How do you get Philly teens to and through college?

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Khalesha Baldwin is the poster child in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where she grew up: the smart, motivated kid who got a scholarship to college after earning good grades at Central High.

But there were a few hitches when she got to Drexel University: she had no money for books, and she felt completely unprepared for the world of higher education.

“I’m not dumb, but there were things I just didn’t know,” said Baldwin. “I found myself so far behind, with academics and because of lack of resources.”

Baldwin got help and is now a successful junior at the school. But her case is emblematic of the struggles of many Philadelphians, and one reason why just one in four city residents holds a college degree, far fewer than in most other large U.S. cities.

To that end, college-bound students from five city high schools heard motivational speeches, learned from current college students, and asked questions at a Philadelphia Education Fund-sponsored “boot camp” at Community College of Philadelphia. One of the nonprofit’s chief goals is to help teens get to and through college.

Teens from Bartram, Furness, Kensington Creative and Performing Arts, Roxborough, and Olney Charter high schools soaked up real-world tips from Baldwin and others: immerse yourself in campus life to build a community. Ask for help from peers and professors. Make friends with teaching assistants. Get on top of assignments early. Seek out mentors.

Natalie Bell, a senior at Roxborough who’s choosing between Clark Atlanta, Morgan State, Penn State, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Lincoln University, wanted to absorb every bit of information she could.

“Going to college is like a miracle for me, but I’m scared,” said Bell, 17. “I live with foster parents, and I don’t even know how to take out a loan.”

Lanija Warren, a senior at Bartram, will be the first in her family to finish high school on time, and the first to attend college. Warren is planning on attending Community College of Philadelphia in the fall, and eventually transferring to Temple University. She’d like to study criminal justice, perhaps become a lawyer.

But the whole process feels daunting, she said.

“My essays and quizzes in high school are so different,” Warren said. “Everything is so much easier.”

Madeline Birkner, an Education Fund college-access program coordinator at Olney Charter High School, works closely with students to help them reach their higher-education goals. But even the high achievers have a great deal to overcome.

“They’re deeply underprepared,” said Birkner. “We tell them about the academic challenges, the social challenges, the financial challenges, but kids fall through the cracks.”

Davin Va is determined that won’t be him.

On Tuesday, Va collected a giant cardboard check that represented the $2,722 the Education Fund has awarded him. That amount is the gap between the scholarships the Furness High senior has received to attend Temple and the amount he is expected to contribute.

The “Last Dollar Scholarship” is one way the Education Fund helps students persist in college. Financial challenges, even relatively modest ones, often prevent city students from making it to college graduation.

For a long time, Va knew nothing about college other than he wanted to go, he said.

“I didn’t even know how to apply,” said Va.

With help from his college access center, Va now feels considerably more ready to succeed in higher education.

The same goes for Isaiah Woodard, a senior at Roxborough who’s headed to IUP and hopes to join a fraternity and the ROTC.

“I’m nervous – it’s going to be so different,” Woodard said, “but I’m also excited.”

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