July 8, 2008
Contact:Jamie Arehart (267-350-7699 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Once Homeless, Philadelphia Student Becomes Valedictorian

Area Program Saves Teen from the Streets

PHILADELPHIA - Seventeen-year-old Nicholas Shanks is your average, teenage boy. He spends his time playing video games with friends, watching cartoons on Saturday mornings and listening to music on his computer. But when this soft-spoken teen took the stage on June 17, 2008 to deliver his speech as valedictorian of Martin Luther King High School to 287 members of his graduating class-more than one person in the audience had tears in their eyes.

When he was in 9th grade, Nicholas and his mother, Sherri Newton, became homeless. "I lost my job," recalls Newton, "and unemployment wasn't paying for my rent." When his father was laid off, according to Nicholas "things started to fall apart."

In September 2004, mother and son were forced to move into Stenton Family Manor, an emergency shelter. The move was difficult for both of them. "Nic holas lost everything," recalls his mother, "his room, his friends-everything." And Newton, a recovering drug addict, struggled to maintain stability for herself and her son in a new environment with little privacy. "He was ashamed and I was ashamed," she recalls.

Despite those difficult circumstances, Nicholas continued to attend high school-consistently making honor roll every semester and taking advanced college-level courses including AP Physics, AP Calculus and AP Literature. "The shelter issue didn't hinder me," says Nicholas, "I stayed focused." Even when he and his mother moved to transitional housing, and Nicholas had to take two buses and a train to get to high school, he remained positive.

In 2006, when Elaine Colbert, teen education specialist with the Homeless Teen Education Project at Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC), met Nicholas, he had a fixed goal in mind-to attend art school after graduation. Soon after Colbert began meeting with Nicholas, he showed her his art. "I was amazed," she recalls, "He had never even had proper art supplies!" Colbert was able to provide Nicholas with access to art materials and help him begin his art portfolio in preparation for applying to art school.

Colbert's assistance, which extends to more than 80 teens in five shelters across the city, would have been impossible without the Homeless Teen Education Project. The Project began when Deborah McMillan, assistant vice president of Specialized Health Services for PHMC, and Dorette Ligons-Ham, the homeless regional coordinator and educational liaison for the School District of Philadelphia's Homeless Children's Initiative, saw the need for a program specifically targeting the children of the homeless.

"The teens weren't getting very little assistance with their education," says McMillan. "Shelters are adult-focused and the kids were falling between the cracks." Ligons-Ham agrees. "This is an invisible population," she says. "Most teenagers don't even want to admit that they are homeless at all." McMillan and Ligons-Ham estimate that almost 10,000 children in the School District of Philadelphia are homeless-living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, or ‘doubled-up' (living with other families).

Mel Monk, director of student enrichment for Traveler's Aid Society in Philadelphia, the city's largest shelter for families with children, works with teens in situations similar to Nicholas's. "Because of the predicament that these kids are in, most miss 3-6 months of school," observes Monk. "Most of the time, they can't get their GPA back to what it was before they became homeless. Nicholas's achievement is rare and a testimony to the work he has done."

Teachers at Martin Luther King High School have fond memories of Nicholas and his work ethic. "Nicholas is fabulous," recalls David Mandell, history department chair at the school. "He is quiet, quick, punctual and reliable. If all my students could be Nicholas Shanks, my job as a teacher would be a lot easier."

On graduation day, Mandell was among those deeply moved by Nicholas's speech. In the speech, Nicholas drew from his own experiences. "Bad living conditions, society and harsh backgrounds may all sound like a set-up for failure, but good can come from it," he said, drawing loud applause from his audience, which included his mother and Colbert.

Nicholas was among six graduating seniors that Colbert had worked with during her time in the shelters. All six plan to attend colleges in the Philadelphia area. "Fifty percent of the students who graduated from high school would not have made it without our program," says Ligons-Ham, recalling numerous instances where Colbert worked with school counselors to ensure graduation requirements were met.

Nicholas plans to matriculate in the University of the Arts this January. In the meantime, he is working on his portfolio and working with Mr. Monk as a counselor at the Traveler's Aid Society summer program for kids at the shelter. "They're regular kids, they just need an extra push," McMillan says of the teens in the program. "An investment in homeless children is an investment in the future of the city of Philadelphia."

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About Homeless Teen Education Project

Through a contract with the School District of Philadelphia, PHMC receives funding for the Homeless Teen Education Project, which provides intensive educational case management and direct services to approximately 100 homeless teens, ages 13 to 18, who are living with their parents in emergency shelters or transitional housing. The program provides comprehensive hands-on interventions with teens to improve their school attendance and academic performance and reduce lateness, suspensions and behavior problems.