Nearly $3 Million Awarded to Improve African-American Male Academic Achievement Though Innovative Hands-On Programs<

PHILADELPHIA, October 18, 2011—The College has been awarded $2.9 million in grants to enhance and expand innovative programs that are currently improving the educational outcomes of African-American males, a group with high college and high school dropout rates.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Predominantly Black Institutions (PBI) program recently awarded the College a multi-year grant of $600,000 for each of the next four years. PBI aims to strengthen the educational offerings of colleges and universities with an undergraduate enrollment that is at least 40 percent African-American. However, under a bill currently under consideration in the U.S. House, the PBI program may soon be eliminated.

The College also has received a $500,000 private grant from the Open Society Foundations, a worldwide group founded by investor and philanthropist George Soros. With this grant the College has created “Project Achieve,” a program that works with a diverse population of African-American males, including veterans and older adults returning to college, and engages their families as collaborators in their academic success.

Combined, these government and private grant awards totaling $2.9 million affirm the College’s efforts to increase the graduation rate of African-American males. Notice of the grants comes two years after the College received its first $600,000 PBI grant. The College used that grant in 2009 to establish the Center for Male Engagement, which has successfully worked with a small cohort of students and achieved exemplary results.

Of the 144 students who participated in the Center during its first year, 90 percent were still attending classes in 2010 — more than double the normal 41 percent fall semester-to-fall semester persistence rate for new African-American male students at the College. African-Americans comprise 53.2 percent of the College’s overall student population, and the College is the largest single point of entry into higher education for minorities in Pennsylvania.

Key to the Center’s success are full-time, professional support coaches hired by the College to create a community within a community on campus that specifically addresses the academic and personal concerns of African-American males. The students are encouraged to reach out to the support coaches for assistance throughout their time at the College.

The Center also provides academic support, life-skills workshops, cultural enrichment activities and financial assistance, as needed. “We expose them to ideas, experiences and environments they may not normally be exposed to,” dean of Students Ronald Jackson said.

One beneficiary of the Center’s intense hands-on approach is Aaron Johnson, 19, a graduate of West Philadelphia High School, who participated in 2010 in a summer enrichment educational program run by the Center.

The Center’s four-week summer enrichment program, which includes a four-day off-campus retreat, is an important factor in creating a sense of brotherhood among a group of young men from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods. Johnson was among 51 students who attended workshops and lectures last year designed to prepare them for the College experience. Many were the first in their families to attend college and had no idea what would be expected of them.

With the Center’s help, Johnson, who is studying Culinary Arts at the College, said he got through a rocky first year in which he admittedly goofed off and missed prerequisite classes that had nothing to do with cooking. “I came here to cook, not to sit in a classroom,” Johnson said of his original attitude. “I wanted to get into the kitchen.” But Center support coach Kevin Covington convinced the frustrated youth to take his classes more seriously and made sure that Johnson attended the Center’s weekly English and math tutoring sessions. Johnson soon got back on track. He is now earning A and B grades in the four courses he has this year.

In the future, dean of Students Jackson expects the Center will continue to exceed expectations. “We feel that the longer we can keep them here, the greater the likelihood they will achieve their academic goals,” Jackson said.

Given the success of the Center, the College also has high expectations for its new Project Achieve program. Samuel Hirsch, vice president for Student Affairs, said the design overlap between the two programs is intentional. “Think of Project Achieve as a subset of the Center for Male Engagement,” Hirsch said. “It is building our capacity to serve more students with an organized and focused strategy.”

Both the Center for Male Engagement and Project Achieve address a troubling issue for many African-American males: Asking strangers for help. Covington said asking for help goes against the grain for many African-American males, who tend to mistakenly interpret seeking help as a sign of weakness. “As African-American men, we have to first build that relationship and establish a level of trust before we can open up to talk,” Covington said.

A visit to the College sheds light on how the Center has succeeded in winning the students’ trust. Most days, there is a constant flow of students through the Center, which is located in a large room in the College’s Winnet Student Life Building.

On a recent day, some young men were seated at a table in the center of the room bent over books and writing pads, others worked at the three computers against the wall, and still others stood outside the office cubicles waiting to speak with one of the support coaches about a problem, or sometimes just to talk.

Culinary Arts student Johnson said he stops by the Center at least twice a day. “They are like father figures. You can go in there and talk to them about anything at any time,” he said.

Project Achieve also relies heavily on the support coach model. DeAndre Jones, one of two full-time support coaches with Project Achieve, said he identifies with the men he interacts with because he, like them, is a product of the School District of Philadelphia. “I look at this position not just as a support coach, but as a mentor,” Jones said. “They come and talk to me about what is going on in their personal lives beyond the classroom.”

In addition to the $2.9 million in private and federal grants, the College also recently was awarded a five-year Predominantly Black Institutions program “formula grant.” The grant amount for this year is $445,129 but it is expected to total more than $2 million over the entire five-year period. The formula grant will be used to plan, develop and implement programs to serve more low- and middle-income African-American students, as well as other underserved populations. It will be targeted to programs for ex-offenders, military veterans and women, in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).