This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Chris Felix wants to shatter the misconceptions about students in the Philadelphia School District.
"When somebody hears that I come from Northeast High School, they expect me to be failing half my classes, they expect my pants to be sagging below my behind," said Felix, 18. "But … when I walk down Market Street and I have a tie on, my shirt’s tucked in, pants are above the waist, belt on, I just know that I’m breaking through that stereotype."
For Felix, breaking stereotypes extends well beyond the world of fashion. As the son of a single mother who emigrated from Haiti, he’s out to prove that kids from Philadelphia’s neighborhood public schools can compete at the highest levels of post-secondary education.
His mother, who moved to America in search of a better life for her two sons, wouldn’t have it any other way.
"One thing that I will always remember that she told me, she said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a millionaire. I don’t care if you’re poor,’" he recalled, "’as long as you can finish high school and finish college, my life will be complete.’"
Felix is one of 43 in this year’s graduating class of students in the Philadelphia Futures Sponsor-A-Scholar program.
Futures works exclusively with District high school students who come from low-income households and hope to be in their family’s first generation to graduate college.
Students receive a $7,500 pledge of financial support from a local benefactor ($6,000 of which pays for college expenses such as books), a mentor to guide them through the struggles of their sometimes-harrowing personal lives, and a rigorous college preparatory program that demands their time after school, on weekends and through the summer.
In order to be selected as Futures scholars, students must have good grades and attendance in middle school and have the recommendation of a teacher or counselor. About 40 percent of those who apply are accepted into the program.
Felix, who characterized his mentor as "like a father," says the Futures program saved him from "slipping into a hole." During the School District’s ongoing financial crisis, he says, Futures often filled in the gaps created by years of austerity budgets.
Along the way, he’s grown confident that he can not only attain – but exceed – his mother’s dreams for him.
"I told myself, ‘OK, my mom is not going to pay a dime for me to go to college.’"
With single-minded focus, Felix became one of Northeast’s top students while working 25-plus hours a week at an afterschool job to help his mom pay the bills.
Felix’s story is a study in the physics of will and determination, where actions produce only equal and opposite reactions. To Isaac Newton’s delight, Felix will attend Lafayette College in the fall with a full scholarship.
Oasis of success
Against a backdrop of ongoing fiscal turmoil that has seen city classrooms stripped to the core, Philadelphia Futures has been an oasis of success for students who otherwise risked being lost in the perpetual shuffle.
Districtwide, just 64 percent of students who started 9th grade in 2009 earned a high school diploma in 2012-13. Past years’ records show that 67 percent of the District’s students end up graduating within six years.
Statewide, 86 percent of Pennsylvania’s class of 2012-13 graduated high school.
Of those who graduate high school in Philadelphia, including from charters, 54 percent of students enroll in college.
Of the Futures high school class of 2014, 100 percent are graduating high school and have been accepted to college.
North Philly’s Asazina Cooper will attend Dickinson College’s pre-med program in the fall and hopes to become a pediatrician.
She’s graduating from Bodine High School for International Affairs, a magnet that, due to budget cuts, didn’t have a guidance counselor for the first three months of the year.
Some of Cooper’s classes were so crowded that some students had to share desks.
Where the District’s resources lacked, Futures picked up many of the pieces. For college applications, Cooper received help from her mentor who works as a counselor at the University of the Arts.