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SAT Class Takes Aim at District's Sagging Numbers

A group of Collingswood parents hopes a grassroots approach will improve both test scores and the number of CHS students who sit for the college boards.

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 .

“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 and , 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, and .

The latest New Jersey state report card showed that in addition to coming in below state average numbers for the SAT, students test worse than students at other area high schools, including Haddon Heights, Audubon and Haddon Township.

School Math Verbal Essay Total Collingswood 496 469 468 1433 Haddon Heights 497 488 474 1459 Audubon 506 487 480 1473 Haddon Township 511 494 480 1485 State Average 518 494 496 1508

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 attending college, .

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 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 Kilgannons nor the Reynolds family send their children to Collingswood public schools.

Joanna Mills August 21, 2012 at 06:42 PM
@ Betsy: No that is NOT true. There ARE preparation classes for math, critical reading/essay available at CHS - check the "2012-2013 Program of Studies" on the CHS website. But if present scores are any indicator it should tell you 1) how effective those classes are or 2) imagine what the average score would be WITHOUT those classes and or 3) what the test scores of the students were before they took a prep class.
Sean Andrew August 21, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Ms. Mills is right, throwing money at a problem does not solve it. I also do not think that is the solution Mr. Kilgannon was prescribing. The "financial divide" described does not even reference what the schools spend per student. The character traits listed are important and must be instilled AT HOME. Schools can help and support, but they cannot do it alone. This very giving group of volunteers is doing something wonderful for the students of the community. Instead of criticizing, let's support it. Let's celebrate it. THANK YOU! With so many of the answers, I'm sure Ms. Mills has volunteered to help.
L.A.W. August 24, 2012 at 02:26 PM
My daughter has been offered, through the unique, selfless, volunteer efforts of persons, the ability to raise her SAT scores. She is a wonderful student, works hard, has an EXTREMELY GOOD ATTITUDE, participates in sports, is a member of the National Honor Society, as well as volunteers in the community; however, her standardized test scores fall below par. It is not TOO LATE for her or the class of 2013. This course, I have no doubt, WILL help them raise their SAT scores. I appreciate more than mere words can express and have so much gratitude for what these gentlemen have voluntarily stood up and are trying to accomplish for the Collingswood District's children. I applaud anyone involved in VOLUNTARILY and ACTIVELY trying to find a solution instead of merely complaining about what's wrong with the system. Rome was not built in a day. CSAT is just the beginning of future academic achievement in raising SAT scores for Collingswood Senior High School students. Thank you so very much for so selflessly dedicating your time and making this program available for our children at the cost of a practice book! I am looking forward to my daughter's elevated SAT scores when she retakes the test in October and will surely be sending these gentlemen my praises in helping my daughter achieve her goal of being able to be accepted into the college of her choice, as well as her fellow classmates. Thank you for stepping up to the plate and giving them this opportunity. L.A.W.
ejkaretny August 27, 2012 at 06:49 PM
Betsy: excellent question. By virtue of following the NJ Core Curriculum Content Standards, Collingswood HS is preparing students for the state-mandated HSPA test, which covers nearly all of the same material as the SATs.
ejkaretny August 27, 2012 at 06:56 PM
If any student is in the position to sign up for the SAT, what is generally needed next is preparation for that test. CSAT is not a last-ditch effort, as the SAT does not address character development. CSAT is just one group of (hopefully) many concerned citizens who are devoting their time, energy and expertise to doing what they can for their community. By targeting the Class of 2013, CSAT is working with students who are about to take the test, if they haven't taken it already, much like the successful programs John Kilgannon referenced in the article. These families should be applauded for having faith in the people behind CSAT as members of the pilot class for this program, which would have no reason NOT to expand pending the success of its first two groups of students.

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