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Q&A: Bi-Co Mentoring Program to partner with Philly School District

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The Philadelphia School District is in dire financial straits.  According to Reuters and NBC Philadelphia, this summer the District was forced to shut down 24 schools and lay off 3,000 employees, including more than 240 counselors.  A projected $304 million budget gap for the 2013-14 academic year has left students, families, teachers and staff wondering if school doors can remain open for the rest of the year, much less provide the adequate services required of modern educational facilities. Most of the District’s 56 high schools have no counselors whatsoever, and are thus unable to provide support for those thousands of students interested in applying for and attending college.

Now two Haverford seniors, and close friends, are combining their work experiences and interests to try and fill the district’s gap in college services.

Oscar Wang ‘14, an intern for the Philadelphia School District, and Ben Wohl ’14, who is interested in professional college counseling, teamed up this past summer to start a Bi-College organization called Mentor for Philly.  The goal of the project is to provide college counseling to Philadelphia high school students in the form of well-trained volunteers from both Haverford and Bryn Mawr campuses.

Twice a week, Bi-Co mentors will travel to Philadelphia schools to help high school seniors prepare and apply for the college application process. These weekly meetings will continue throughout the school year, and include helping students weigh financial aid options and decide if college is the right choice for them.

Two local high schools have already been selected for the Mentor for Philly program.

“We’ve talked with Parkway Center City, Parkway West, [both of] which are schools with a lot of students that are first-generation college [students]. We talked to the principals and they seemed very enthusiastic but we’re not confirmed yet,” said Wohl. “The district still needs to do a final sign-off, which will happen as soon as we know how many mentors we have.” 

Training begins in early October and the group hopes to be in schools by October 21st.

The Clerk reporter David Roza sat down with Wang and Wohl for an interview before their first information session last Thursday.

Roza:  How did you two decide to get started on this project?

Wang: I worked for the Philadelphia School District the past two years under the Chief Financial Officer and got a really good view into Philadelphia schools.  I had a conversation with my boss, the CFO, this summer, about ways that colleges could get more involved in the Philadelphia education scene, and the best way for college students to get involved is through the lens of college counseling.  Counseling is such an important profession in a lot of ways, and the idea I had when I started this was, ‘Could we put together a cadre of Philadelphia college students to help Philadelphia high school seniors with college applications in a year where there are no counselors in half the school district?’  That’s how this effort started, immediately Ben was the first person I shared it with…I actually I knocked on his girlfriend’s door at around midnight and said I wanted to talk to Ben about this idea that I had.

Wohl: There was a lot of energy right from the very beginning…

Wang: …and it’s just kind of taken off since then.

Wohl: This isn’t a new budget crisis and this isn’t a new idea.  Really it’s something that became very apparent over the summer when a majority of Philly school counselors were being laid off…This was the time [when] we could make a big impact.  [Oscar and I] had a really great conversation one night at midnight in front of a Philly row house and it really just increased from there.  Oscar has his experience with the district; a lot of connections and ways of cutting through the bureaucracy of Philly, as well as getting funding [for transportation] through Haverford and Bryn Mawr.  My background is that I’ve been interested in counseling for a while. I’ve been a counselor for the past four years, I’ve worked at several national associations of college counseling and this summer I worked with students of underrepresented backgrounds in Philadelphia.  For me this is actually an ideal opportunity for making a difference and giving back to students in Philly that I know need counseling.  We can’t replace what has been lost in Philly because that’s a big structural issue.  Counselors need to come back, but at the very least we can help students who otherwise might fall through the cracks in this time of transition.”

Roza: When you go out into Philly what are your goals, what do you consider a success?

Wohl: For a little context, we’re partnering with a non-profit called the National College Advisor Corps.  [They are] providing with us with a curriculum and training for our mentors.  Our focus will be on high school seniors who are interested in college but who don’t necessarily know the right steps.  Our idea of success is not everyone going to a four year school, not everyone going to a Haverford or Bryn Mawr, but rather students that are really aware of the process that have a mentor or an advisor, and for them to say at the end of a process, “Well, my counselor may not have even existed, it was a crazy time, I came into this with no knowledge, but by the end of it, I got into this school or that school and I know what my path is.”  So really in making sure that they are comfortable by the end of their high school experience in saying “Hey, I explored every opportunity of financial aid, I explored all of college.”  Ideally, everyone’s going to go to four-year schools but we’re working with a wide range of students and we want to make sure that whatever advice or mentors give it fits the student.  Good counseling is not about a specific outcome, it’s really about a great process of information exchange.

Wang: We’re not here to save the kids.  If there were not a financial crisis, would we be doing this?  The answer is yes or no, but would this be a good program to have even if there wasn’t a financial crisis?  The answer definitely is yes.  We want to provide support, and every kid across the entire country deserves support to get to where [they] want to go.  That’s what we want to do, is to provide support and provide mentoring and to also help them figure out who they are and where they want to go.

Wohl: What makes our program a little bit different is the fact that we’re stepping into schools that may have no tradition of this type of mentoring and advising.  One of the schools we’re working with had to share a counselor with seven other schools.  That’s insane.  The best ratio is 250 students per counselor. In the Philly school district there are now 2900 students per counselor.  For context, that’s Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and 300 other students per counselor. From a logistical perspective, that’s impossible.

Roza: How many mentors do you plan on training?

Wohl: (laughs) Tonight we’ll hopefully figure that out. We’ve definitely had a lot of interest in signing up.  We’ve been tabling in the Dining Center and at Bryn Mawr under Pembroke Arch.  The school district has made it very clear there’s a huge need but we want to make sure that we have a good group of very committed mentors that are able to come at least once a week into these schools.

Roza: How do you choose who gets mentored and who doesn’t?

Wohl: The way our mentoring program works is it’s a five-to-one system, so five students per mentor, and there’ll be two mentors working in a team.  That allows for some camaraderie, and a diversity of experiences between the two counselors.  We’re working with the principals of schools to find out who would benefit the most.

Again, we’re not trying to make sure that every student is forced into college, but rather what we’re trying to say is that the students who are interested that are prepared for college, this is a resource that they can use.  It’s not going to cover everyone, this is an emergency stop gap. The ultimate solution is for Pennsylvania, the state, to get more funding in Philadelphia.  There’s a huge funding crisis, and our program is only a band-aid.  Really the only way to fix the wound is more funding. There has to be a longer-term solution.

Read More:

The Notebookwhich covers Philadelphia Public Schools

Philly School Files, a blog


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