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Rising seniors attending School District of Philadelphia high schools, like West Philadelphia High School, may participate in the free Penn Rising Senior Summer Academy. Credit: Kylie Cooper

This summer, Penn is introducing an online educational program for rising Philadelphia high school seniors — aiming to provide free preparatory college and career-related instruction to thousands of students.

The program, called “Penn Rising Senior Summer Academy,” has two components — one which will be open to all students enrolled in public or charter schools within the School District of Philadelphia, and another to which students must apply. 

Penn RSSA is free of cost, and does not have a GPA requirement for enrollment. Students are simply required to submit basic information, such as their name, date of birth, and the school they attend.

The goal of the program is to increase students' access to high-quality learning and help prepare them for success after high school, according to the program’s website. This is the first year Penn is offering an online summer academy to local high school students. 

The first component, called “OpenRSSA,” is a self-paced college preparation course available to all rising high school seniors across the city. It is taught by Penn Dean of Admissions Eric Furda and 2005 Graduate School of Education graduate Sean Vereen, who is President of Steppingstone Scholars, Inc., an education nonprofit which provides support for underprivileged students in the Philadelphia area. 

“[OpenRSSA] is designed so that all of the 14,000 [Philadelphia students], if they want, can take a program called ‘how to apply to college,” Vice Provost for Student Engagement Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum said. “That’s the open portion we’d love to see thousands and thousands of kids take.” 

Students can access the OpenRSSA material at any time on Coursera, an online learning platform.

The second option of the Penn RSSA program is “RSSA Academy,” which is a four-week summer program to which students must apply. Each enrolled student will take four virtual courses: “Applying to College,” “Applied Economics and Finance,” “Storytelling: Writing for Different Audiences,” and “Career Pathways," hosted through Canvas and Google Meet.

All of the courses are taught by approximately 100 Penn graduate and professional students, and will offer a blend of live and asynchronous instruction for up to 2,500 rising seniors. McCoullum said Penn has already admitted 600 high school students into the RSSA Academy program, which offers one credit to students' high school transcripts and a certificate upon course completion.

Students in RSSA Academy will be divided into cohorts of 25 rising seniors who will receive instruction and mentorship from University graduate and professional student teaching assistants and subject matter experts from all of Penn’s 12 schools, according to Penn RSSA’s website.

“It’s designed to be a rigorous academic program focused on what rising seniors need. They need an understanding of post-secondary pathways,” 2020 Graduate School of Education graduate Elaine Leigh, who is helping design the RSSA Academy’s curriculum, said. “We’ve built a career pathways course that’s meant to engage them with a lot of different subjects and disciplines.”

RSSA Academy courses will begin on July 6. Penn RSSA has already hosted six virtual information sessions, and will host two more on June 16.

McCoullum’s Chief of Staff Kimberly Bowers, who is in charge of communications and marketing for the program, said it is especially important to keep students academically engaged during the pandemic.

“College access should be accessible to all students year-round, especially this year,” Bowers said.