PLEASANTVILLE — Nine Pleasantville students are doing something this year that not many others have done: graduating high school with a college degree.
This year, the high school’s first cohort of Early College participants have completed their associate’s degree in liberal arts from Atlantic Cape Community College, not only saving them time, but two years’ worth of college tuition.
The graduates are: Detty-Maidanove Exantus, Noel Gonzalez, Gisele Navarrete, Amira Saleema Walker, Michekender Marcelin, Tysean Johnson, Ahani Riveros, Odalys Noyola and Miguel Perez.
In 2018, when Exantus was a freshmen just signing up for the Early College program, she told The Press, “Basically every opportunity that comes my way, I want to be a part of it.”
Now, a month after graduating Atlantic Cape during a drive-thru ceremony at the Mays Landing campus and one week away from walking down the Greyhounds football field to receive their high school diploma, the students said they were appreciative
“I hope that we set the example that it’s not impossible,” said Exantus, 18, who is also her high school class valedictorian. “And no matter how hard it is, you can overcome.”
In the fall, Exantus will attend Stockton University to study political science. She hopes to become an international diplomat.
The Early College program was brought to the district in 2018 through the George Washington Carver Education Foundation and its founder, Jerome Taylor, a former Pleasantville student and teacher.
Early College High School is an initiative started by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and research has shown it has a beneficial impact on minority and low-income students. At the time, Taylor was just beginning to set up similar programs at high schools across the region as a way to increase social mobility, improve graduation rates in low-income areas such as Pleasantville, and provide the access and mentorship needed for success in college.
Taylor said he was elated.
“I attended Washington Avenue School seventh and eighth grade. I ended up working in the district, and then to bring this program to the district to see what’s possible in Pleasantville,” he said. “And I know from this point now, they’re going to grow the program so that more students have the pathway to college attainment and degree completion.”
In addition, the program saves students money as they don’t have to pay for the costs of the credits or degree they earned while in high school. Although there were nine graduates, several other students in Pleasantville’s senior class participated and are able to use their earned college credits in obtaining their post-secondary degrees.
Marcelin, 19, a first-generation college student who will attend the U.S. Military Academy, knew that participating in Early College would help him get a head start at college. He said the increased workload was easier to handle than he thought it would be and encouraged others to participate in the future.
“Stay open-minded,” he said. “Take the chance. People will be able to help.”
Marcelin, who is salutatorian for the Pleasantville High School class of 2021, emigrated from Haiti to the United States with his father in 2007. He said growing up in a country where he was unfamiliar with the customs and the language was a big transition, too.
Following college, Marcelin plans to spend five years in active service and then find a career in finance.
Gonzalez, 18, will study computer science and hopes to work at the Federal Aviation Administration or in video game design, although he is unsure which college he will attend.
Riveros, ninth in her class, is attending Stockton to study psychology. She said being successful is all about time management.
Navarrete, 18, will attend Stockton to study health sciences and hopes to become an ultrasound technician or a physical therapist. She said it’s important to have support.
“I think you should have a person who pushes you,” added Navarrete, who is third in her class.
The students were often there for each other, creating a group chat as a virtual study group. If the professors or advisers weren’t available to help with a lesson, the students would ask their peers for help.
“There was always one person who got it before the rest of us,” Exantus said.
Several of the graduates are first-generation college students, so it was difficult to find support at home with those who didn’t understand college processes. Johnson, 10th in his class, wants to be a geneticist or analyst and will study biochemistry at Susquehanna University in the fall.
He said he had to fill out his federal form for financial aid (FAFSA) and college applications himself because his parents had never done them.
Walker, 17, is graduating fourth in her class. She will attend Stockton in the fall to study marketing and she knows having an opportunity like Early College is rare. The Carver Foundation has programs set up in 11 school districts, including Vineland, Bridgeton, Cumberland County Technical Education Center, Cumberland Regional, Buena Regional and Millville.
“I’m just really proud of myself and my classmates for our accomplishments,” said Walker, who wants to be an advertising manager or a creative director.