BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — This fall, Buena Regional High School rolled out its first class of Early College High School students, becoming the first rural district in South Jersey to implement the associate’s degree program.
“I think I’m lucky to have this opportunity because not everyone else gets it, and I’m taking advantage of it,” said 15-year-old Evelyn Cruz, who is studying health sciences.
Cruz is one of 20 Buena freshmen enrolled in the program sponsored by the George Washington Carver Education Foundation for its inaugural year here, just one of many college-readiness initiatives the district is pushing to get more of its kids enrolled in college.
Director of Curriculum Courtney McNeely said studies show that although there are some benefits, rural districts like Buena were not as competitive when it came to post-secondary education.
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Buena Regional’s sending districts in western Atlantic County are largely rural areas with long stretches of road surrounded by farmland and forest. Buena has about 600 students in the high school, averaging about 150 students per grade level. The regional district pulls from Buena Borough and Buena Vista Township as well as Estell Manor and Weymouth Township.
Data from the New Jersey Department of Education show about 61 percent of students who graduated from Buena in 2017 enrolled the following fall in college. Of those students, about 47 percent enrolled in a two-year institution and 53 percent enrolled in a four-year institution. Meanwhile, statewide about 71 percent of 2017 graduates enrolled in post-secondary education by the following fall.
“We can do better. It’s time for improvement, and we know it,” McNeely said.
‘Opportunities for success’
McNeely said that to promote more college readiness, the district also is offering Instant Decision Days, meeting with students to offer college information sessions and offering special outreach programs for students who are at risk. These are in addition to the 15 dual-credit courses offered at the high school.
“They can see the opportunities for success,” McNeely said.
In 2022, the 20 students enrolled this year in Early College are expected to graduate with a two-year degree, just the same as the other Early College programs in place at districts in Cumberland and Atlantic counties.
“It’s definitely going to change the academic culture of this area because we’re getting the students to buy into their academic future at an earlier age,” said Gerri Turner, the high school supervisor of student services. “We’re already seeing this here at the high school.”
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Fifteen-year-old Madison Hand said she knew she wanted to study medicine and always liked sports, so she decided to apply to be part of Early College High School at Buena Regional.
Hand said Early College High School isn’t for everyone, but it is a great opportunity for those who want to pursue a degree.
“As long as you’re a good student. You have to care about your grades,” she said.
Rachel Schlachta, adviser of Buena’s Early College program, said the program gives students an attainable goal and the confidence to pursue it.
“That’s something that’s impossible to put a price tag on,” she said.
Jerome Taylor, a former teacher and founder of the Carver foundation, has been bringing the Early College program to districts in the region for two years. This is the second school in Atlantic County (after Pleasantville) and the first rural district to take part in the program, Taylor said.
He said being a rural community comes with different challenges than the urban communities, one of which is access to resources.
“Due to funding, they weren’t able to do the summer program,” Taylor said of Buena, although he said they have committed to it for 2019. “The students don’t get to take laptops home, but they’ve created a class where students have access to the Chromebooks so they can actually do their first college course.”
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Superintendent David Cappuccio said the administration is focused on not just supporting Early College this year but supporting the infrastructure necessary to keep the program going. He said rural communities struggle to offer the same level of programming as larger or more urban districts due to size and a lack of funding.
“It’s an opportunity, it’s an experience, it’s something our students historically have not had a chance to experience,” Cappuccio said. “I think it’s a good time to be in Buena.”