WHERE TALK'S NOT CHEAP, BUT FULL OF RICHES

AFTER SEEING a North Philadelphia high school featured in a TV documentary about the nation's teen dropout rate and the tribulations of African-American youth, lawyer Marilou Watson - herself a graduate of a Philly public school - decided to do something.

Watson, a graduate of Lamberton High School, in Overbrook, said that she had been inspired by seeing the story of Roberts Vaux Promise Academy on Tavis Smiley's "Too Important to Fail," on PBS. So she set out to meet the then-principal of Roberts Vaux, William Wade, who appeared in the documentary, and started to plan a speaker series at his current school, the Promise Academy at Martin Luther King High School.

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Marilou Watson : She founded program.

"One of the things one of the commentators was saying is that . . . students need to see professionals that look like them so they can have people to model after," Watson said. "So I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I would love to meet this principal and help him find these people that would come in and talk with students!' "

Watson said she had received an overwhelming response from her professional contacts, including a nuclear engineer and a general counsel for Comcast. Since the fall, Watson has organized weekly speakers who address students at King on Wednesday mornings.

"It's been very enlightening to [the students]," said Wade, "because what happens with some of our urban students . . . is we become the surrogate parents in school, and it's up to us to make connections with the real world." Wade said he expects that Watson's efforts will prompt more students to become interested in attending college.

"King has had challenges," he said. "We open the doors to challenges, so there's nowhere to go but up. We're not claiming victory at all, but definitely moving toward the right direction, and Marilou and our other partners have really helped."

Despite Watson's work to spearhead the program - which she says she hopes to continue - she insists that she's only a facilitator, giving back for the successes she's enjoyed with the help of other people who want to make a difference.

"I was a direct beneficiary of people in older generations who wanted to do exactly the same thing, and did for many students . . . that came from the less-advantaged areas of the city, so I certainly recognize what a tremendous impact that had on my life," Watson said.

"I certainly couldn't pull it off without participation of many people interested in making a difference as well."