After watching too many young students get caught up in the criminal justice system, the Rev. Juwan Bennett was determined to help.
“Working…with kids within the criminal justice system, I learned that we were losing a lot of talented and bright individuals,” said Bennett, a criminal justice professor working toward his Ph.D. “Not because they weren’t smart enough or didn’t possess innate great qualities, but because they just weren’t prepared.”
In September 2016, Bennett founded the Urban Youth Leadership Academy, a program that helps prepare seventh and eighth grade boys for high school and college. It only accepts students from Paul L. Dunbar School, located on 12th Street near Montgomery Avenue, and Tanner G. Duckrey School, located on Diamond Street near 15th.
For nine months, students participating in UYLA are given assistance with both their high school and college admission processes, opportunities to interact with professors on Main Campus and exposure to college life.
“One of the big goals of the program is to be able to help these students in their preparation stages for high school, as well as empower them to think about their careers for the future,” said Bennett, who is also a 2013 criminal justice alumnus. “[UYLA] also encourages participants to make valuable contributions to their community.”
Each student received a grant from the College of Education to help fund an individual community service project, Bennett said. Takir Spain, 15, participated in the program from 2016-17. Spain used his funding to buy school supplies for Duckrey’s second and third grade students.
While his original plans included going to high school, playing football and eventually trying to play the sport professionally, Spain was inspired by his UYLA peers and mentors to become a lawyer.
He said he plans to join the debate team at Northeast High School in Rhawnhurst to pursue his law school goals, after UYLA helped him navigate the high school admissions process.
“They helped me pick out my high school, they took us to orientations and interviews for the admissions process and they even gave us letters of recommendation if we needed,” Spain added.
Bennett said he hopes UYLA helps fight the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a social system that often drives students of color who experience poverty into incarceration after high school because of a lack of educational and social resources, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“If this is true, then the inverse can be true,” Bennett said. “We can build students the pipeline to success.”
Sixteen-year-old Jaquan Brown participated in UYLA from 2016-17 when he attended Duckrey. He worked on a community service project to create a painting of Duckrey, the first African-American to serve as the School District of Philadelphia’s superintendent, inside the building. In the painting, Duckrey is reading to his daughter.
“I felt like I was a part of something, like I was important in what I did,” Brown said. “I felt like I played a major role in everything that I was a part of in the program.”
He added that participating in UYLA motivated him to set goals for himself in athletics, academics and extracurricular activities.
UYLA also recently partnered with the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra to help students learn leadership skills. The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra developed the Orchestrating Youth Leadership program to teach middle school and high school students the art of conducting.
Students were able to learn skills like impulse and emotional control, thinking flexibly, planning and prioritizing, according to the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra’s website.
Bennett said he believes the partnership will empower kids to view themselves as leaders and help them develop leadership skills through orchestral conducting.
UYLA is currently recruiting six female students and six male students from Dunbar and Duckrey. The program is now working to extend mentorship to the students throughout their entire high school careers.
Bennett said he wants participants to understand the importance of preparation.
“We’re not focused on the opportunity, we’re focused on the preparation, how well we prepare,” Bennett said. “Because when you’re prepared, the opportunity comes.”