Students celebrate graduating from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, in 2017. This year, nine St. John Vianney seniors will be tossing their caps in the air to celebrate not one graduation, but two, as they will have also earned associate degrees from Brookdale Community College, Lincroft. John Blaine photo

Students celebrate graduating from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, in 2017. This year, nine St. John Vianney seniors will be tossing their caps in the air to celebrate not one graduation, but two, as they will have also earned associate degrees from Brookdale Community College, Lincroft. John Blaine photo

By Mary Morrell and EmmaLee Italia | Correspondents

Of the more than 1,900 students graduating May 10 from Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, for the first time nine of them will be area Catholic high school seniors.

Graduating with associate of arts degrees in social science through the college’s Early College High School partnerships, the students from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, have been working toward their college diplomas for the past four years. Other high school graduates earning associates degrees include 19 seniors from Neptune High School.

“SJV was involved in a dual enrollment program with Brookdale from 2009,” explained Jane Cable, SJVHS assistant principal. “In 2013, Brookdale reached out to SJV because of the success of the program, and as an experiment, suggested a program for students to earn an associates degree through the college.”

The inaugural Early College Academy program, as it is called at SJVHS, began with a select group of students – the top 10 percent of high school placement tests; standardized test scores were also taken into consideration.

“Classes begin in freshman year, and are all done on SJV campus with Brookdale adjuncts,” Cable said, since students cannot drive and because of security reasons. “Any online work for Brookdale is done through the Blackboard system at SJV, so all material, work and interactions can be monitored by SJV.”

When students reach senior year, they take classes four days a week at Brookdale, returning to SJVHS around 11:30 a.m. to pick up a theology class or elective. In addition to social sciences, an associate of science degree in computer science will be added next year, Cable confirmed.

Clearly the experiment was successful. “All nine students were inducted into Phi Beta Kappa for two-year colleges,” Cable continued. “They will wear stoles at graduation with the PBK symbol. If they keep up their grades, they will be inducted into the PBK for four-year colleges.

“Students are motivated, hard workers who are certainly not limited by the course load,” she continued. “A number of them are three-season athletes; most, if not all, have jobs and are active in their communities and parishes.”

Program participants offered feedback on their experience as simultaneous high school and college students.

Senior Lauren Repmann, parishioner of St. Mary, South Amboy, plans to attend Rowan University in the fall, majoring in biomedical engineering. She joined the ECA because she believed it would challenge her to become a better student.

“After four years of intense coursework and responsibility, the program has exceeded these expectations,” Repmann said. “I have not only become a better student in the classroom, but I have also developed the essential skills of organization and time management, which will [be a] benefit throughout the rest of my life.”

She acknowledged that balancing high school and college coursework was tedious and time-consuming, but that it did not dissuade student involvement in the high school community. Overall, Repmann highly recommends the ECA program to fellow students who are dedicated to what it requires: dedication, drive and motivation.

“Even though it is rewarding, the program is certainly not a walk in the park,” she said. “To achieve success, students must be committed to their studies.”

Senior Kelly Garcia, member of Our Lady of Victories Parish, Sayreville, plans to attend Syracuse University, choosing communication sciences and disorders (speech pathology and audiology) as her major.

“I wanted to take classes at Brookdale to challenge myself academically and get a head start on my future,” she said. “My family and I knew that the Early College Academy was an amazing opportunity that would pave the way for future success, and I could not pass up that opportunity.”

Garcia credited her teachers and professors with helping her within the program.

“The workload was a bit challenging at times, but my classmates and I developed great time management skills,” she continued. “Therefore, it was very possible and rewarding to complete all of the work we had to do.”

She valued the ECA program as a cost- and time-saving exercise, particularly when transferring college credits.

“Almost all of my credits are being accepted by Syracuse University, which makes it all worth it,” Garcia explained. “Besides this, I have really enjoyed my time in the Early College Academy program. I was challenged academically, and learned many skills beyond my studies.”

The ECA experience for Theodora Ekeocha, parishioner of St. Mary Parish, Newark, was an eye-opening one. Planning to attend Rutgers University in the fall as a biology major on pre-med track, she said the most challenging part of the program was prioritizing time.

“I figured it would be really great to experience what college work is like so that I would be more prepared, both academically and mentally, going into college,” Ekeocha said. “I would recommend it if you are interested in knowing what college work is like in advance, as well as for obtaining credits that could potentially transfer into a four-year university, which could save money.”

Sara Beitler, a member of St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Lakewood, will attend Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, where she will double major in psychology and biology. She, too, wanted to take Brookdale classes to challenge herself.

“In my experience, taking college classes at Brookdale was just as challenging as upper-level classes at SJV,” Beitler attested. “It was challenging, but not unmanageable. I was able to get a complete high school experience by participating in clubs and sports, and still do well in all of my classes.”

She encourages other highly-motivated high school students to take part in programs like the ECA.

“The experience of attending classes at a college campus will definitely help ease the transition between high school and college,” Beitler said. “Along with that, if they want to attend a college in-state, then the credits they earn as part of the program will allow them to have more space in their schedules to take more advanced classes.”

The number of students enrolled in the Early College Academy program is growing. Next year, juniors in the program will number 35.

In addition to high school tuition, parents pay one-third the rate of Brookdale tuition for the first three years of the ECA program, and full tuition for Brookdale in senior year.

“Our students are not wasting the opportunity they’ve been given,” Cable said, “and they appreciate the sacrifice their parents have made.”