Friday, August 1, 2014
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Making college possible for Philly kids

Abraham Kwon met a lot of smart, motivated teens as a volunteer working with the debate team at West Philadelphia High a few years back. But he was astonished at the questions students asked him — what are the SATs? Do I have to take them to go to college? How do you apply to college?

Making college possible for Philly kids

Abraham Kwon met a lot of smart, motivated teens as a volunteer working with the debate team at West Philadelphia High a few years back. But he was astonished at the questions students asked him — what are the SATsDo I have to take them to go to college? How do you apply to college?

Growing up in Philadelphia, then California and Utah, Kwon knew he would attend a university, probably even get graduate degrees.  And he understood exactly how to do it, relying on the experience of his older cousins to take the right tests, fill in the forms, meet the deadlines.

But the students he met in city public schools didn’t have that.

“It was mind-boggling,” said Kwon, who was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania at the time. “They were asking about things that I thought everybody knew - things we take for granted.”

That lightning bolt led Kwon to launch One Little Did, a nonprofit that addresses issues of college access for low-income Philadelphia students.  The title takes its name from a Shel Silverstein poem.

According to One Little Did figures, out of 100 Philadelphia students, 56 will graduate.  And of those 56, 50 want to go to college.  

Only 25 will actually make it there.

Not understanding the mechanics of how to apply to college is the biggest roadblock, and that’s where One Little Did comes in, said Kwon, 25, who has a J.D. from Penn’s law school, a master’s from Penn’s Fels Institute of Government, and a Penn undergraduate degree in philosophy, political science and economics.

The organization, for which Kwon and five friends work on a volunteer basis for now, uses weekly workshops, one-on-one mentorships and academic support to shepherd students through the college application process.  There’s SAT prep and resume building, lessons in drafting personal statements and building a good list of potential colleges.

“We just provide simple information — how to do it,” Kwon said.  “We give mentorship and advice.”

It’s not the only organization in the city focusing on this kind of work, but Philadelphia students’ needs are huge, and Kwon is motivated.

For now, One Little Did operates in one school, Kensington Culinary Arts High.  

Last year, in its first year, Kwon and company focused on nine students.  All are currently enrolled in college — from CCP for one student to Penn State, Temple, and Lock Haven for others.  One student was admitted to Penn but chose to go elsewhere.

“A lot of kids in so-called failing schools are very smart and enthuasiastic,” Kwon said.  “They have aspirations.  They want to go to college. They just don’t have the proper guidance and support network.”

One Little Did, which Kwon hopes to expand citywide, will start work with a new crop of Kensington Culinary Arts students in a few weeks.

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About this blog

Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham writes the Philly School Files blog, where she covers education in Philadelphia, both in and out of the classroom.

During the school year, you’ll frequently find her hosting live chats about the district on Philly.com.

Please do pass along the scoop about what’s going on at your Philadelphia public school; Kristen welcomes tips, story ideas and witty banter.


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