In the middle of a hallway lined with offices, one room had been transformed. Instead of holding desks and chairs, it looked like a celebrity closet worthy of gossip column attention. At least 80 dresses grazed the floor and 30 sharp tuxedos, blazers and jackets hung across a rack. At the center was a table laden with shimmer, a potpourri of fancy accessories and other sparkly things.
Behind all of the glam gear, a young man of maybe 19 years was in the middle of a tutoring session, but his eyes diverted every so often from the lessons to glance around the lurid room.
Don’t blame him. It’s prom time at JEVS E³.
Prom is a thrill, a luxe mark to highlight the almost-end to a high school career. Though cheesy at its core, the cultural significance of prom as a coming-of-age milestone is one that has inspired many a film, book and song. It’s something most highschoolers expect.
But these aren’t your typical highschoolers.
JEVS Human Services is an enormous nonprofit with over 1000 employees and an annual budget of $100 million. One of the dozens of programs JEVS offers for nearly 30,000 people each year is E³, part of a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor focused on helping youth “re-engage academically and develop skills needed to be successful in the global economy.”
On paper, the Philly implementation of the program looks like a slew of helpful services, offered at little to no cost in three locations.
If eligible, a young person (out of school or returning from juvenile placement) can go to the North, West, or Center City branch and take advantage of basic literacy instruction, GED classes, college and SAT preparation, job readiness classes, parenting education, health education, paid internships and more.
What isn’t on paper? Prom.
For many of these E³ members, a chance at prom has been an unanticipated, but pleasant, surprise bonus during their efforts to obtain a diploma. The excitement had been tangible for over a month in the program’s carpeted corridors, with count-downs and flyers announcing the royal affair.
Kyle White, a talkative teenager from Parkside — “Schoolly D’s neighborhood,” he helpfully explained — was all smiles when he spoke about having a date and getting his first-ever formal wear fitting.
White had dropped out of two schools and an online program before deciding to approach secondary education via a different path, he said, because he felt “bored and frustrated by the educational opportunities available.” Though he never made it past 10th grade, he now has a 12.9 TABE score in English and Math, he said, proudly announcing that meant he’d reached the highest level of traditional grade equivalency, and was on track to complete his GED in roughly two months.
Had he stayed in the school system, White would be expected to graduate from Overbrook High School in 2021. Now he has the chance to graduate college by 2022.
Margaretta Wilcox, JEVS E³ program director, noted White’s situation is not at all unusual for people who end up dropping out or being kicked out.
Many of them are young people with potential and smarts who merely lack “maturation,” or feel as if they have been “unchallenged or disrespected” by the system, she said. They also could have had other barriers, such as getting pregnant, assuming the role of a caretaker, or having unstable housing.
“We try to incentivize and engage 16-21 year-old out-of-school Philadelphia youth,” Wilcox said, “to achieve the ‘three Es’: education, empowerment and employment.”
So how does prom fit in?
“It’s an event that marks completion and celebration,” she explained. “It’s a huge motivator.”
It’s also an opportunity for many of the JEVS E³ committees to collaborate. Much like a regular high school, the program has a student government, a student advisory council and a basketball team. Members of all these help organize the prom by voting on a theme (this year’s was royalty), creating decorations, making goodie bags and fundraising.
After a successful prom, White said, it’s easier to “take care of business.”
Business for him means one last GED test. His mother is elated, and though he is “unsure of college at the moment,” he does plan to focus on his music and on fortifying his entrepreneurial spirit. Said White: “I want to be the next Mark Cuban.”