Justina McMinn says she left C.W. Henry School nearly four years ago with "straight Fs."
Today, the Roxborough High School senior gets all As, plans to go to college and hopes to eventually work at a nonprofit that combats human trafficking.
And at a ceremony this evening, she'll be named the Philadelphia Education Fund's "Rising Star," an award that comes with scholarship money, networking opportunities and support throughout college.
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McMinn's journey to this point has been rife with instability.
Her early years were spent bouncing around from home to home. At one point, she was barely able attend school for four months.
"I couldn't focus on school when I was worried about where I was going to be next week," says McMinn.
At a certain point, she decided she had to do what was best for her. It's the advice she gives other kids who are in the same situation as her.
"I decided to leave home because I knew it wasn't stable and I knew it wasn't healthy," she says of the decision she made when she was just 14. "You have to be selfish and do what you have to do for yourself."
In 2011, she started living with her dad's twin brother, Clark Justin Little. In a way, niece and uncle have been connected since she was born.
Her mother named her Justina Clark McMinn, after her uncle. The stability of living with Clark gave McMinn the push she needed to start motivating herself to do better in school.
McMinn's poor middle-school grades meant attending a special-admissions high school wasn't going to happen. She says that wake-up call made her prioritize her approach to learning.
"When she came to live with me, I talked to her a lot about the importance of education and the freedom she will provide for herself by making sure she gets straight As while she is in school." says her uncle. "Anything less than that would make her life more difficult."
Rise and grind
McMinn took that advice to heart.
She wakes up in North Philadelphia at 5 a.m. daily and takes three buses to reach Roxborough High School on time from where she and Clark live. She says does it because she knew she could succeed at Roxborough.
Through Philadelphia Futures — a program that helps low-income and first-generation-to-college students access the resources they need to gain admission to college — she has already taken college-level courses at Temple University and Drexel University.
"Being able to sit in the chairs that college students are sitting in and being taught by a professor is completely different from being told about it," she says. "It's a lot more than Googling things."
Why she won
Philadelphia Education Fund President Darren Spielman says McMinn stood out among other nominees for her ability to get on track after many years of turmoil and failing grades.
He noted that McMinn made a turn that many students in Philadelphia don't get the chance to make.
"There are thousands and thousands of young people in the city of Philadelphia who, with the proper support, could succeed and who should have the opportunities to pursue greater things," says Spielman.
Philadelphia Education Fund, which implements college access and postsecondary education support in about 20 schools throughout the district, chooses a Rising Star recipient each year based on a combination of grades, personal circumstance and what Spielman calls "internal fortitude."
Despite all that he has done for her, Clark ultimately credits his niece for getting to where she is today.
"In my mind, it really is an independent action that she has taken in achieving this," he says. "I am just glad that she cares about her future."
Philadelphia Education Fund's 10th annual EDDY Awards will be held at WHYY on Thursday, Nov. 13 at 5:30 p.m.