This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It’s more than 80 degrees outside, but Brandon Dixon, 17, is wearing a thick blue blazer and a polo shirt with the word "Girard" embroidered just above his heart.
The high school senior applied to 11 colleges, and he got into all of them, an impressive accomplishment.
"It was Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Kenyon, Middlebury, Duke and …"
He pauses for a few seconds. "I’m forgetting one … Dartmouth. I don’t think I said that one."
The accolades don’t stop there. "I got the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Millennium scholarship a couple of weeks ago, and that pays for your education all the way through to your doctorate level," Brandon said. "There’s no word to describe how great that is, because you’re set for the rest of your education."
Brandon doesn’t attend an exclusive private school, nor one of Philadelphia’s top-tier public school magnets. For the last seven years, he’s studied and lived at Girard College, a selective admission boarding school in North Philadelphia.
The K-12 boarding school began in 1848 with an endowment from wealthy Philadelphian Stephen Girard and a mandate to educate poor orphans and children of single parents. At first, the school served only white boys, but after a desegregation battle in the 1960s, its student body now has slightly more girls than boys and is primarily black and Latino.
Today, its 259 students can get an education and live at the school for free, thanks to a "uniquely private/public structure," said communications director Polly Mitchell.
Boarding school bonds of friendship
Brandon resides at the school five days a week, going home to his mom in North Philadelphia on the weekends. Although every student has to test into the school and meet the low-income and single or no parent requirements, he said he is somewhat of an outlier in his upbringing.
"A lot of my friends have been in West Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, the harder areas of the city," said Brandon. "Some of them have seen some of their family members shot or in jail. And I’ve never had that experience."
Students live in dormitories on the school’s lush 43-acre campus, which stretches across Girard Avenue between Corinthian Avenue and 25th Street. A stone wall encircles the school’s Greek Revival- style buildings, a grand contrast to the typical Philadelphia rowhomes just beyond the gates.
Living at school means students form deep bonds with their teachers and resident advisers, Brandon said. One teacher, Upper School science teacher Scott Sowers, taught him a lesson that he spun into college application gold.
"The essay that I wrote for my Common App essay was about how my physics teacher gave me a Rubik’s cube in 9th grade, and he intentionally turned it so it was unsolvable," said Brandon. Sowers had taken off one of the "cubits," the small squares that make up the iconic Rubik’s cube grid, and put it back in a different position.