For the past nine years, John Kilgannon says, he’s stood around at cocktail parties, watching heads nod, as he mused about the need to do something—anything—to help improve student outcomes in the Collingswood public school system.
“My personal view is that the transition of the town over the next five or 10 years is really going to hinge in large part on how our schools develop and evolve,” Kilgannon says.
Other signifiers, including the launch of a pilot program for teacher evaluations and new reading and math curricula, let him know the iron seemed hot enough to strike.
A goal in sight
After some consideration, Kilgannon and a few friends settled on improving SAT scores as “a discreet and narrowly focused objective” that would boost bottom-line numbers in the district.
“When a new parent moves to town and they want a metric to measure the success or viability of a high school, one of the things they look at are the SAT scores,” he says.
For a snapshot of where things currently lie on this front, have a look at the numbers crunched by Collingswood resident Joanna Mills and Superintendent Scott Oswald.
The latest New Jersey state report card showed that in addition to coming in below state average numbers for the SAT, Collingswood High School students test worse than students at other area high schools, including Haddon Heights, Audubon and Haddon Township.
Moreover, in the 2010-11 school year, only 65 percent of CHS seniors even took the SAT. If that sounds low, it’s still up from 51 percent in 2009-10 and 44 percent in 2008-09.
Other meaningful data: roughly 14 percent of the class of 2010-11 did not graduate, and of those 140 graduates of the Class of 2012 attending college, 73 plan to attend Camden County College this fall.
Leveling the playing field
The biggest divide between students in Collingswood and those in neighboring communities, Kilgannon theorizes, is financial. His answer? Level the playing field by creating an SAT prep class that would mirror the private tutoring purchased in affluent, nearby communities like Haddonfield and Moorestown.
“You can add 100-200 points just by knowing the system, taking some practice tests and having the ability to sit in a seat for three hours without getting fatigued,” Kilgannon says.
“If you’re sitting down for the fifth time to take this test when it counts, you’re not breaking a sweat; you’re ready to go.”
To that end, Kilgannon and a few friends—including his wife, Hope, who is an E.R. doctor at Cooper Hospital; attorney Jamie Reynolds, and college admissions counselor Kennon Dick—founded Collingswood SAT Prep (CSAT).
CSAT is a grassroots, community-driven nonprofit organization, the mission of which is “to enhance the educational opportunities for Collingswood high school students.”
“Just from the standpoint of how the economy’s going, the weight of the evidence is that getting a four-year degree makes a meaningful difference,” Reynolds says.
“There are scholarships where SAT performance plays into that role.”
CSAT offers an nine-week course with 18 hours of instruction and 12 hours of testing (which works out to about three full practice SATs). To date, around 30 members of the class of 2013 are enrolled in its fall tutoring session, which began Aug. 12. CSAT is hoping to drum up enough interest to fill another class in April and pick up 30 students from the class of 2014.
“We can keep ramping it up if the demand is there,” John Kilgannon says. “Ultimately if every kid in high school wants to take the class, we hope to accommodate them.”
It takes a village
The most moving part of the whole experience, John Kilgannon says, is the support his plan has derived from the community.
CHS principal Ed Hill helped the group secure a classroom environment at the high school and organized an information session about CSAT for the parents of rising juniors. Friends and neighbors have pledged some $9,000 to help get the project off the ground.
It’s the kind of thing Collingswood does for its own, John Kilgannon says.
“People in town have really put their money where their mouth is in terms of contributing to the cause,” he says. “The town’s really embraced it. The parents of the students who have emailed me are incredibly grateful.”
In acknowledgment of that personal investment, Reynolds explains, students who enroll in the course and their parents are asked to sign a “best efforts agreement.” It is meant to remind them that their neighbors and loved ones are the ones funding their education, and will hopefully inspire them to work as hard as they can to get the most out of it.
"If you look at this past recession, the unemployment rate for degree holders never rose above 5 percent," Reynolds explains. "The less education you had, the higher the unemployment rate rose."
Both the Reynolds and Kilgannon families have young children who won’t otherwise need the resources that CSAT offers for some years to come. Until then, it would seem, they’re hoping they have enough lead time to turn things around. Although Reynolds' son starts kindergarten at Tatem this fall, the Kilgannons don't send their kids to Collingswood public schools.
Maybe if the district can get those SAT scores up they'll be willing to give it a shot.
CORRECTION: An earlier draft of this story reported that neither the Kilgannon nor the Reynolds families send their children to Collingswood public schools.