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E3 centers give students another shot at dreams

Philadelphia Youth Network runs the program, which adjusts instruction to each learner.

Darryl Murphy

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Darryl Murphy
Since he was in middle school, Marquan Frazier knew he wanted to be a real estate agent and help families find the perfect house for them.

When talking about selling dream homes, the shy, soft-spoken 18-year-old lights up as he paints a picture of what he would do for his clients.

“I can envision the backyard, this big yard, and you playing with your kids, having picnics and all that,” he said. “That’s cool. And I would love to show that to people and let them stay there. I would do everything in my power to make the price right [and make sure] that they have everything they need in the house.”

It’s clearly the career that Frazier would like to pursue. But before he starts the process of obtaining his real estate license, Frazier has set his sights on getting another credential – his GED.

Frazier dropped out when he was a freshman in high school. At the time, he was attending Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C. A native of Philadelphia, Frazier had moved there with his mother while his father served a one-year sentence in prison. As a 9th grader, he said, he was an average student in all of his classes except math. He failed that class and as a result was notified that he would have to repeat the grade.

Frustrated, Frazier never went back. Now, two years later, he’s re-engaged in school through Philadelphia Youth Network’s E3 program, an initiative that is helping at-risk and out-of-school youth get a second chance at education. Frazier is one of 507 students in the city enrolled in the E3 program operated by the nonprofit.

“Getting my education is important,” he said. “I don’t just think about me. I think about the future that lies ahead for me.”

Since 2005, PYN’s E3 program, which stands for education, employment, and empowerment, has helped nearly 1,000 people obtain their GEDs and move on to post-secondary education or employment. In addition to providing GED prep classes and testing, the program offers services in career planning, job readiness, literacy, college guidance and placement, and more.

Frazier is one math test away from receiving his GED, and he has also begun taking classes at Community College of Philadelphia.

Dena Stills-Todd, education coordinator at E3 West, said teachers and staff are proud of Frazier, and they hope he passes the final test so he can walk in the graduation ceremony.

“That’s why I never give up,” Frazier said. “Because you don’t know what lies ahead in the future.”

Power centers

PYN hosts the E3 program through four centers in the city called E3 power centers. The locations are:

  • Congreso de Latinos Unidos in North Philadelphia, E3 North.
  • The Bridge in West Philadelphia, E3 West.
  • Communities in Schools in Southwest Philadelphia, E3 Southwest.
  • JEVS Human Services in Center City, E3 Center City.

Selena Tucker, program director of E3 West, a subsidiary of the Public Health Management Corp. in West Philadelphia, said the goal of the center is to be a “one-stop shop” for students’ needs.

To be eligible for the program, students must be 16-21 years old. The program operates throughout the year in 12-week class modules that run on a rolling basis, so once a student is registered, they don’t have to wait until classes restart.

However, before setting foot in a classroom, students must take the Test for Adult Basic Education to gauge their academic ability. The test focuses on social studies, math, language arts, and science, and the results are separated into four categories according to grade level: first to fourth, 101; fifth to eighth, 201; ninth to 12th, 301; and post-secondary, 401.

Lesson plans for each subject are then devised according to the academic needs — as determined by the test — and the personal goals of each student, which they discuss with their assigned E3 adviser. Students’ progress in the program is measured by the test as well.

“We are really focused on meeting the needs of young people, and they are not homogeneous,” said Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, president and CEO of PYN.

For this reason, students can take as much time as they need to complete the program, even if they exceed the age of 21.

“The goal is not about time. The goal is about supporting [them] to reach [their] greatest potential,” said Fulmore-Townsend.

Funding for the E3 centers fluctuates from year to year.

For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, funding totaled $4.4 million, with $2.6 million coming from federal funding — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Social Innovation Fund — and $1.8 million coming from the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.

The amount of funding each center receives is determined by the types of services each center provides, but funders also take into consideration the center’s performance. That is measured by student progress while in the program and what happens when they leave, such as securing a job or entering college.

Making the grade

Academic expectations are pretty cut and dried in the E3 program, but PYN is careful to also consider the social and personal needs of the population that the E3 centers serve. Many students living in the centers’ neighborhoods have experienced severe trauma that may create obstacles for them throughout the program.

Tucker said that most of the students who sign up never finish the program. She estimated that they lose half to “the streets,” while the rest move away, have jobs or children, or just stop showing up.

“For some it’s not a job, it’s not a kid, it’s not moving. It’s just ‘I’d rather be here than there,’” she said.

PYN requires that students who attend classes consistently and test at a 301 level must increase their test scores by two points every six months. For those entering at 401 or above, on any part of the test, 50 percent must graduate before the end of the fiscal year.

Now, E3 West has nine students who have completed the program, and they are pushing for 12 to 15 by the end of June, said E3 West’s Stills-Todd.

“We empower them to uplift themselves and want more for themselves,” she said.

“This is the first part of your career path. You’re getting your education under your belt, and then you’re moving forward to obtain as much education as possible so you can be able to provide for you and your family.”

In order to pass the GED exam, a student must take four separate tests — math, social studies, science, and language arts, and score a total of 145 points on each.

Justin Newsome, 20, entered the program in February 2015 and has failed the GED exam five times. But this is nothing unusual, said Olga Ramos, assistant director of E3 West.

“You’re [cramming] four years of high school into one test,” said Ramos. “When you’re in high school, you can get passed along and it’s OK. But when you’re taking the GED exam, you either know it or you don’t.”

Newsome said that his difficulty in passing the test was a combination of self-doubt and personal issues at home. Stills-Todd said that socializing with classmates can also be a distraction.

“When I failed a test or two, I felt discouraged,” said Newsome, formerly a student of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, an online school. “And it bothered me, because there were times I really felt I was really prepared and ready for the test and then I was one point away or three points away, etc.”

But with faith and support from the staff and teachers, said Newsome, he finally passed the exam in March. When he got the news from his math teacher, Nancy Campbell, he said that he was “speechless and surprised.”

Now, Newsome is set to attend Community College of Philadelphia in the fall, where he will have access to college assistance, financial aid, grants, etc, and two complimentary three-credit courses to ease his transition into college. This is made possible through a partnership that the E3 centers have with CCP, which guarantees admission to students who have completed the program.

Harcum College is also an E3 partner that offers guaranteed admission for students interested in early childhood education and human services, but it doesn’t offer free classes.

After completing two years at CCP, Newsome said he wants to transfer to Temple University to study journalism and/or media.

“I’m thrilled, excited, and scared that I’ll be graduating,” said Newsome.

In addition to his academic achievement, Newsome, who is gay and was very shy when he started in 2015, said the support and family connections he formed at E3 West helped him get comfortable with his identity.

And through E3’s employment component, Newsome secured an internship at the Attic, a nonprofit advocacy organization for LGBTQ youth, and also works as a custodian at E3 West.

“[The program] is very challenging and emotional," he said. “You learn to have patience for a lot of things. I’ve been open to so many experiences and opportunities here.”

Darryl Murphy is a reporter for the Notebook.

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