This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Quaymir Cephas knows he hasn’t lived up to his potential.
Without knowing that it matches the research findings on what student characteristics deter college completion, he rattles off his own story: mediocre grades, spotty class attendance, a tendency to get in trouble, failure to take full advantage of available supports. Those included his counselor and a College Success Center at University City High School that provided tutoring, mentoring, college trips, and a community of students with college aspirations.
Cephas, a reflective person, blames himself, not the school, which was going through a chaotic period and closed down entirely the year after he left.
“They did all the teaching that they could do,” he said. “The child has to decide what kind of person he grows up to be.”
Cephas never thought seriously about going to college until he had a conversation with a classmate who was going to Clark Atlanta University in Georgia.
“He was saying, ‘You’re crazy. Us both having the same grades, I know you can do just as good as I’m doing.’”
Cephas enrolled in Community College of Philadelphia right after graduation. He stayed only a semester, discouraged by where he was placed: in non-credit-bearing courses for students who need to catch up on their skills.
“I thought it was a waste of time. I was learning the same thing I was learning in high school,” he said.
He applied to Temple University and started there last summer in its “continuing studies” program for older students. He took two classes – again, basic math and writing. He took a year off, he said, while his girlfriend worked on completing her degree in communications. In the meantime, he has worked in several different jobs, including maintenance at Lincoln Financial Field.
Now, at 21, he feels he is letting himself and his friend down, not to mention his girlfriend and family.
He is determined to go back to Temple in the fall and start taking psychology courses. He wants to validate the faith of his friend.
“It would have been a letdown for him and myself, more so to him, watching me fade away, as much potential as he saw in me. I gotta do this, not just for me, but for other people around me, people who actually believed in my … trying to do it.”
Shuttled among foster homes, Chalisha Clemens spent her childhood bouncing from neighborhood to neighborhood and school to school. Student mobility is one factor that works against students seeking to complete college. And a recent national report found that only 2 percent of foster children attain a degree by age 25.
She attended three middle schools, including a charter, and three high schools, including a cyber school. That ended when a family member took her school-issued computer and sold it.
Drifting, she spied an ad on a bus one day for YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School, a school for 18- to 21-year-olds who need a few credits to graduate. They spend a year, earning a diploma and a trade. She was 20.
“I thought, I’m getting too old not to be in school. I didn’t think they’d accept me because of my age. I’m not sure why I got accepted, but I did.”
There, she latched onto a supportive community and received her diploma in August 2015. She has been attending Community College of Philadelphia part-time, mostly remedial courses, but said she passed out of them and will be taking credit-bearing courses in the fall – all while working in Target and caring for her elderly grandmother. She has been accepted by Temple University’s dual enrollment program as she pursues a bachelor of arts degree in early childhood education.
YouthBuild saved her, Clemens said. “They really fight for their students; it’s more of a family environment,” she said. “They want you to grow as individuals. They want you to be better. They help you find clothes, meals. It’s really a family support system.” People at YouthBuild still track her progress and serve as mentors.
Clemens said that young people deserve a second chance. “A child doesn’t have control over their past, but once they are a certain age, they have every right to change their life around.”
Will she achieve her goals?
“I try every day.”