Seated at a desk, her arms folded in modesty, Myisha Wilkerson raised her whisper of a voice to speak three short words: "Harvard or Yale." The 16-year-old sophomore at Cherry Hill's Southside Academy has her sights on where she will complete undergraduate studies before pursuing a career as a lawyer.
Wilkerson said most students her age don't seem to have a precise plan for their education. For them, it's too early to think about college. At Southside Academy, there's no such thing as starting too early. The 2-year-old public high school sent its 25 10th-graders off to college this week.
On Sunday, the class boarded buses for Bowie State University in Prince George's County to participate in the academy's Pre-College Week program. Chaperoned by Principal Peggy Jackson-Jobe and one of the academy's nine teachers, the 10th-graders rode to what could be their academic futures.
Experts say visiting college early makes it more likely students will pursue higher education. Southside's faculty hopes the taste of college, which ended yesterday, will make their students hungry to attend.
"I wanted to get away from my grandmother for a week," Misha Bushrod, 17, said of her motivation for spending a week in a college dorm. Scrunching her face at the prospect of a four-year school, Bushrod says she plans to attend a two-year institution. "I'm tired," she said.
Bushrod said the college experience afforded her this week filled her with expectations of boredom. "The teachers talk too much; they make you go to sleep," she said.
"I was tired when I got up this morning," said Cosandra Lambert, 15, who didn't get much sleep in the dorm, which she described as "nice, but ... not like the ones you see on "A Different World."
Besides adjusting to scant sleep and cramped quarters, students attended freshman-level classes in algebra, African-American history, composition, political science and computer technology. Workshops covered filling out college applications, finding financial aid and career offerings in the sciences.
Jobe noted that many of the 10th-graders, if they follow through, will be the first in their families to go to college. "We want them to know that they are college material," says Jobe.
Last year, about 49 percent of city high school graduates said before graduation that they planned to attend two- or four-year colleges, according to a survey done by Baltimore City schools.
Tiara Fowlkes, 15, said the college experience taught her to "learn to do your work, put other people aside and do what you've got to do."
Fowlkes said it's important that she and her classmates attend college because "we want to be somewhere else, and get out of Cherry Hill, and see new places, and meet new people."
A federal study conducted from 1992 to 1996 found that a major national program like Southside's Pre-College Week has helped an increasing number of young people do just that.
The U.S. Department of Education found that Upward Bound's pre-college program led to a 10 percent reduction in high school dropouts, and a 13 percent increase in high school graduation of students who did not expect to earn a bachelor's degree or higher. These same students' college enrollment increased by 6 percent.
Timothy McFadden, director of pre-college programs at Bowie State, said two or three from each class of 50 high school students who complete the university's six-week summer program return for enrollment. The university usually offers these students incentives for enrollment such as scholarships to pay for books and financial aid.
McFadden announced this week that the university will give two Southside Academy students scholarships to attend one of this summer's pre-college sessions.
As a further incentive, Southside Academy is raising funds to pay one year of tuition for all students on this week's trip who decide to go to college, Jobe said.
Because Southside started with only ninth-graders, the 10th-graders will become the academy's first graduating class in 2002. Until then, Jobe said, she'll encourage students to live by the motto on their school T-shirts, which reminds them that they are "a community of learners, leaders, and achievers."