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Sayre High School CACR After-School Program

At 1:15 p.m., about 30 tenth-graders cluster around a classroom in small groups in William L. Sayre High School. Their eyes are glued to the Penn undergraduates talking to them about the peripheral nervous system.

These students are all part of Penn’s Neuroscience Pipeline Program, a “multi-tiered mentorship program.” Through the program, Penn pre-medical students, medical students and residents teach in local high-school classrooms, according to Roy Hamilton, a Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania physician who serves as director of the Neuroscience Pipeline Program.

Penn support for West Phila. high schools

Since its inception in 1998, the Pipeline Program has brought members of the Penn community into Sayre, as well as into two other West Philadelphia high schools.

The personal attention the initiative offers to high-school students is one of its greatest advantages, said College senior Alaina Pirraglia, who coordinated the program for two years.

“It’s about more than teaching them neuroscience — it’s about teaching them to take notes and do homework,” added Pirraglia, who advises the program’s current coordinator. “In normal classes, it’s easier for [the students] to slip through the cracks.”

Sayre student Khalil Craig said participating in the Pipeline Program is “pretty fun” and she enjoys learning about the brain. She hopes to become a pharmacist one day.

Over the past 20 years, the Pipeline Program has served over 300 high-school students. It is one of a slew of programs that Penn coordinates at Sayre.

Sayre is part of the University-Assisted Community School model. The model’s purpose “is based on the core notion that the health of the community and the health of the school are dynamically intertwined, and that universities can enter into mutually beneficial relationships supporting [these] schools,” explained Netter Center Associate Director Cory Bowman.

Today, more than 400 Penn undergraduates, 200 work-study students and 119 interns are involved in one of the programs connecting the University to Sayre, Bowman explained. Many of these students first encounter Sayre through the Netter Center’s academically-based community-service seminars. These place them directly in the school — as well as in other local schools that partner with Penn — to gain hands-on experience, he added.

Preparing students for college and beyond

Aside from the Pipeline Program, Penn students engage with Sayre through the College Access and Career Readiness Program, an after-school initiative dedicated to guiding high-school students — at Sayre and at University City High School — through the college application process. Activities include visiting different campuses and training students for the SAT. The program also places high-school students in summer internships leading up to their senior year, according to CACR Program Director Marla Blunt-Carter.

Through this program, Penn undergraduates visit Sayre once a week and serve as “peer mentors,” Blunt-Carter said. As most of the high-school students at Sayre do not know anyone with a college education, the undergraduates “help them learn how to become critical thinkers by forging relationships with them.”

Blunt-Carter added that Penn students have also begun taking on more administrative roles in the program.

CACR is part of the Netter Center’s ongoing, overarching focus on increasing college access for inner-city youth. Many Sayre students “are not even reading at an eighth-grade level, but if you read their grades you’d think they were high-performing,” she said.

College junior Shane McWilliams got involved at Sayre this past summer as a participant in Penn’s Program for Public Service, in which undergraduates take a course with Netter Center Director Ira Harkavy and work in public service internships. Along with six other undergraduates, McWilliams helped develop the CACR Program, and decided to stay on throughout the school year.

In the last group of CACR Sayre students, McWilliams estimated between four to six of them went on to college — a “very high rate,” given the small number of seniors in the program.

Increasing access to Penn

According to Carter, no CACR Sayre student has ever applied to or matriculated at Penn.

“We have more work to do,” Harkavy said of West Philadelphia students’ admission rates at Penn.

Moving forward, the University should strive to improve college access and achievement levels for the West Philadelphia students it serves “so an increasing number could be admitted, survive and thrive at Penn,” Harkavy added.

The Netter Center, the Admissions Office and the Equity and Access Program may discuss and collaborate on an initiative relating to higher education for West Philadelphia students, he said.

Sayre student Charles Sevor expressed his desire to go to college after high school. A participant in the “awesome” Pipeline Program, he added, “I think I’ll go to Penn … I feel like I’ll have something to do at Penn.”

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