This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Brittney White, a senior at Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts (Kensington CAPA), was deciding which high school to attend, she didn’t consider academic programs, college-going rates, extracurricular activities, or any of the other factors many students weigh when making their choice.
She chose Kensington CAPA because her sister had attended the school.
But within her first two years there, she realized that something she had overlooked in her search had become a critical part of her high school experience.
“Honestly, it was the extracurricular stuff that made me want to stay at my high school. If my school couldn’t offer anything for me to do besides just sitting in class all day, I think I would want to transfer,” White said.
White took up singing, began to dance on the Step Team, participated in drumline, and became active in the school’s Youth United for Change (YUC) chapter. She also explored the film club, student government, and drama.
For some students, access to extracurricular activities is the draw to one school over another. For some like White, it’s what ultimately motivates them to stay in school and ends up defining their high school experience.
Some high schools have built reputations for certain activities – for instance, Imhotep Institute Charter High School for strong sports teams, especially boys’ basketball, or Kensington CAPA for performing arts.
Other schools such as Masterman, with over 30 clubs and service organizations, have exceptional programs across the board.
Then there are high schools that fail to offer programs with any real substance, leaving students hungry for more than what’s offered inside the classroom.
High school guides at best provide limited detail about specific programs, and sometimes not everything on paper is real. Students and families who haven’t done their research in advance of applying can meet disappointment when the school year begins.
The District’s Imagine 2014 strategic plan commits the District to making sure that “all students have access to comprehensive enrichment, including arts, music, and athletic programs during the day, after school, during the summer, and on Saturdays.”
During a community briefing in July, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and Mayor Nutter presented an update on the plan, promising to offer a visual and performing arts program at every comprehensive high school.
The District has opened a Regional Talent Center for dance, arts, and music at Martin Luther King High School in March and plans to open another at Audenried in the fall.
Justin Carter, a 2010 West Philadelphia High School graduate, attests to the importance of extracurriculars. Carter started high school at Communications Tech but dropped out within two weeks because he felt the school offered him little.
“Not having the right extracurricular programs really weighs on students because they don’t have the ability to express themselves … to channel their energy into something that they enjoy and have an affinity for,” Carter said. “These programs can help you focus your energy so when you walk into a classroom, you’re not so restless,” he said.
Carter was home-schooled for two years before enrolling at West. He recalled that when he arrived, some of its programs seemed in disarray.
“The music program was in bad shape. Our music teacher retired, and they still hadn’t signed up a new one, and there were very few instruments, most of which were old and out of tune,” he said.
Carter said some other programs were outstanding, however. The school had just invested in new video equipment and also had a group of students active with the Urban Nutrition Initiative, an educational program that allows members to work on nutrition-related issues in the community alongside university students studying public health.
Carter found an outlet for his talents as a member of the school’s celebrated Hybrid X Team. The team’s car recently placed ahead of over 90 other submissions from university engineering programs and auto industry professionals in a $10 million contest to develop a 100-mile-per-gallon automobile.
Along with his experience with Hybrid X, which he credits as his reason for staying at West, Carter also played football and ran track his junior year and participated in the school’s chapter of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU). He said the support of his peers and mentors at PSU was the biggest key to his academic success.
“When my grandfather passed away, I was pretty upset and had trouble concentrating on school. PSU really helped me calm down and deal with how I felt so I could focus on my work and get my grades back to where they needed to be,” he said.
In Carter’s case, his activities helped improve his academics because his PSU peers would hold him accountable and provide emotional support. But striking a balance between academics and extracurriculars is not always easy.
White said even though afterschool activities kept her engaged, they also took so much time and energy that her grades began to suffer. Only when she became involved with YUC as a junior did she feel pressure to perform academically as part of her commitment to her extracurricular activities, renewing her focus on her schoolwork.
Andre Noble, dean of students at Imhotep and head coach of the school’s state champion boys’ basketball team, said, “Young people … sometimes need a commitment to an extracurricular activity to motivate them to take their academics more seriously. When used properly, these programs can help them bring their dreams into focus and understand how their goals in life are connected to their academic performance.”
This has been the case for David Appolon, a senior at Imhotep and the captain of the basketball team. Though a number of schools offered strong basketball programs, Appolon felt Imhotep provided him equally strong opportunities as a student and as an athlete.
Still, it was Noble who helped him bring the two together.
“Basketball makes me keep my grades up. It’s especially true here since Andre isn’t just the coach, he’s also the dean of students, so he always knows if we’re slacking off,” Appolon said.
At Imhotep, all players are required to go on college visits, many of which end up being schools they attend on athletic scholarships.
“I was always concerned about basketball, but now I also have to be concerned about academics if I want to keep playing. If I don’t stay on top of my work, I won’t be able to play. It’s that simple,” he said.