Fellows' Final Reflections: Erin

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Site Director Ernest Tam and Fellow Erin Agnew on the first day in the Hill Freedman World Academy PLUS Center

After an amazing year at Hill Freedman World Academy, Erin is moving on to study Law at Temple University next year. We will miss her consistent preparation, unending humor, and huge smile. Thank you for all you did this year, Erin!


It takes a village to raise a child. It’s a phrase we learn in faith communities, parental advice books, and introductory sociology courses. And it’s a sentiment that grows truer and truer as the world be live in gets bigger, more networked, and more data driven with each passing year of developments. We talk a lot about family involvement at 12 PLUS. I have talked a lot about family involvement at every education-based job I have ever had. We talk about students as the center-focus of a team comprised of their families, their schools, us as their advisers and cheering section, and many other seen and unseen support mechanisms. We talk about reassuring parents that they are still the primary supporter of their child and that seeking and accepting help with navigating the postsecondary landscape does not undermine their wisdom and ability to guide their family. We talk about honesty in drawing from our personal experiences with the many tests and applications required to see students successfully through high school. We talk about carving ourselves a unique niche between teacher, counselor, friend, mentor, tutor, and consultant. This has left me with a clear but nuanced advising philosophy: we have to be vulnerable but tough to do right by our students and families. I’ve seen this philosophy work wonders. This year, students have assigned family honorifics to past and current 12 PLUS team members: Mom, Uncle, Grandma. Many of my advising cohort of seniors have punctuated my name in their phone contact list with strings of gleeful but barely interpretable emojis. Many of these students have shed solemn or sloppy tears behind the little table I’ve come to call my desk. Many more of them have rung the blue cowbell reserved for announcing college or training program acceptances - prompting jumps, cheers, and hugs from everyone in the room. We’ve developed these rituals of strategizing for success, regrouping from setbacks, and celebrating each step towards progress. I would  never elevate myself so much a to say I helped raise anyone’s child. But, this year, I became part of the village, and I consider that one of my greatest accomplishments to date.

Thinking about the levels of support students need and deserve to have in their villages illustrates just how much the character of postsecondary success has changed in our collective memory. There was a time in not so distant history when a high school diploma was sufficient to grant success. That education and a strong work ethic was enough to open the door to a job. That job likely offered consistent enough wages to live somewhere, buy some groceries, and support the incidentals of travel, evenings out and the other activities that make a life well rounded. A village could get you there. That village needed to include some family love, some teacher support, maybe some professional connections, and a few open doors. To pursue a college degree in that time, the village may need to expand to include a tutor or two, and some sundry employers to help a student save enough for tuition. Now, we are told we need another degree is necessary for that kind of stability. This degree often requires steep loans to pay it’s way (the metaphor I’ve come to use in advising is “taking a mortgage out on your brain”), and comes with the challenges of navigating the college life ecosystem of social, extracurricular, and work opportunities and pressures. Or we find one of the many incredible non-college pathways available; and it work for us. But we have to do the work of representing them as good pathways, and answer seemingly endless questions about why we’ve chosen to pursue something other than what is considered traditional. That is, assuming we are aware of these pathways, have the confidence to pursue them, and have the right vocabulary to get ourselves through the door in the first place. For this, the village must grow. The village that once needed only to have some family, a healthy community, and a handful of caring teachers in it must now include experts.


Hill Freedman's Team flag for the 2018 12+ Mini-Olympics

These experts become necessary, not because the parents and caring community members in a student’s village can’t navigate the systems of tests and applications, but because the system has sprouted up around them. The system changes every two or three years, and it takes a full time commitment to navigate it well enough to get students where they need to be with the supports they deserve. When my advising cohort’s parents entered our conversations with memories of their own college and career application processes, they largely remembered a system which no longer exists. Their student had new hurdles to clear - the SAT and ACT, setting up Common Application and Naviance profiles, adding profiles on Fastweb, ScholarshipOwl, CollegeGreenLight, and Raise.me if they planned to pursue external scholarship, procuring and tracking every College Board and NACAC Fee Waiver required to cover the cost of each application, entering tax information from two years ago into FAFSA and PHEAA, securing digitally sent transcripts (both current, midyear, and finalized end of year) and letters of recommendation for each application, following up on all requests for verification documents which colleges and programs invariably requested, taking placements tests, sending standardized test scores, and re-taking placement tests, enrolling in classes, and finding a useful and instructive way to spend each summer between classes. All of this demands to be navigated on stringent timelines, while students also upkeep pride-worthy grades and class performances.


Ernest and Erin on their last day in the Hill Freedman PLUS Center.

I have cherished every conversation I’ve had with parents this year. I’ve cherished them when they entered the conversation with documents, plans, and checklists. I’ve cherished them when they were run entirely through students’ worried text messages. I’ve cherished them when parents came into the PLUS Center wide-eyed with excitement and concern about the future. It is precious to share times of excitement and re-strategizing as a trusted member of a student’s team. It is empowering and intimidating to step into the role of expert on that family’s team. But, that is what 12 PLUS exists for. We are here for the planning, the hard work, the behind the scenes data tracking, the networking, the striving, the celebrating, and the following up. We are here to humbly offer ourselves as one more member of the village all working together to get the students Philadelphia has raised on to their next steps, goals, and dreams. And what an honor it has been to see so many students get there this year.

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