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College of Education > News and Publications > News: April - June 2010 > PEPP Celebrates 20 Years of Preparing Urban Youth for College

PEPP Celebrates 20 Years of Preparing Urban Youth for College

News release about the 20-year anniversary of PEPP

by Laura Goodman (June 2010)

This year, the Penn State Educational Partnership Program (PEPP) is celebrating its 20th anniversary. PEPP is a statewide extended school-day early intervention initiative that encourages academically competent underrepresented youth to pursue their full academic potential, specifically enrollment and successful attendance at college or other postsecondary education. PEPP also serves as a supplemental “hands-on” preservice teacher experience for the College of Education’s undergraduate students as early as the first year, employing Penn State students to serve as learning assistants to tutor PEPP students while learning about classroom management in a diverse urban school environment. PEPP is an outreach program of the College of Education.


As PEPP has grown over the past twenty years, so has its success rate. The program has helped students go to college who may have never considered it before. It has helped many students choose a career path, stick to it, and become well-rounded, successful individuals.

When this partnership program was first introduced, it began as a development and preparation program for teachers, but has become much bigger than what its founders expected. PEPP has had over 3,000 elementary, junior high, and high school students participate in the program and over 2,000 PEPP learning assistants, or PLAs.

When Penn State President Bryce Jordan and Vice President Robert Dunham first discussed ideas for the statewide program in 1987, they chose the locations for PEPP based on where they could best utilize Penn State campuses.

Darrell Thomas, the current Partnership director, worked at Penn State Greater Allegheny campus at the time in the Admissions Office. He asked himself why students were so unprepared for college. He began setting up programs in the McKeesport Area School District, such as “Adopt a Class” for 8th graders, to show that students could be better prepared with a little help.

In 1990, PEPP Academy became an “extended school-day program” for elementary and junior high students in MASD in conjunction with Penn State Greater Allegheny Campus.

It was, and still is, important that college preparation begin much earlier than in high school, because by then it could be too late to reach students, or get them on the right track for their personal aspirations.

In the fall of 1990, PEPP Institute was implemented at the high school level in the McKeesport Area School District. This was a natural progression—it only made sense to follow the students until graduation.

In 1991, PEPP Academy was implemented in the Reading School District in conjunction with Penn State Berks.

PEPP is geared toward the average-C student—one who is academically competent. From the start, PEPP wanted to help this bigger group of students, rather than those students failing (or considered at risk), because of the ease with which students from this larger group to slip through the cracks.

“You have to be able to put the work in to show you are a competent student,” said Thomas. This is exactly what PEPP students over the years have continued to do.

Another reason for targeting this group of students, Thomas said, is to let them know that “it’s okay to be smart.”

Unfortunately, many kids are teased in school for their intelligence. They won’t ask questions because of peer pressure. “We need to get off this idea that there’s something wrong with being smart,” said Thomas.

Since the beginning, PEPP has focused on the three A’s: academics, attitude, and attendance. These are the requirements for students to become and stay members of PEPP.

PLAs were not always a part of PEPP, but after the first few years of the Partnership, it made sense to recruit college students as tutors. Who better than young adults, who had recently been in the same shoes as the PEPP students? The college students are relatable and close in age to the PEPP students; they can lend their own personal advice while helping to mentor the students in their current and future endeavors.

While there were similar partnership programs between other universities and local schools, many of them ended because of issues with funding. Another problem was these other universities were using their partnerships to recruit students to their institutions. This has never been PEPP’s priority.

Over twenty years, PEPP has expanded immensely. In the McKeesport Area School District, PEPP is operating in 4th–12th grades; in the Reading School District, PEPP mentors 7th–12th graders. There is also a program in Philadelphia. There have been many changes over the years because of changes in the school districts, but PEPP has been able to adjust accordingly.

This academic year, PEPP PREP (Personal Resource Evaluation Project) was implemented. PEPP PREP is a contract that each student fills out at the beginning of the year. “PEPP Pledge: A Step at a Time” is an academic plan to help students get additional assistance with specific school subjects and to further their knowledge in areas they are interested in and may be considering pursuing post-graduation. It is the learning assistant’s and site supervisor’s responsibility to help each student fulfill his or her contract. PEPP continues to grow and keep up with the technology and resources of its time.

Thomas said that over the years, the biggest challenge of PEPP has been to keep slightly ahead with the times, but “it’s been a rewarding challenge.”

Thomas appreciates the College of Education and alumni at Penn State for believing in what PEPP is doing and continuously supporting it over time.

“I feel a genuine sense of giving back to help others move ahead,” said Thomas.

PEPP has exceeded its expectations over the years and continues to help its students, PLAs, and site supervisors to grow. Thomas said he hopes that, in the next 20 years, PEPP is able to use technology to reach out to even more students. With the assistance of the College Relations Department at the College of Education, PEPP launched a new Web site in the summer of 2009:

For an update on recent PEPP activities, please check the Spring 2010 issue of PEPP Talk, the Partnership’s semi-annual newsletter.