About a week ago, our Senior Wall went up. Covering the entirety of one wall in the PLUS Center are the faces of each and every senior, with space for their accomplishments this year. Students came in all day, and the day after, most screeching when they saw their pictures. “Miss, why did you put that one up?” “I’ll find you a better picture, let me just go on Instagram!” and “That’s it, I’m tearing mine down,” were the most common reactions. I’m used to this. Every picture we take demands a re-do. Especially if we trick them into smiling. Even their senior pictures, for which they were proudly prepared and in perfect lighting, were met with collective horror when they saw the results.
Despite their self-conscious outcries, I know how excited they were to receive this tribute to themselves. (Just as they not-so-secretly loved showing us their senior pictures knowing we would quite sincerely ooh and ahh over each one.) I know they’ll be even more excited when they see their accomplishments, from completing their senior projects to receiving college acceptances, marked for everyone to see. So much of senior year for our students is about racing to the finish line that they don’t often stop to appreciate their accomplishments on the way.
As a Flight Fellow, one of the most satisfying aspects of my work is the chance I get to not only push students towards those achievements, but also to celebrate them. From the beginning of the year, I’ve read and reread personal essays, teasing out real and moving stories from students convinced they had nothing to share. I’ve seen those same essays elicit college acceptances and scholarships, and I've been the person yelling in joy when they show me their acceptance letters. I’ve seen students scramble to the PLUS Center in packs to tackle a giant project, labor over it with them for weeks, and been the only one to celebrate its completion (they’ve moved on to the next one at this point). Even smaller moments – an English concept clicking for the first time for an ESL student, finishing an outline for their senior project where before they hadn’t even known where to start, or hearing a speech for their English class get better and better – these are all moments I celebrate.
As the end of the school year rapidly approaches for our seniors, they feel the clock running out. In the beginning of the year they might have stopped to appreciate what they had done a second longer, but now they race past to the next big goal. As the Senior Wall becomes studded with achievements and reminders of their work, I hope they stop and admire themselves and each other a bit more. I know I will. Whether they stop to do so or not, I know their photos up on that wall will do more than give our seniors a pat on the back. The Senior Wall will remind me of what these students can and have accomplished. It will give a face back to the hours of work we do at Kensington. And most importantly, it will remind KHSA juniors, sophomores, and freshmen of the road ahead and, hopefully, inspire them to reach for their own goals.
“What is a PLUS Leader?”
Often I hear students ask this, wondering what exactly a “PLUS Leader” is and what is the process of becoming one. Well, according to our programming description, a PLUS Leader is someone who internalizes our core values of Believe, Act, and Inspire through workshops, college visits, and service projects. They join a community of leaders on campus to assist their peers in the pursuit of postsecondary education and help cultivate college-going culture within the school community. But honestly, it’s so much more than that.
I don’t think my words can fully illustrate the impact of the PLUS Leader program, or describe just how much I love watching my students grow as individuals and as leaders. So here are some words from some of my recently graduated PLUS Leaders:
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a PLUS Leader would have to be: Never doubting what you feel. Never fearing who you are, and being content with the decisions you make. What being a PLUS Leader means to me would be that I know myself, I can create an impact on others and their decisions, keep them from being the wrong ones. It means having the courage, the heart, and confidence to know I can help whoever it is that needs a push forward. I can help others and I should do so with no shame. I want to pass on what it is I’ve learned from being a PLUS Leader to younger and fresher minds. I want to have the opportunity to let future PLUS Leaders know that they should embrace who they are and they have the potential to do so much more than they see around them. I want to be the person that brings out the best in them.” - VO; 11th grade
“The biggest lesson I have learned as a PLUS Leader is that anybody can be a leader. A leader is just a person that shows its best effort at something. Not only is it effort but willingness to try new things. To grow as a person and show a good example. To be a PLUS Leader is a challenging thing but a possible goal. As a PLUS Leader you see what really needs help and what is the most important weakness in someone. As a PLUS Leader I was able to know how I can help everyone because most people don’t let other people help them. A leader is not always an outstanding person but a person that never gives up. Also, someone that can get back on track when they fall off. As a PLUS Leader I was able to help myself grow as a leader in general… I want to show other people how to embrace their leadership. I want to show them what helped me to become a better leader. Also, I would tell all the next PLUS Leaders that 12+ is a perfect place to help you grow as a student and leader.” – JZ; 10th grade
As we get ready to interview and accept a new cohort for the Spring semester, I find that I can’t quite contain my excitement. As I look over this semester’s applicants I see determined and passionate students that want to make a difference in our community. I’ve seen some of them soar towards the top of their classes. I’ve seen some of them overcome academic obstacles. I see some of them with a drive to help others. There’s so much untapped potential within these students, they have yet to realize it, and throughout the semester, I have the opportunity to watch them grow through working with them in our workshops and personally, through building relationships. Over a period of a semester, we’ll explore topics such as personal narratives, leadership styles, social issues, and service. In our time together, the students will be challenged to consider what it means to take these things and use them to impact the community around them. Having seen how much my PLUS Leaders have grown over the past few months, I can’t wait to know this new cohort of PLUS Leaders and see how they’ll impact our community here at Kensington Health Sciences.
This summer, 12+ welcomed six new talented individuals to the team through the 2014-2015 Fellows Initiative. These Fellows are commissioned to implement workshops, to provide academic assistance, and to serve our students in the PLUS Centers of our partner schools, Kensington Health Sciences Academy and Penn Treaty School. Here, we document their stories.
Dustin, a Philly native and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, comes to 12 PLUS with a background in education consulting and college advising and a love of ramen and Game of Thrones. Dustin shares his insights about his time at Penn Treaty School.
We started our 9th grade RAISE workshop with a simple question. “If you were to live the rest of your life wearing a t-shirt with one word on it, what would that word be?” Responses ranged from “ACDC” and “Eagles” to “weird” and “trust,”
But when we asked Atiya, a student who was new to the class, she responded with “Autism.”
The word hung in the air for a second before Andrea, our site director, evenly asked further, “Why autism?”
“Because that’s who I am. Everything about my life is centered around it.”
A short dialog around personal identity vs. labels, of awareness vs. prejudgment followed, but because of limited time, the conversation was left very much open ended. Nevertheless, the room, which had been rowdy a second before her response, became hushed and attentive and transformed into a safe space for students to open up. I felt the atmosphere in the room shift, and the workshop organically evolved into something more than I thought it could be.
Perhaps the greatest misconception that I had was that as an educator, I was the one approaching students. I felt assured that I was the one coming with the answers. I, of course, made sure to be cautious towards having a messiah complex but I still felt somewhat self-important. However, Atiya and other students continuously chip away at that misplaced confidence. They challenge me when I see that as I take one step forward, they are taking a hundred steps to meet me. I see Atiya, Brittany, Michael, and so many of the students break through a layer of fear, of secrets, of battered self-confidence every time they speak up.
When students come for help, for them it’s very much a struggle to approach me. Eye contact made during casual conversations over food and football wanders when discussing their futures. Heads are held down. The loudest of students start to mumble. Still they diligently come back and sit before me. In workshops, students give jokes as answers to our serious questions, questions that make these students far too vulnerable in front of friends. At other times, students respond bravely to lighter inquiries as Atiya did.
Daily, there are also quietly powerful moments at Penn Treaty and in the PLUS Center: the first time that 9th graders have the courage to walk into the PLUS Center, morning greetings and handshakes from the shyest of students, workshop homework filled with real answers, and intimate and consoling discussions about home situations and broken relationships between students and fellows all dropping their guards. The courage and character students show at Penn Treaty gives me goosebumps. Sometimes it leaves me confused. With complexes and hardships that I will never be able to understand, the students constantly encourage and challenge me with their vulnerability.
Although there is little time to meditate upon what has been learned daily, I know that my perspective is becoming clearer and my future a bit hazier. I’m learning so much about the individuals and culture here at 12+ and Penn Treaty but I’m wondering now about how I’ll be at the end of this fellowship. I know I will have an enduring hunger to tackle my own demons as these students do each day, to push myself out of my box and overcome fears, but there is still so much more to process. It’s only been a bit over a month since the fellows started school at Penn Treaty and Kensington Health Sciences, but when we come together to discuss our experiences – some sad, some encouraging, most hilarious and candid – I feel as though there is an unspoken agreement that we will not end this school year unchanged. Just for now though, I don’t think any of us has figured out in what way exactly.
-Dustin, 12+ FLIGHT Fellow
With another school year coming to a close, we cannot help but reflect on the indelible image of our seniors on graduation day marching across the stage to proudly accept their diplomas. That certificate, clutched tightly in their hands, encompasses so much more than the words incribed on it. It is a symbol of their indomitable spirit; it represents their refusal to allow their surroudings to interefere with their dreams. Take Yamaira for example, who grew up in a single parent household under difficult financial circumstances that forced her to frequenly move from home to home. In fact, she had to switch schools three times in the span of one year without warning, leaving her little choice than to pick up her things and quickly adjust to difficult, unfamiliar environments. In spite of all this, Yamaira graduated as valedictorian of her class, and in the Fall, she will begin her journey to become a physical therapist at Arcadia University.
The diplomas handed out on graduation -- while certainly beautiful keepsakes to cherish -- are more than just loosely wound pieces of parchment. Hidden within them are incredible, inspiring stories like Yamaira's, of students overcoming great adversity. Adversity certainly threw everything it had at them this past year. Students across Philadelphia returned from the summer to schools facing unprecedented budget cuts, leading to fewer teachers, less resources, and uncertain futures. Yet despite these obstacles, 12+ worked closely with the teachers and staff of our partner schools, who demonstrated an enduring commitment to educating and empowering our students. We are proud to announce that we have not just "gotten by" this year; we have lifted the level of student engagement and achievement to new heights.
We see this elevation all throughout our schools. We look to our graduating seniors at Penn Treaty -- PT's first ever senior class -- who will be attending universities ranging from Penn State to Temple. We look to our recent Achievement Day at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, when we honored our PLUS Leaders who demonstrated 12+'s core values of Believe, Act, and Inspire. There are exciting things happening here in Philadelphia and these are examples of just what is possible when we endeavor to make a difference, together.
To date, over 400 people all over the world have generously given to Project: FLIGHT to raise a staggering total of $34,093! With these donations, 12+ has served nearly 1000 students across schools in underserved communities in Philadelphia. We have funded scholarships and college visits, along with massive school-wide culture events and engaging after-school activities. We have supplied teams of dedicated 12+ Fellows to serve and address the daily individualized post-secondary, academic, and social needs of our students. We have helped improve the overall college enrollment rates at our partner schools from 11% to 75%. And finally, we have continued to build a positive culture within our partner schools that empowers each one of our students to fly.
We cannot thank you enough for all your support. Without you, none of this would be possible; and because of you, the diplomas our graduates will take to college will serve another purpose: to remind them that they are not alone in their journey.
Warm regards, The 12+ Team
It's hard to believe a year has passed since we first launched Project: FLIGHT--an entire year full of memories and victories and incredible success stories that you made possible with your donations. It's often difficult to truly capture the impact of your contributions, but allow us to try by offering you this news: 100% of all Project: FLIGHT scholarship recipients remain ON TRACK to receive a college degree!
One such recipient is Stephen, a recent high school graduate and 12+ alumni, who just completed his first semester as a freshman at Penn State. His enrollment alone would not have been possible without the scholarship that you helped provide, not to mention the powerful motivation he found through your steadfast belief in him. Like many students coming from the Philadelphia public school system, his initial transition to college was bumpy. Right from the beginnning, he found it challenging to keep up with the daily rigors of a college education, especially having to start so far behind. Despite this, Stephen refused to give up. He believed he deserved to be there. With the help of the team at 12+, who kept in contact with Stephen after graduation, he was encouraged to look forward, offered useful tips like taking advantage of office hours, and directed to resources available to him on campus such as the student tutoring center. By the end of the semester, Stephen's grades dramatically improved, and now, he feels more confident than ever about accomplishing his goal of becoming a pharmacist. As our new class of seniors anxiously await for their acceptance letters, we are reminded of the class preceding them, the one responsible for the launch of Project: FLIGHT. Whether it's Elise, who just finished her first semester with a 3.72 GPA, or Yalissa, who finally believes she's found her home at Millersville University, and of course, Stephen, our future pharmacist, the message of Project: FLIGHT has endured long after our students traded their high school graduation caps for college ones: All our students can really fly. Thank you for your support of our work at 12+. We hope you will continue to partner with us and help us create another year full of amazing stories of flight. Warmly,The 12+ Team
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