertheless, the competitive Philadelphia Military Academy accepted her, but she ended up not liking it. She drifted to Edison High School, then Kensington.
Then she got pregnant and went on bed rest. She said that she had tried to sign up to have a teacher come to her home, but that no one had ever come. The district has a record of her pregnancy but not of a request for home instruction, a spokesman said.
The girl who thought about being a veterinarian and a reporter and a lawyer was a high school dropout.
"She had a lot of dreams since she was little," her mother, Brenda Cordero, said of the second youngest of her nine children. Outside their Kensington rowhouse, a car had RIP written on the rear window; a memorial to a fallen child was tied to a utility pole a few blocks away. Cordero, who said she had never completed her education and worked summers at city recreation centers, worried about her youngest son in the neighborhood. But she had hopes for Amelia, who many nights was still up at 2 or 3 doing homework.
"I think she'll make it," Cordero said. "She's real smart. "
Amelia said it was her baby, Isabella, who had made her want to go back to school. Her plan was to become a social worker, get a college degree like one of her older brothers. He earned his in prison. "He's helped me out a lot," she said.
Amelia was also working, taking orders and cooking at a pizzeria. She said she had turned down a department-store job because it would have conflicted with school. A young woman with a penchant for changing hairstyles and color - curly, straight, red, brown - she kept her avowed goal the same. But she had to bring up those English grades.
"I think I'm going to pass. I have confidence," she said, speaking for the future. "If I don't, it's just something else I'm going to work on next semester. "
A couple of weeks later, Webster, the professor, gave an assignment: Rewrite a part of the play A Raisin in the Sun. She did not give the class a long lead time.
When Amelia pulled out her paper, her fellow Twenty Degrees were amazed. She had done a whopping 22-pager. She had even made it a musical.
"I just got into it," she said later, smiling. "I couldn't stop. "
'We live around death'
Andre Patterson was in some ways a model student at Gateway. Going into the midterm, he hadn't missed a day. A thinker, he asked a lot of questions, something that had gotten him in trouble in the past. His Gateway professors didn't mind.
Andre spent a lot of time on campus, Sieber noticed. On the day of his Freshman Orientation Seminar midterm exam, he was there hours early, working with his study group.
"He works hard for his grades. He takes it seriously," Sieber said. "His professors love him. "
Every night, Andre said, he got out his clothes for the next day. He kept his hair neatly braided, and he kept on top of his allergy medication so he wouldn't miss school. His ambitions were many: filmmaking, photography, music production, his own business.
But even Andre couldn't ignore those empty chairs.
"That was me," he said. "I was the one missing school and stuff, always messing up. "
Andre's high school career was a checkered past in five different schools and programs, including two stints at University City High School. He spoke of fights, truancy, brushes with the law.
His parents broke up when he was little. He and his father were estranged. His mother, Cheryle, worked, sometimes more than one job, temping in offices, and his older brother looked after him, he said. The family moved a lot, and Andre said he always felt like the new kid. There was one place in North Philadelphia with noxious fumes and an electrical fire, Cheryle said. A house in Southwest Philadelphia had a flooding basement. At their current home, in West Philadelphia, there are problems with the electricity.
Andre said he had gotten used to disappointment - "not getting nothing for your birthday or the holidays coming around and you can't celebrate them because you can't afford to celebrate them. "
His mother was working on earning a college degree and hoped to find opportunities in human resources. Andre called her his inspiration, but he was acutely aware of the reality of the community around him.
"When you're living in poverty, any path you take in life it seems like you're not going to make it," Andre said. "That's why the violence is all like it is. People don't live for tomorrow. They live for today. "
So did he. But last spring, when he turned 18, he had an epiphany. All his life, he said, he had heard dire predictions about the life span of people like him.
"Black people at a young age, all we do is hear about death," he said. "We live around death, and to be told when you're young that you're probably not going to make it past the age of 18 or 21, that'll scare you. It scared me. And when I was 18, I thought I was about to die. "
He started looking for a way out. He thought about getting a general equivalency diploma. Then one day while riding the train, he saw an ad for Gateway to College.
Andre was making it. In fact, it seemed he could go all the way. That made the possibility he was contemplating - leaving the program - even more stunning.
He had applied for a cleaning job at Hahnemann University Hospital. It would be part time and, at $12 an hour, the most he had ever been paid. If he got it, he figured, he could work and go to school. But first he would have to go through five days of training. He'd miss a week of school. His adviser encouraged him to talk it out with his professors, but Andre wasn't sure what the program would allow. And he didn't feel he could turn down the job.
Andre very much wanted a place of his own. To him, that was the first step toward adulthood.
"I want to at least taste my dreams in life," he said. "I can get it in the future. I know that. But I just don't like waiting. What if I don't live that long? At least I want to know how it feels being an adult. "
But he didn't know yet if he had the job. He didn't know what the Gateway people would decide. For now, he still had school.
'Just give me a chance'
When Andre told his classmates that he might leave, they tried to persuade him to stay. Kandice was one of them. She knew what an opportunity like this meant.
Kandice had always dreamed of going to college. She was accepted at competitive Girls High. Central and Saul had wanted her, too. But the day after her eighth-grade graduation, her mother left the family.
Her first report card at Girls was A's. Her home, though, was in turmoil. Her father worked, sometimes multiple shifts as a carpet installer, so it fell to Kandice to look after the house and her younger siblings. It was a lot for someone so young. She left to live with a friend. She started skipping school. Her grades fell.
Her father brought her home. She was going to Frankford High School. But the peace didn't last. She moved out again. In 2004, she quit school. For a while, she worked in a pizza shop.
"It used to be so depressing working there, seeing all the schoolkids coming in. I'm 16, 17, working in a pizza store. I was like, 'I should be in school. ' "
At 17, she got pregnant. The father was Jason Torres, her boyfriend since she was 13. Kandice was happy. She wanted a baby to love. Marcel was born in October 2005.
In March 2007, the couple had their second child, Jordan. They were living with Jason's mother, Dora Egnak, in her house in Kensington - "a ghetto house," Egnak called it. Jason, also a dropout, was working as a laborer. The family talked about moving somewhere better, safer. While researching GED programs, three long years after quitting school, Kandice discovered Gateway.
The day Kandice took the Gateway reading test, the first hurdle to getting in, Jason was at her side. She was one of the few applicants that day who had brought a supporter.
"If you just give me a chance," she wrote in an application essay, "I would show you leadership, persistence, dedication, and I will strive hard to make sure you never regret your decision. "
So far, she had been as good as her word. But she still had to make it through the rest of the semester.
Semester's end draws near
As it turned out, so did Andre.
At Sieber's urging, Andre had been exploring missing a week of class. It looked as if it might all work out.
But then Andre said he had heard that if he got the job, he'd have to miss closer to two weeks.
It became like a conversation with himself. He was angry. He was disappointed. But it seemed like too much time away from school and too much to ask.
So Andre turned back to his classes and the work at hand. The disappointment, he swallowed.
He had the semester to close out, eight empty chairs and counting.