PUTTING THE COLLEGE IN COLLEGE PREP By Tia Swanson Photography by Julia Maloof Verderosa
Kean University opens its doors to high schoolers
It is a warm morning in late June and Jason Lester, a tall man with a calm, coach-like demeanor that immediately telegraphs his first, lengthy career as a high school principal, is busy ushering new students through their first week of orientation at Kean University, where he now serves as the special assistant to the university president and executive director of the Kean Scholar Academy.
These students – gathered in a gleaming new campus building devoted to business – are a tad more excitable than many incoming college first-years. During breaks they produce a couple of rubber band balls for bouncing and, once outside, almost immediately begin playing soccer with another pint-sized ball dug from the depths of a backpack. None of this is particularly surprising given that a week or so ago the six were eighth graders in the South Orange-Maplewood School system.
They are here four years early as part of a new program at Kean that gives high achieving students from across the region the opportunity to do college and high school simultaneously. If these six, part of the program’s second cohort of students, stick it out, by the time they graduate from Columbia High School they will be halfway through college, without a single cent of debt. The program is entirely funded through federal grants, together with money from the Kean Foundation.
But the program is about more than giving students debt-free college credits.
It really is an attempt to prepare kids to be successful – in the college classroom and in life. While the program is open to any who can gain admission to it, Lester hopes to pull into that poor kids who have traditionally faced barriers to academic success because of their families’ backgrounds or their personal ones. Kean, which was founded in 1855 as the first public college in New Jersey (for much of its history, Rutgers University was a private college), has long been known as a school that seeks to attract those who traditionally face barriers to college, including first-generation and minority students.
It has repledged itself to that mission under its new president, Lamont O. Repollet, a Kean alum, a former commissioner of the state’s Department of Education and the first Black man to hold the office.
At his formal inauguration last fall, Repollet said he would seek to foster an environment where students “learn, grow, take risks, make mistakes, regroup and keep climbing higher.”
The friendship between Lester and Repollet, who also was a high school principal, goes back many years. Lester says the Kean Scholar Academy is the brainchild of Repollet, and it grew out of long conversations the men had over their years of watching gifted students fail.
“We’ve had a lot of difficult conversations and had a lot of different programs to prepare kids for college,” Lester says. None was a resounding success.
What the two men had not tried was a “full-blown college experience,” the sort of program that would allow kids, under careful guidance, to envision themselves on a college campus, fully immersed in its student life.
The Kean Scholar Academy is an attempt to do just that.
Students in the program have access to everything the university has to offer. They get a student ID and a pass that allows them entry to all the buildings, the athletic venues and so forth. They even get some dollars on their card so they can eat lunch the days they are on campus. They can meet with their professors. “They’re involved in every aspect of the college life,” Lester says.
Beyond that, however, they are provided with lots of guidance, support, and mentoring, the scaffolding that is not always available when young adults go to college for the first time. Lester says the program is designed to allow as many students as possible to be successful, and, despite some first-year bumps, he is pleased with how the program has worked so far. The program had a 90 percent pass rate. This is what it means to be a college administrator, he says. “It’s our responsibility to remove barriers that don’t allow them to achieve their dreams.”
The students attend high school in the morning – periods one through five at CHS. Two afternoons a week they attend their Kean classes, once a week on the campus of Kean, and once a week virtually from a room at CHS; and they have free periods for study and meetings with professors on the other days. Two Saturdays a month are also devoted to special programming at the college focusing on leadership and career exposure; some of these are open to families as well. In their first two years at Kean, the students typically take math and English; when they get to their junior year, they can make choices based on their interests and prospective majors.
Two who were part of the inaugural class last year are Sharon and Sherry Chen, twins who moved to Maplewood from Irvington in fourth grade and who have become the first in their family to attend college.
The twins, who are science-minded, sped through the usual math curriculum, taking Algebra II and pre-calculus in a single year at Kean, setting them up to be able to take calculus as sophomores this fall. (The directors of the program are still deciding if they will take AP calculus at CHS or college calculus at Kean.)
They say the thing they enjoyed the most about college classes was the independence.
“Our professors at Kean are a lot more trusting that we can regulate our time,” says Sherry.
“I feel more independent with my classes,” adds Sharon. “There are times when we have to prepare for a big exam but it’s not as stressful.”
The longer leash was troublesome for a few.
“The ones that took advantage of the study halls.... did well,” says Yolande Fleming, a high school counselor at CHS and the district’s liaison for the Kean Scholars. “(For) the ones that struggled....it was too much freedom.”
But even one of the scholars who did not do as well, adds Fleming, wants to remain in the program. “She understands this is valuable.”
There are many who feel the same way. Last year’s inaugural class was invited to apply. But when word got out about the program, parents objected. So, this year, says Fleming, the program was open to all. In the end, nearly 30 eighth graders applied for the few spots available; this year’s class has 60 students from 13 different schools in Passaic, Essex, Union and Middlesex counties. The application process dives into what the students can offer to Kean, as well as what they can take from it, Lester says.
The six who arrived in late June from South Orange/Maplewood are the lucky and talented few chosen for this year’s class. Ten more from SOMA are in the first, larger cohort. Any way you cut it, the 16 are a precocious bunch.
Sharon Chen is interested in biotechnology; Sherry is thinking about med school. Two of the six incoming first-year students say they want to be architects; another says she is aiming to become a surgeon and a fourth wants to be a radiologist. A fifth is leaning toward graphic design and the sixth is worried that she ought to have a career in mind even though she is still figuring out what interests her most in this wide, wonderful world.
Seeing the possibilities in that world is, in the end, the point.
Counselor Fleming describes the experience she had when she attended a function in one of Kean’s sparkling new buildings, with wide windows that look over a bustling campus and its equally busy neighborhood.
Leaving South Orange and Maplewood for the nearby campus shows students that “there’s a whole big world out there and I’m a part of it.”
Tia Swanson, who would have enjoyed life as a perpetual student, thought she would like to take a class or two at Kean after stepping into the gorgeous new business building, a stone’s throw from a Starbucks and with a brand new housing complex nearby.