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We have to set students up for success when enrolling in competitive high schools

(Standing, left to right: Girls’ High Principal Lisa Mesi, student Amillyona, student Germayoni and school counselor Ms. Sheriff. Sitting, left to right: Student Belinda, student Sara and student Skyla.)
(Standing, left to right: Girls’ High Principal Lisa Mesi, student Amillyona, student Germayoni and school counselor Ms. Sheriff. Sitting, left to right: Student Belinda, student Sara and student Skyla.)
Photo Caption: Girls’ High Principal Lisa Mesi and school counselor Ms. Sheriff with students who completed the Elevate 215 supported summer transition program. (Standing, left to right: Girls’ High Principal Lisa Mesi, student Amillyona, student Germayoni and school counselor Ms. Sheriff. Sitting, left to right: Student Belinda, student Sara and student Skyla.)


Attending the GreatPhillySchools High School Fair Leads to an Educational Opportunity

When Amillyona attended the 2019 Philly High School Fair she had one goal in mind: find the right high school to prepare her for college, and do whatever it took to enroll in that school.

At the fair she learned about many high school options across the city, but to her surprise the school that stood out was one she did not know existed. The School District of Philadelphia’s High School for Girls, known as Girls’ High, has been serving young women for nearly 175 years. A college prep high school in the Olney neighborhood, Amillyona gravitated toward the school’s focus on academic excellence and providing the skills and knowledge to become a successful woman in society.

Amillyona knew this was the school for her and she applied, but there was a barrier to overcome. As a criteria-based high school, prospective students typically have to meet certain thresholds with grades and assessments. Although Amillyona was an A and B student in middle school, as a self-proclaimed “bad test taker” she did not meet the assessment requirement score. Fortunately, Girls’ has a pathway to acceptance she was able to take advantage of through an interview process with school staff and shadow days, which ultimately helped her gain admission to the school.

While Amillyona’s acceptance was a triumph for school access, it did lead to a problem that Girls’ High Principal Lisa Mesi had to solve: How do we ensure incoming freshmen like Amillyona are prepared to thrive in our rigorous academic environment?

A Program Investment to Support Student Access

To build out a plan of action to support students in situations like Amillyona, Principal Mesi turned to local and national experts, and examined the research. Since Girls’ High is part of the International Coalition of Girls Schools, she was able to find best practices from other all-girl schools across the country. Principal Mesi also met with representatives from Steppingstone Scholars (which has merged with Philadelphia Futures, a college prep organization) to learn about how they have successfully provided Philadelphia students with academic support. 

With the help of school counselor Ms. Sheriff, Principal Mesi then used these resources to develop a strategy to establish a summertime transition program for students in need of support based on their middle-school grades or assessment data. During the transition program, students would be given assignments similar to what would be expected in the 9th grade, get a chance to form relationships with other students, and have the opportunity to receive one-on-one support from school counselors and teachers—many of which would then also be their 9th grade teachers.

In order to implement the transition program Principal Mesi needed additional funding outside her existing budget. Elevate 215 provided Girls’ High a three-year grant for $450K to launch a program designed to provide academic and social-emotional support for 360 new students starting in the summer of 2020.

Students Have Experienced Immediate Benefits

  • Early performance data shows that students are feeling supported and performing at the same level of students that were admitted through the regular admissions process. Retention rates for the program have been strong, with 85% retention from cohort one and 89% retention in cohort two. 
  • Students who take part in the transition program perform at or on the same levels with students entering Girls’ who did not take part in the program, as measured by overall GPAs and statewide assessments (PSAT) scores, despite often coming in behind. 
  • Students in cohorts one and two are taking advantage of higher-level course offerings at Girls’ High. With 32% of cohort one students and 84% of cohort two students participating in Advanced Placement, Honors & Dual Enrollment.

The number of students able to utilize this program has grown each year from 66 in cohort one (Class of 2024) to 117 in cohort two (Class of 2025), and 130 recently completed the summer program in cohort three (Class of 2026).

84% of students from cohort two (Class of 2025) are enrolled in advanced placement, honors and dual enrollment programs, more than doubling the percent of students from the first cohort.

Student Benefits Transcend Academic Outcomes

For the students, the impact of the transition program transcends their academic progress. Elevate 215 had the opportunity to interview students in cohorts one and two, and they told us how the program not only better prepared them for their educational journey at Girls’ High, but also ignited their individual passions and determination.

“In 8th grade [before experiencing the transition program], I had a hard time connecting with teachers and never really asked for help, even if I knew I needed some,” shared Skyla (Class of 2024). “The program helped me discover my passions and drive, because the teachers were asking how they could help me, and they were seeing the ‘me’ beyond the test scores.”

For Belinda, the program was a wakeup call she was glad she received before entering high school. “The summer assignments were a lot of work, but it prepared me for 9th grade more than it felt like 8th grade did,” added Belinda (Class of 2024). “It gave me the confidence heading into high school that allowed me to explore things I did not know I liked. I like science now, and I am going to be in the dual enrollment program at University of Pennsylvania next year, which is exciting.”

Building confidence in their educational skills and in themselves during the transition program was a common theme for all the students interviewed.

“I feel like the program got me on track, and helped fill in the gaps of things I did not learn in 8th grade,” said Germayoni (Class of 2025), who came to the United States as a 6th grader. “My English is not that good, but I had more confidence that I could do the work in high school and that made me feel better about going to Girls’ High.”

“I would not be the person I am today without the transition program.”
Sara (Class of 2024), is in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and an ambassador for Girls’ High.

Creating Long-Term Programs that Last

The transition program at Girls’ High is emerging as a proof-point that is worthy of further expansion, monitoring and funding. Principal Mesi and Ms. Sheriff explained that their research-based model built on listening to their students, looking at their students’ data, and identifying what the social-emotional supports their students’ need, will have to be updated every year in order to adapt to changes in society and the stressors students experience.

The goal is that with continued support from investment organizations like Elevate 215 Girls’ High can expand the capacity of the program to include all incoming freshmen who want to participate, and potentially work with other criteria-based high schools across the city to develop and implement their own transition program.

Can you imagine the impact transition programs like these could have in increasing access and success at all 39 criteria-based School District of Philadelphia High Schools?

Will you join us at Elevate 215 in reimagining the support we provide Philadelphia's schools to help our young people discover and reach their fullest potential?
Photo Caption: Skyla (photo on the left) is an ambassador for Girls’ High and is preparing to lead prospecting students on a tour of the school. Germayoni (photo on the right) is fine-tuning her guitar skills in the school’s music program.