Getting students through high school is a challenge in Atlantic City, but for the past eight years members of St. James AME Church have been working to give city students the skills they need to reach that goal.

Adult mentors — some retired teachers, all volunteers — oversee organized after-school and summer academic programs. In 2006, the church on New York Avenue in Atlantic City partnered with Atlantic Cape Community College to exchange use of the church parking lot for classroom space for the CHOICES program.

“We want them thinking about higher education as attainable,” said church pastor James Coaxum III, a professor in Rowan University’s Educational Leadership program. “Being here on a college campus makes it less intimidating.”

The program has expanded to include a weeklong Aviation Academy in the summer that introduces students to aviation and engineering, and the CHILL summer reading program in August, which helps students conquer their assigned summer reading.

Retired teacher Barbara Woodall, who helped start CHILL in 2006, said too many students don’t do the reading. Church members get the assignment list from the high school so they can make sure students read and understand the books.

“I’m very strict,” she said. “But I’ve had some who are in college now.”

Kaleia Llloyd, 20, is a sophomore studying psychology at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. She said in a phone interview she attended the CHOICES and CHILL programs all four years of high school because they helped her with school work and motivated her to attend college.

“It really helped me with my comprehension skills in reading,” she said. “I like to read, but sometimes I had trouble with different types of reading.  There, if I had questions, I could ask someone. Miss Barbara still loves teaching.”

Llloyd said she encouraged friends to attend. And now her younger sister, Aleia, is a freshman in college.

Statistics show how college degrees are worth money. Atlantic City residents with college degrees earned between $29,900 and $42,900, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, while those with high school degrees received between $24,500 and $28,300.

But fewer residents in the city have college degrees, just 16 percent, compared to 35 percent of residents statewide

The Atlantic City High School Performance Report  recently released by the state Department of Education ranked the school in the bottom 30th  percentile statewide for college and career readiness. That’s based on how many students take challenging high school courses and the SAT test.  The 2012 high school graduation rate of 70 percent and dropout rate of 7 percent placed it in the bottom seventh percentile statewide.

Coaxum told the students, most of whom are in middle school, that colleges will want to see their grades starting in ninth grade. So they should take high school seriously and earn good grades now.

“It’s never too early to start,” he said. “Remember, it’s not ‘if’ you go to college, it’s ‘when’ you go.”

Rhonda Hart, coordinator of CHOICES, said students also have access to computers at the college, an incentive for those who do not have them at home. The group meets from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday at the college, and any student can come for assistance or advice.

Two high school students, Omar Kante and Harold Sierra, are building a robot for a competition. Their high school guidance counselor, Harvey Lambert, got them involved and Dana Whicker, of Women in Engineering of Southern New Jersey, has assisted with the plans.

Uptown Complex language arts teacher Andrea Banks-Saunders brought two students, Zahnirah Dillon and Kendra Carter, both 13, to register for the spelling bee.

“It’s nice that St. James does this,” Banks-Saunders said. “Kids need that motivation.”

Dillon hopes to be a veterinarian. Carter is interested in astronomy and “how the universe works.”

The latest project is a May 4 spelling bee. On Wednesday evening they met at Atlantic Cape Community College’s Worthingon Campus in Atlantic City to register the first of what they hope will be a larger group of students willing to spend a Saturday morning competing.

If the words aren’t particularly motivating, maybe the prize money will be. The winner will get $100, second place $75 and third place $50.

The spelling bee has been dedicated to the memory of Alice Cash, an Atlantic City native and high school English teacher who taught some of the adults in the CHOICES program and started a free weekend SAT preparatory class.

“She’d stop you in the hallway if you were using incorrect grammar,” church member Yvonne Allmond told the students. “She’d give us words and quiz us. But it made us feel so smart to be able to use them. You can use all these words in life. Don’t be intimidated by them.”

(For more information or to register for the spelling bee call 609 674-1051)

Staff writer Derek Harper contributed to this report.

Contact Diane D'Amico: