If you want to know what makes a difference in the lives of young people on their journey to adulthood, ask the young people. At Philadelphia Academies, Inc. we did just that, and here’s what they told us mattered to them: high expectations, real-world opportunities and skills, and positive relationships and bonds with adults and one another.
You can count them on one hand – three things that high school students cited as critical elements that have the most impact on their future – and they are exactly the things that we as adults can, and must, give them.
Philadelphia Academies, Inc. was founded more than 40 years ago by a group of adults who wanted to make a difference in their community. It started as a drop-out prevention program in one school. Today, the approach is known as the “career academy” model. Philadelphia Academies, Inc. supports the implementation of 23 programs in 13 Philadelphia public high schools, representing 10 industry areas, from Applied Electrical Science and Biotechnology to Communications and Environmental Science.
Our founders wisely chose the use of careers, industry and the real world as the vehicle to help young people connect to their futures and motivate them. They also recognized that our success as a community was directly related to our ability to master the art of organizing positive relationships and networks of caring adults around young people as they make the difficult transition to adulthood.
“The trick,” one of our founders, Charles Bowser, said, “is not to give them something, but to help them find themselves. If I gave them anything, it was a faith in their own potential.”
Since then, this Philadelphia-born model has been replicated across the country, with more than 2,500 high schools nationwide offering a career-linked curriculum aimed at changing life and economic options for young people.
Instrumental in the model, of course, is the involvement of adults. Philadelphia Academies, Inc. works with more than 400 partners and volunteers from the corporate, higher education and labor communities, who play a direct role in program development and delivery.
Some choose from among our menu of volunteer activities, such as serving as a guest instructor in a classroom or organizing a workplace site visit. Others support resume writing workshops and conduct mock job interviews. We developed a system for matching people to tasks that are directly supporting students and our database is used to organize these relationships and coordinate our work in the field. Volunteer orientation sessions, preparation and training are ongoing.
We also organized a group of CEO and executive level partners who view investments in education as investments in our workforce and our local economy. Philadelphia Academies, Inc. both initiated and manages the group – CEO Ambassadors for 21st Century Skills – providing a vehicle for industry stakeholders to have a voice in the instructional agenda in schools and the need for a sustained focus on 21st century skills development.
More adults will join us this fall when we partner with Pencil, an organization that pairs private sector leaders with public high school principals, providing a way for members of the business community to contribute and leverage their unique expertise and resources to meet school needs. Partnership projects, determined by school needs, might include: helping principals become more effective leaders; refining techniques for using technology in the classroom; and creating innovative, hands-on approaches for students to learn in new ways.
High expectations, real-world opportunities and skills, and positive relationships are at the root of each of these initiatives.
Here are a few ways Philadelphia Academies, Inc. works with adult volunteers to play meaningful roles in high schools. Perhaps you can use these as suggestions for ways to make a difference in your own community:
Site Tour Coordinator – Work with your local school to invite students to tour your company and interact with employees. Help students gain an understanding of the 21st century skills needed in the workplace.
Guest Instructor/Speaker – Arrange to visit a classroom to co-teach or speak on an industry issue or collaborate on a project.
Industry Coach – Provide professional development to teachers and principals on trends in your field of expertise.
Internship/Workplace Coach – Provide coaching, mentorship, feedback and support to student interns.
These are just some of the ways that we help build resiliency in our young people in Philadelphia. But the reality is that investment in youth begins with a conversation with them and ends in a real relationship.
Research tells us that resilient people exhibit three basic characteristics – they have goals for themselves, they believe that they have the power to shape their lives, and they have at least one positive adult in their lives guiding them and keeping them focused. So, even if you can’t commit to an internship or a school visit or reviewing a resume, everyone can make a difference by helping to build resiliency.
Remember the words of Charles Bowser: “If I gave them anything, it was a faith in their own potential.”
Lisa Nutter is the first lady of Philadelphia and the president of Philadelphia Academies, Inc.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.