Penn launches no-cost, online summer program for rising high school seniors

PennRSSA has the capacity to reach thousands of School District of Philadelphia students with content meant to boost academic, career, and postsecondary preparation.

This summer, Penn’s Office of the Provost is pioneering an innovative educational program online for rising seniors in high schools throughout the city. There’s no cost to participate, and no GPA or testing requirements—mere interest and a desire to continue studying throughout the summer is all that is needed.

Valarie E. Swain-Cade McCoullum, Penn’s Vice Provost for Student Engagement and the Provost’s Distinguished Senior Fellow of Student Engagement at the Graduate School of Education, says the initiative—the Penn Rising Senior Summer Academy (PennRSSA)—has the capacity to reach thousands of soon-to-be high school seniors within the School District of Philadelphia. About 100 graduate and professional students from all 12 schools at Penn will serve as course instructors and mentors, receiving stipends for their service. Participants, which can include students from local public and charter schools, will receive academic credit on their high school transcript.

McCoullum, a native Philadelphian who has served at Penn for more than 40 years, most recently as Vice Provost for University Life, says this program, for her, is personal.

“It’s not just a professional privilege to run such a program,” she says. “It’s a personal imperative. Universities have a sure and certain mandate to be a valued and respectful partner to our communities.”

There are two components to Penn RSSA: There’s the PennRSSA “Academy,” admitting up to 2,500 students in an intensive, four-week summer program, which will feature a peer cohort model. It will begin the first week of July, and will include Monday through Friday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) live, online instruction via Canvas and Google Meet on a variety of topics (Applying to College, Applied Economics and Finance, Storytelling: Writing for Different Audiences, and Career Pathways) that are meant to boost academic, career, and postsecondary preparation. The second component, available to all 14,000-plus rising seniors in Philadelphia, includes a self-guided MOOC called How to Apply to College offered by Steppingstone Scholars and Penn Admissions through Coursera.

Throughout the past week, McCoullum says the program has already attracted 500 students, and she’s actively reaching out to high school principals around the city to spread the word even more. There’s a tentative deadline to enroll set for June 19; student orientation begins the week of June 29.

It’s a particularly important time for such an initiative to surge ahead, McCoullum says, as the nation not only faces the global coronavirus pandemic, but also significant racial conflict.

“All of us are living through the terror from hour to hour as a community,” McCoullum says. “And it’s important to be able to focus on care, comfort, and possibilities.”

The overarching goals of PennRSSA are large, and include increasing access to high-quality learning experiences, actively promoting student attendance and engagement, communicating high expectations, and equipping participants for postsecondary success. It is McCoullum’s hope that the program will contribute to improving the School District’s lagging retention, high school graduation, and post-secondary application, enrollment, and matriculation rates, which could all be exacerbated by COVID-19.

During a PennRSSA information session on June 3, McCoullum told students that she hopes the program—and Penn as a whole—can be a “partner in your resilience.” “Anything we can do to support you is our priority,” she said.

Additional information sessions, led by McCoullum and the rest of the PennRSSA team (Kimberly Bowers, Carol Henderson, Augusta Atinuke Irele, and Elaine Leigh), will be offered on Zoom June 10 and June 16. For more information, as well as to sign up to participate, visit