Credit: Nemesis Mora
Heights Philadelphia Co-Presidents continue to work towards socioeconomic opportunities for low-income students and students of color. Photo: Nemesis Mora

Heights Philadelphia creates pathways towards Student Success

Heights Philadelphia shares Pew’s $3M grant plans and its 2023 Mayoral Policy Platform with four calls of action.


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Heights Philadelphia (Heights) continues to receive significant philanthropic gifts and support from organizations like Comcast NBCUniversal, Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, Hess Foundation, Hirtle, Callaghan & Co., Lenfest Foundation, Neubauer Family Foundation, and William Penn Foundation to provide access to academic and career opportunities to Black, Latino, and first-generation scholars through programming.

AL DÍA spoke with Sara L. Woods, Esq., and Sean E. Vereen, Ed.D., Co-presidents of Heights, to discuss The Pew Charitable Trusts’ $3M commitment to helping Philadelphia students reach college and career goals through a growth grant over five years, and Heights’ plans to grow its capacity from serving 3,000 students to serving more than 5,000 students in the Philadelphia community, to name a few.

$3M Commitment 

“Our students need to see that their college or career goals are not only possible – but that they are an attainable reality, and we are working to get them there,” said Woods. “We are so grateful to Pew for their commitment to our students. It’s with their help that we will continue to put students at the center, lift their voices, and expand our reach to serve more students.”

“The generosity from Pew is not just a gift. It’s an investment in our city’s future and tells our children that they are worthy,” added Vereen. “Philadelphia has been long plagued by a cycle of generational poverty, and we have the opportunity to make a change by focusing right here on our students. We can’t do this work alone. It’s with organizations like Pew that help us make a difference and create pathways towards student success.”

Heights connects Black, Brown, and first-generation Philadelphia youth with advising, enrichment opportunities, and the support needed to graduate high school and achieve postsecondary success. The $3M unrestricted grant will allow Heights to launch an evaluation of the program model, actualize a learning culture within the organization, and continue implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion plans across the organization. 

Sara shares that “Pew has allowed us to fund our data and evaluation team, which is new for both legacy organizations.” The funding has allowed Heights to hire a new VP of Data and Innovation, who Sara mentions will be responsible for “looking at our work through a data-focused lens. And having a learning culture means that we are testing, that we are learning, that we are experimenting so that we get it right and that we continue to get it right because things and conditions will evolve.” Heights will also use an external evaluator to help test the model. 

DEI efforts are the core of Heights' mission—the organization has an anti-racism committee as a standing committee of the board, which Sean references the merger from the legacy organizations, that “we want to embed and continue as a fundamental part of how we operate, both thinking about the strategic goals that we have, and part of that is also the populations that we are focused, in on the idea of putting our resources in schools;” particularly, using the work Heights is doing to leverage Philadelphians getting access to socioeconomic mobility through a college of workforce success. 

“Pew has deeply looked at their own organizational structure and how they are doing their grants, and part of their work is helping us be better,” Sara emphasized. “So we are grateful for that and look forward to engaging with the staff, particularly through their ECBI program, and how we can continue to actualize this goal.” 

Kristin Romens, Project Director of the Pew Fund for Health and Human Services said, “Heights Philadelphia helps students succeed in high school, college, and their careers. By increasing its reach and continuously improving its effectiveness, the organization will ensure that thousands of young people have access to opportunities while positively impacting Philadelphia; in the future. Pew is thrilled to support this important organization.”

Woods cites the epidemic of violence plaguing Philadelphia as one of the challenges affecting students' ability to concentrate on schoolwork. Equally important is “the poverty in the city,” explained Vereen. “We often talk about Philadelphia, the thing that we do not have as opposed to the things that we can collectively do to support students and families,” he adds that as an education organization, part of the merger is to create “pathways from education into economic opportunity.”  

The City of Philadelphia Office of the Controller reports as of today, there have been 125 homicides in 2023, an 11% decrease from 2022. Although there has been a decrease, it has not slowed the gun violence in the city. According to the School District of Philadelphia, 100 students have been shot, 20 of them killed since the school year began. Only two incidents occurred near schools, such as Roxborough High and Overbrook High. One incident occurred 1-1/2 blocks away from Blaine School, but the victims ran toward the school seeking safety.

Heights is seeking the engagement of their alums to provide the support and advocacy needed at the table—something Sara says is “critical to our success.”

2023 Mayoral Policy Platform

Heights announced on Monday the 2023 Mayoral Policy Platform calling for the next Mayor of Philadelphia to prioritize students with four key calls of action: expand student support systems in schools, create a school selection system focused on the opportunity for all, not some; embed career pathways in public schools, and bring back the Mayor’s College Scholarship Program for the city. 

“Our students matter. Votes for education and access matter,” said Woods. “We must show with our actions and with our investment that we love and care about young people. These young people are the future of our city, and we know that a city that creates the opportunity for them will be a city that creates an opportunity for all.”

The City of Philadelphia has a higher school dropout rate when compared to state and national averages—North Philadelphia has an employment rate of 43%, and 57% of those employed are working in “low-skilled” jobs.

“Philadelphia has been widely known as America’s poorest big city with a poverty rate of over 20 percent for the last half-century,” said Vereen. “We will change this narrative if we invest in our youth. This is about thinking bigger and doing better for our students. The next Mayor - the 100th Mayor of the City of Philadelphia - needs to ask all of us: will you put our students first to make a better city for all?”  

However, these “low-skill” jobs were imperative during the pandemic, which proved how indispensable these jobs were. The Atlantic argued that “describing American workers as low-skill also vaults over the discrimination that creates these ‘low-skill’ jobs and pushes certain workers to them,” like Black and Latino, immigrants, and low-income workers. It further argues the bias of what is considered a “good job” versus a “low-skilled” job—which devalues the work and justifies the wage gap these individuals face in-between professions while also ignoring that these workers may have skills but lack traditional training and, or the experience to perfect it. 

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Futures & Steppingstone Merger

Philadelphia Futures (Futures) and Steppingstone Scholars (Steppingstone) announced merged in December 2022, unveiling a new brand and name, Heights Philadelphia (Heights)—with an $11 million operating budget, 70 total staff members, and an endowment of $30 million. 

“Our responsibility now is to make sure the opportunities that we are creating, that the pathways are paved in concrete, not quicksand,” said Sara to AL DÍA. “We are excited to do that. And part of the reason is the merger—we know we can do that better together.” 

Vereen added, “We are building off the legacy of two really great organizations. So we have that momentum. And our goal is to try to make the most of the opportunity with our students and also try to press the institutions, businesses, and adults in the city to really be for our kids.”

To read more about the merger, please click here



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