Mary Strasser calls it "the Cadillac of school-to-career programs."
Mary Jane Clancy, executive director of the School District of Philadelphia's Office of Economic Education, declares, "In all the city, it's the most unbelievable program there is."
They're referring to the Health Tech 2000 program, run on a $100,000 annual budget by North Philadelphia's St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, that recruits at-risk high school teens for work-based health careers. Since 1994 the program has provided training, employment, college scholarships, tutorials and on-site professional mentoring to students from dysfunctional families, single-parent households, and home situations involving parents with AIDS and drug abuse, as well as homeless youth.
Strasser, executive director of Philadelphia's Promise, teaches the St. Christopher's mentor training sessions, which she began doing in 1996 when she was director of One-to-One.
St. Christopher's level of participating student achievement has been so high, the program boasts a 96 percent high school graduation rate and college acceptance rate. Two large North Philadelphia high schools - Olney and Kensington - screen students who have expressed an interest in health care careers, have at least a C average and 85 percent attendance. References, criminal background checks and drug testing are also part of the process for admittance to the two-year program.
"The screening and testing are rigorous and tough," says the hospital's director of Volunteer Services, Barbara Liccio. "We interview 65 and accept 30." She says the agency draws Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, "and generally more females."
Admittance opens the doors to what Liccio calls "real work." The youths "punch in and punch out" for up to 16 hours a week while paid the minimum wage ($5.15) to assist and learn from professional mentors in the areas of nursing, emergency room procedures, food and nutrition, pharmacy, radiology, orthopedics, social work, human resources, and any department necessary for the operation of a large urban hospital. The youths are outfitted with scrubs and white consultant jackets, and given photo IDs to let them know they are, as Liccio puts it, "part of the St. Christopher's family."
The students get course credit and a grade for participation by their teacher-coordinator. "Yes, there is a partnership with the schools," says Tom McKenna of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy, "but the program is driven by St. Christopher's."
Every student has one to three mentors in all areas of the hospital, notes Douglas Allen, vice president of Human Resources. "We set the standards, and they reach the bar." Allen also pointed out that an annual evaluation involves student input about what works and what doesn't. Monica Rivera, 24, a graduate of the 1995 Health Tech program and recipient of a 1999 Associate's Degree in Liberal Arts from a nearby Pennsylvania State University extension campus, declares that the program "opened up my life and changed my way of thinking about what I could do and what I could be." She works in one of the hospital's nursing stations to acquire the two years of general nursing she needs to become a registered nurse.
St. Christopher's received seed money its first year (when it only admitted 15 students) from the School District of Philadelphia. Since then it has picked up the full tab for Liccio's services, the student's salaries, and the various special classes and activities devised for the mentees and mentors. Only once - in 1998, when the hospital experienced a lean period switching from nonprofit to for-profit - did Clancy come to the rescue with some $40,000 in federal School-to-Work monies to pay for the student stipends. (The School District of Philadelphia has received $3.5 million in School-to-Work funds since 1995.)
As is the case every year, full graduation ceremonies will be held this month in the large Teaching Center auditorium for all St Christopher's program participants. Liccio will be there. At 46, she feels "blessed" to both be a parent (of eight children) and a youth worker.
In contrast to St. Christopher's purring operation is the program administered by the One-to-One Mentoring Project and the School District of Philadelphia's Project BEGIN.
Every Thursday since November, five students from West Philadelphia's Parkway High School have been expected to report to the center-city firm of F.A. Davis, Inc., an international publishing company of medical textbooks and encyclopedias. They are expected to spend at least two hours with key employees to learn about the company and career patterns in the business world.
But a frustrated Jean Francois-Vilan, publisher of the health professions division, says, "The kids are coming in late and not calling in to say they'll be absent." They should be penalized, he says, "to give them a taste of the real workforce." Although he isn't quite sure what form the "penalty" should take, the point is moot because, he says, no guidelines have been written to cover this contingency.
Another Davis worker who requested anonymity says the program is "pretty lax" and it is "nearly impossible" to reach the school coordinator, Ruth Horowitz, to "express concerns." Youth Today left three messages with Ms. Horowitz's voice mail over several days and had a school district representative and a member of Horowitz's staff leave messages about the inquiries at different numbers where they "were sure she was." There was no response from Ms. Horowitz.
"Perhaps next year," suggests Francois-Vilan, "we can clarify what the program goals should be with the school district and decide what the students should be learning."