Written by Mary Beth Peabody
Students in South Jersey Catholic high schools are bound for college. Over 96 percent of graduates in the class of 2016 enrolled in college for the fall semester, compared with 68.4 percent of 2014 graduates nationwide (most recent National Center for Education Statistics). The 2016 South Jersey Catholic School graduates were offered nearly $175 million in academic and athletic scholarships.
Helping students and families navigate the road from freshman year of high school to a post-graduation plan is at the core of every South Jersey Catholic high school. For some students, that means an alternative to college, such as a military path or trade school. While college planning services and programs vary by school, one-on-one support is a hallmark of the four-year process that launches students into their next chapter.
“It starts with a strong curriculum,” said Sal Zuccarello (aka Mr. Z), college counselor at Wildwood Catholic. With advanced placement and honors classes, SAT prep courses, a wide range of electives, and partnerships with area colleges and universities, Catholic schools help students prepare for the academic rigor of college. Many students earn college credits before the end of high school.
Holy Spirit (Absecon) counselor Valerie Magill added that it’s important for students to take challenging courses, but also the “right” courses, based on their abilities.
“We want them to work at the proper level,” she said. “Honors and AP courses with [poor grades] are not going to help.”
‘College Starts Here’ is the motto at Camden Catholic in Cherry Hill. “The first year is about learning to be a high school student,” said counselor Nicole Barry, stressing the importance of a solid start to the high school GPA. “[Over the years] we want to see growth in performance and rigor of classes,” she added. Camden Catholic has a four-year college planning curriculum and is in the process of developing a four-week summer boot camp. “I tell them ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Stay with me,’” she added. Barry’s goal is to have students ready to click “send” on their applications by the start of senior year.
Most schools invest in Naviance, an online planning tool where students can research schools and careers, assess personal interests and strengths, keep track of applications and recommendation requests, store their essays, and build a personal resume. Louise Fourney, Director of Guidance at St. Joseph, Hammonton, likened the Naviance resume to a college application. “It includes activities, service, GPA, class rank, work experiences, athletics,” she said. By continually updating the resume, Fourney explained, students have all the information they need when it is time to submit their applications.
Academics and applications aside, the cost of college causes anxiety for most families, especially when a student is the first child in a family to go to college. “[We sponsor] a part time financial aid advisor who meets with parents and students to offer financial aid assistance,” said Paul VI counselor Carol Basara. “A lot of first-time parents don’t know what questions to ask,” added Gloucester Catholic’s Cara Buckland.
All schools offer parent information sessions and financial planning support as well as essay reviews and feedback, and information about local scholarships. But it is the one-on-one investment that counselors and students acknowledge universally. “I really get to know them,” said Buckland about her students. “I can give anecdotes, tell a story. I’m not just providing grades [to colleges].”
Students value support from schools
WCHS senior Casey Manera took on a lengthy bus commute from Millville when she transferred at the start of her sophomore year to Wildwood Catholic, which she describes as a “small, family environment, where you’re not just another face in the hallway.” Now a senior, Manera will start college in the fall. She said she feels prepared academically and logistically, thanks to a well-rounded course load and one-on-one guidance. “Mr. Z is awesome,” she said. “He makes sure we’re up to date with everything.”
Senior Pat Bakey appreciates the step-by-step guidance and gentle reminders that have kept him on track. His high school, Paul VI in Haddonfield, pairs students with a college counselor whom they meet with one-on-one throughout their four years. The school also builds class time into the curriculum during sophomore, junior and senior years to help students focus on the college search. “I’m pretty independent, so I liked having a class period to work on that,” said Bakey. His advice? Start early, a strategy that served him well. He took his last SATs by the end of junior year, completed all applications by November 1 and has been accepted at the school of his choice. “It’s a huge relief,” he said.
Quinn Murphy can vouch for the benefits of staying focused. “I always wanted to be in the South,” explained Murphy, adding that Gloucester Catholic helped her match her geographic preference with her desired major, International Business. Guided by counselor Cara Buckland, Murphy used the Naviance planning tool to research careers that aligned with her personality traits, create a resume, and track the status of her applications. She also stayed focused on her course work. A happy freshman at the University of South Carolina, Murphy said, “It’s a long process that all works out in the end. I ended up exactly where I should have.”
South Jersey Catholic High Schools include six diocesan and three private Catholic high schools.