Robin Bennett is giving up sleeping in her own bed so that she can help mentor students from some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods during a week long immersion program that exposes them to college campus life and encourages them to pursue teaching careers.
Often, students will hold onto preconceived notions that can keep them from thinking about college seriously, and their ideas about college as a “toga party,” or being too “far away,” or beyond their reach, can be challenged, said Bennett, a former elementary school teacher in Philadelphia.
“Once they get on campus, they see it as a tangible goal,” she said.
The “Jump Start” program provides room and board at West Chester University and Cheyney University for dozens of promising high school students who are staying on campus around the clock through Friday. They were issued iPad tablets and chargers, and have been engaged in a full day schedule from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. since their arrival on Sunday.
The students are learning techniques for preparing for the SAT college-entrance exam as well as etiquette and time management skills. “They have to learn how to interact with one another and with adults,” Bennett said, “and that’s kind of tough for them.”
It was also an accomplishment in another respect because the program brought students from four high schools — Samuel Fels, Overbrook, Germantown and Horace Howard Furness — to the same campus and under one roof.
Bennett, who grew up in University City, said Philadelphians are known for their intensely territorial nature, to the exclusion of others outside a particular neighborhood. The “Jump Start” program was an opportunity to break down some of those barriers, she said.
She remembers students arriving with their guard up, taking pride in their hometown roots.
“By the last day, they were walking around the quad with their backpacks and talking to their classmates. They looked like college students. It is better preparing them to work in the outside world,” Bennett said.
And that is part of her motivation for coordinating the program, now in its third and final year and funded by a federal GEARUP college-readiness grant. Bennett, who is coordinator of Philadelphia Initiatives for West Chester University’s College of Education, wrote the grant. She is striving to inspire others to teach as a way of giving back to their communities.
“I’m very interested in the future of students,” Bennett said. “Don’t you want to see more teachers who look like yourselves teaching students?”
Transitioning to college life isn’t easy for some students in Philadelphia and other urban areas such as Harrisburg and Reading. For some, there is a lack of encouragement from their parents to attend college or an absence of role models who have attended college. Financial costs can be an issue and access to health care, which is required in order to participate in the program.
Some students have turned down the chance to attend “Jump Start” program because they are working during the summer to help support their family, Bennett said.
Many of the participants have never ventured far from their neighborhood and don’t always receive encouragement from their parents to pursue a college degree or have role models who can inspire them.
Diemmer Melendez, 16, a rising senior at Samuel Fels High School, said the “Jump Start” program has only deepened his resolve to attend University of Miami and share his love for world events with students as a history teacher.
Initially, he found the prospect of attending college intimidating. He dwelled on the stress and anxiety of rigorous academic study. But his viewpoint changed.
“I’m not scared of college anymore and going out there and talking to people I do not know,” he said. “I’m more interested in college, in studying and furthering my education. More kids should have the opportunity to participate in a camp like this. It will change your mind completely about college.”
“It really opened my eyes,” said Yashley Perez, 17, an incoming senior at Fels High School who had previously only considered trade school.
She felt reluctant leaving her family for the week but has found friendly faces in a supportive environment that treats students as individuals. She said that personal touch is missing from her public school experience. Melendez agreed, saying that some teachers appear indifferent and make minimal effort to engage students.
The students are using iMovie software loaded onto the tablets to create digital stories that make reference to their favorite teacher and share their ideas about the positive qualities, attributes and contributions embodied in a successful teacher. They will hold a final meeting Friday to show and talk about their videos.
It wasn’t all work. Social activities included a night out to see an impersonation of Sojourner Truth in a one-woman show and a mixer allowed program participants from West Chester and Cheyney University to meet and mingle.
Layoffs for more than 3,800 employees in Philadelphia’s public school district, including teachers, has underscored their importance of their role in students’ lives, Melendez said.
“As long as you have someone to push you, you can accomplish anything,” he said.