Nov. 28 was "A Piece of You Day" for the Gateway to College students. Kind of a grown-up version of show-and-tell, it was a chance to share something about themselves. No grades, no pressure, and that was a welcome thing.
The weeks since the midterm had come on fast and full. Papers due, presentations to prepare, and, not too far off, final exams. Now was the time to pull out the stops.
But there was the matter of those chairs. Empty chairs, reminders of their classmates who were already gone. Of the 20 who had begun the semester, only 12 remained.
Bryan Sieber, their academic coordinator, enthusiastic and kind, was working hard to shore up his Twenty Degrees, to keep them going. Some of them fretted that maybe they should change their class' name to reflect their diminished number.
"I told them, 'That number does not define you,' " Sieber said. " 'You're more than just a number. ' "
On "A Piece of You Day," the classroom at Community College of Philadelphia had an almost festive feeling.
Andre Patterson, pushing on toward the semester's end after thinking about leaving for a job, passed around photographs he had taken. They were good - professional quality, even.
Amelia Figueroa, an aspiring social worker, had planted the idea for a coming Gateway holiday food drive. On "A Piece of You Day," she proudly displayed swimming medals of youths she had coached.
Quevyn Smith, back in street clothes after release from his drug-rehab placement, flashed his deeply dimpled smile and won big applause for an original rap song about choosing school over the streets.
Rakeem Mason leaned his head against an arm. He was looking tired lately. His job loading trucks for UPS had him working until 2 a.m., and he was still keeping up with his schoolwork. That day, he held legal-pad pages, a letter his uncle had sent him from prison.
"He felt my dad left me and that was his loss," Rakeem said. "He gave me inspiration to keep moving and do better and not become a statistic in my neighborhood. "
Kandice Davies showed off pictures of her kids and her family. One was taken the day of her fifth-grade graduation. Her mom and dad were in it. Three years later, the day after Kandice's eighth-grade graduation, her mother left the family. In the fifth-grade picture, they looked happy.
When it was his turn, Tariq Beyah, 17, a student who had been struggling all semester, sort of shuffled to the front of the room, looking self-conscious, as he often did.
"You all had nice stuff," he said, shifting from one foot to the other, awkwardly running a hand over his buzz cut.
He had with him two pieces of paper. One was his second-grade report card, he explained; the other was from eighth grade. "There's a big difference," he said.
In the second grade, he won a principal's award; in the eighth grade, he was reading on a sixth-grade level and had a D in math.
He didn't say any more, just shrugged and, looking a bit embarrassed, started back to his seat.
"I know it's kind of boring," he apologized.
The room was silent for what seemed like a long moment. Then came the assurances.
Every single one of the others knew exactly what he meant.
Sieber had worked hard with Tariq, trying to help him get organized, feel successful.
Over the semester, Sieber found grant money to help one student take some pressure off her family. For another, he secured an emergency placement at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youths, that fortunately was not needed. The Gateway staff did a lot to try to remove the stumbling blocks to their students' success.
Tariq's were within himself.
He felt he disappointed people. When he stopped going to South Philadelphia High School because he believed some youths were out to jump him, he didn't want to tell his mother. His grandmother caught him at home.
Tariq forgot things. He got nervous, down on himself.
One day in the weeks after the midterm, he misplaced the tutoring log he was supposed to show Sieber. It wasn't the first time. Tariq said he couldn't face the man who had already given him so many chances, so he sent him an e-mail saying that he was sorry, that he couldn't do it anymore. Then he fled the campus.
Sieber got in touch with Tariq's mother, a child-welfare worker, and she found him at home. She got him to return to the CCP campus that day. Tariq, who wanted to go into nursing, was touched by his adviser's efforts.
"He didn't have to do that," Tariq said.
With just a few weeks left in the semester, Tariq knew his grades were borderline. But even if he failed some classes, he wouldn't necessarily be put out of the program. He might have to repeat what he had failed. Sieber and the other Gateway staff knew how much Tariq had tried. But he had to stick with it to the end.
Happy family at home
Two happy little boys laughed and played near a Christmas tree in a Kensington living room. With them were their mother Kandice and the man she called her husband, her longtime boyfriend, Jason Torres, 23. Jason looked a little tired. At first, his mother was going to look after the boys while Kandice was at school. But for the last few months, he had been doing it. Family friends helped, too.
Jason switched from being a laborer to an overnight security job. He usually got his sleep when Kandice came home from school.
"I'm good with five hours of sleep," he said. "I don't need no more than that. "
His father had been in prison most of Jason's life.
"I love this. This is awesome," Jason said. "I didn't have a pop when I was little. I feel like I'm really doing something. "
And he was happy to do it for Kandice.
"I can't wait till it's over and she's going to work in a suit and a briefcase. I know she wants to do stuff like that," he said. "She don't want to have a normal gig. "
Kandice wanted to be a social worker, a psychologist, maybe have her own business. Jason, she said, was always on her about her homework, her tests, her grades. He read her papers during down time at work.
Jason had dropped out of Mastbaum High School to make money. "I would have done everything different," he said. "I was on the football team. I could have gotten scholarships. "
When Kandice starts working, he figured, he can go back to school. Maybe not for a degree, but to learn something he can do with his hands - "building houses or cars. Something I can stand back and say, 'I did that. ' That's fun to me. "
The couple had been talking about getting their own place, outside Kensington. Jason wanted to stay in Philly.
"I'm going to change that," Kandice said, laughing. "Trust me. "
So many hopes, so many plans. But first Kandice had to make it through.
Dec. 6 was the Twenty Degrees' last English class before finals. Professor Nichole Webster brought in turkey sandwiches and chips. Kind of a party before the students gave their end-of-semester presentations. They had to discuss what they had learned and how they planned to keep improving. They also had to hand in a portfolio that included all of the work they had done for the class.
Rakeem said he'd advise new students to seek guidance - "otherwise, you'll be lost. "
Andre said his goal had been writing with more clarity for "my audience," but admitted he could have studied more.
Tariq talked about what he had learned, but when he sat down, he was distracted. He was looking through his papers, searching. Something was amiss. At one point, he left the room for a while.
When everyone was done, Webster congratulated her students for their efforts that semester, both for themselves and for one another. She talked to the Twenty Degrees about their now being the Lucky Twelve.
"Always be ready," she told them. "Always be prepared. Always finish strong. "
Class over, the students dispersed. Tariq, though, wore a look of defeat.
He had come to campus early that day to finish the portfolio assignment; he had fallen asleep doing it the night before. He thought he had all of his old papers with him, but when he got to class, he realized a folder was missing.
"That's why I left," he said. "I had to leave. I was running to the library, the computer room, running back. " But the papers were nowhere to be found.
Despite strong suggestions to the contrary, Tariq was convinced this meant he would fail the English class, and, although the students had been told that no one grade determined their future in the program, he said he believed that if he failed the writing class, he would get failing grades for other classes and be put out. He knew he should go see his adviser, but he was reluctant.
"Bryan's a real nice guy, but this one, he's going to be, 'Tariq, this time, I can't do nothing about this,' " he said. "This one is my fault. "
Still, in a few moments, Tariq was outside the closed door of the Gateway office. People were visible inside. There was still time.
Another chair is empty
At the end of the next week, the Twenty Degrees were in class for their final presentations for the Freshman Orientation Seminar. Better known as FOS, the class, led by Fred Dukes III, another native Philadelphian and a Benjamin Franklin High School graduate, got them thinking about goals, how to attain them, study skills, self-knowledge. Dukes, 47, a counselor and an associate professor who coaches Little League football and high school basketball, had challenged his Gateway students again and again not just to think about their diploma or an associate degree. Think about graduate studies, he told them.
The presentations, indeed, would prove stirring, inspirational. They were also a big part of the grade.
But by the time class started, only 11 of the Twenty Degrees were there. Tariq was not. He wasn't at the writing final earlier in the week or the math final.
"Maybe he was afraid he was going to fail," Kandice said.
The next Monday morning, the day before the reading final, their last exam, Tariq was in the Gateway office with his mother, returning his books.
He had never gone in to see Sieber after class that day. If he had, he now understood, the Gateway staff would have worked with him, but it was too late. The plan now, he said, was to go into an education program to improve his skills and reapply to Gateway for the summer. As he had many times before, Tariq looked embarrassed.
The name Lucky Twelve no longer applied. The story still untold was what would become of the Final Eleven.
Tackling dropout rate
The experience of the Twenty Degrees and the Community College of Philadelphia staff and faculty who tried to help them through their first semester only underscores how difficult it is to turn lives around - and what a massive goal Mayor Nutter has set in vowing to halve the city's dropout rate.
Despite careful screening, resources and much support, many of these young people did not make it to even to their second semester. Gateway officials note that some of them may well reenter the program, and others, including applicants who were turned down, may reconnect with their education through other programs, including ones referred to them by Gateway staff.
The Philadelphia School District and other concerned parties are working to increase those programs and options. Next month, the school district, in partnership with the city, plans to open its first Reengagement Center at its North Broad Street offices to make it easier for students to resume their education. At Gateway, increased district funding will allow the hiring of a social worker, said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, director of the school district's Multiple Pathways to Graduation.
In the bigger picture, however, the needs still far outstrip the options. Since a study by Johns Hopkins University researchers detailing the city's dropout problem came out less than two years ago, the district has increased its dropout-program slots from 2,215 to 3,150 citywide, not including slots for earning general equivalency diplomas. All of those dropout slots are full, Collins-Shapiro said, and there is a 900-person waiting list of older teenagers with few credits. The goal is 5,000 slots by 2010.
But to achieve that would take about $50 million a year, compared with the $13 million the district now spends, Collins-Shapiro said.
"The money," she said, "is a big problem. "
And even with those 5,000 slots, there would still be need. Philadelphia has more than 30,000 dropouts, according to the Johns Hopkins study. And that tally includes only students from the Classes of 2000 to 2005.
Viewed in that light, the numbers are staggering, the problems seemingly insurmountable.
But they can also be looked at another way: trying to change the future one life at a time.
Anticipation for big news
Three days before Christmas, the Gateway grades were due to be posted online by noon. Kandice was downstairs, booting up the computer. Her son Jordan was nearby in his playpen. Overhead, floorboards creaked with the sounds of a house coming to life.
Just a few months before, Kandice was crying in a CCP hallway, fearful of being kicked out of the program before she had begun. This day, she felt confident. She had every reason to expect to do well. Still, when the grades came up on the screen, she grinned, looking younger than she had all semester.
She had a B in Freshman Orientation Seminar, and she passed her other courses. Later, she would learn she had earned a B in writing and even better - A's - in literature and math.
"Hey," Jason said. "You pass? "
"Yeah," Kandice said, smiling. "I passed. "
Many lost, more on track
Of the 40 students who started their first Gateway to College semester at CCP in the fall, 24 made it through, including Kandice. That meant 24 young people with a shot at a high school diploma, a college degree, and a life of promise. Eleven of them were in the Twenty Degrees. Of the 11, two had to repeat one or more classes. In Top Klass, the morning session, 13 students made it through. Three had to repeat classes.
Rakeem Mason, one of the Twenty Degrees and a student failing at midterm, aced math, passed English, and landed a B in Freshman Orientation Seminar. In the spring semester, he was back loading trucks for UPS with an earlier quitting time and going to school.
Jonna Castagno, the avowed party girl, proved to be a good friend to her fellow students and an able student. She passed all her first semester courses, including an A in FOS. She completed her second semester and planned to take summer session classes.
Quevyn Smith's writing earned him a B. He passed literature, and in math and FOS, he got A's. "I don't see no stop signs in front of me," he had told the class during his FOS presentation. "Everything's flowing. "
Near the end of his second semester, he thought he was passing all his courses. But he also had something else on his mind. "I'm going to have a child," he said.
Andre Patterson's determination earned him respectable B's in math and FOS and helped him pass his English classes. He heard back from people at Hahnemann University Hospital about a part-time cleaning job he had applied for. They wanted him. They let him do his training during his winter break. He was going to work and school - just what he wanted.
By the end of March, however, it had all come unraveled. After a bad day, he lost his job, and after missing too many classes, he withdrew from Gateway.
"I had a nervous breakdown," Andre said. "It was too much of everything. "
Andre is getting medical help. He hopes to return to Gateway.
"I'm not a quitter," he said.
Amelia Figueroa had tried hard, but her semester didn't end as she had hoped. Her alarm didn't go off, she said. That was how she missed her reading final. Then she learned she had failed math and writing, too. She was worried that Gateway would kick her out, but Sieber told her that she could remain. She would have to repeat the courses and get tutoring. The program's staff felt she had made a sincere effort, had complied with most program requirements, and could be successful. The staff has that kind of discretion, to keep students enrolled if they show promise.
Then she got sick. Amelia said kidney infections had put her in the hospital for two weeks. She hopes to get back in school to try again.
"I'm not worried," she said. "I'm ready. "
In February, Tariq Beyah started at Job Corps. His mother got him signed up, he said. He was hoping to get his GED and become an emergency medical technician. The opportunity he had at Gateway was better, he said, but "I'm in this, so I might as well finish it. "
That folder with his missing English papers turned up at home about a week later, he said. That day outside the Gateway office, he said, he had been too embarrassed to face his adviser, Sieber. "He did me so many favors," he said.
Tariq had one question of his own:
How many of his old classmates, he wanted to know, were still in Gateway?
Of the 24 students from the Twenty Degrees and Top Klass who started the second semester, 21 were expected to be eligible for the summer session. Today, they will be able to look up their grades online and see whether they made it.
Kandice, now 20, is pretty sure she did well. During the college's summer sessions, she expects to take algebra II, African American history, and English 102. She's eager. She loves the learning.
"It's exciting," she said.
Yesterday, at the request of Gateway staff, she spoke at a workshop for students on being a parent and being a Gateway student. She told them about trying times and wanting better for her kids.
She didn't tell them it was easy.
Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.