College Achieve expands with North Plainfield's first charter school – My Central Jersey


NORTH PLAINFIELD – With a formula combining a large dose of history and science, a frequency of writing and a theory that emphasizes college for every student, College Achieve Public Schools (CAPS) is an education experiment intent on proving its hypothesis — that it offers a private school education in a public school setting.
On Monday, a year after opening its first school in Plainfield, CAPS is opening its latest venture — the College Achieve Central Charter School (CACCS). The first charter school for the borough, and only the third in Somerset County, CACCS, will educate students with an instructional program that emphasizes writing and history as well as a challenging science, technology, engineering, math and arts (STEAM) curriculum.
A focus for the tuition-free public school network, College Achieve aims to prepare its students from the early grades on to graduate from the top colleges and universities in the nation. Michael D. Piscal, the founder and CEO of College Achieve, is excited for this venture in the borough. He is firm in his belief that every child should start school with the expectation that college is part of their future.
“To ensure our students graduate from college one day, we must start with that intention in Kindergarten, not ninth grade,” Piscal said. “From the very first day students start at College Achieve, they will learn the attitudes, habits of mind, skills and content they need to graduate high school and go on to succeed in our best colleges. We are very big on to and through college. It’s not good enough that they get accepted to a four-year college, but the standard for us is that for every student we will be preaching and pushing to achieve is graduation from college.”
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An experienced educator with a background in private preparatory and charter schools, Piscal founded CAPS in 2013 after seeing poor graduation rates, low testing scores and low college attendance numbers in certain communities. CACCS aim is that 80 percent of its students graduate from college.
“We said ‘What would it take in a K to 12 location to ensure that dramatically high numbers of our students graduate from college?’,” he said. “We looked up all the statistics of graduation rates for every socio-economic groups.For middle class, white students, it is in the high 40s for graduating from college. Wealthy, white students it is 80 percent. For African Americans it is 19 percent, for Hispanics it is 14 percent and low-income Americans it is 10 percent. For all Americans it is 29 percent, regardless of race, income or socio-economic status.”
According to the state Department of Education, New Jersey’s charter school law was passed to give parents choices for their children’s education. Among its goals, the law aims to improve student learning and achievement; increase the availability of choice to parents and students when selecting a learning environment; encourage the use of different and innovative learning methods; and establish a new system of accountability for schools.
As of September 2015, there were 89 approved charter schools operating in New Jersey, serving nearly 42,000 students. The majority of those schools are in more urban parts of the state. Hunterdon County has no charter schools, while Middlesex has three, Somerset has three (with the opening of CACCS), and Union County has four, all in Plainfield.
CAPS opened its first school location in August 2015 at 365 Emerson Ave. in Plainfield. Piscal plans to expand the network further with public school choices across the state in communities such as Asbury Park, Neptune, Paterson, and New Brunswick. For the 2016-2017 school year, CACCS, at both sites, will initially enroll 200 students and and progress to 450 students by September 2017. In the third year, fourth and eighth grades will be added with ninth grade opening in its fourth year.
These plans have already been approved in CAPS’ charter, Piscal said. The charter renewal will see tenth through twelfth grades approved.
“We have already had a year in Plainfield and opened with kindergarten, first grade, second grade and fifth grade and sixth grade,” Piscal said. “We are adding this year third grade and seventh grade. At the new campus in North Plainfield, we are moving the kindergarten and first grade over. The second, third, fifth and sixth grades will stay at the Emerson location in Plainfield.”
The new facility at 107 Westervelt Ave. is being financed and developed by Building Hope, a nonprofit organization that has provided more than $200 million in facility funds to academically successful schools, so they can expand and grow their enrollments. College Achieve is the first facility in New Jersey to be developed by Building Hope. The school will lease the campus from Building Hope with plans to eventually purchase it.
The majority of the students come from Plainfield, Piscal said, with about 20 students from North Plainfield. Expectations are that the North Plainfield population will grow due to CACCS’ location.
“We recognize the immense need for high-quality schools, and we welcome College Achieve,” said North Plainfield resident Rosetta Wilson, parent of two College Achieve students. “This school is setting high expectations for all students and Mr. Piscal and Ms. Nelson have a track record of success at getting students on a path to and through college.”
Science, history and writing-based curriculum 
The new school intends to center its curriculum on a heavy science-centric instruction — 5.8 hours a week — almost triple the national average of 2.2 hours in K through fifth grade. That amounts to 130 additional hours of instruction in science each year. Also, starting from Kindergarten, students work in labs running their own science experiments.
“By the end of fourth grade, students will have performed 180 experiments in our science labs,” said Rachelle Nelson, founding principal of the first College Achieve charter school in New Jersey, in Plainfield. “We see how much better students retain what they learn and remember the lessons when they are actively engaged in learning rather than sitting at their desks.”
Every subject incorporates writing, Piscal said. At CAPS, the curriculum uses the Toulmin College Writing Model, a foundational program used for years by some of the top private K-12 schools in the nation. Stephen Toulmin articulated the method in the 1950s and was a professor of rhetoric at Cambridge University in England. The Toulmin Model spread to all of the elite private boarding schools in England and then private schools in the United States. Piscal brought it from the Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles to charter schools in Los Angeles. It has been featured as “best practices” at numerous education and literacy conferences such as the Gates Foundation and New School Venture Fund.
The Toulmin Model challenges students to read, understand, and engage deeply with issues prior to making an argument, which they must then develop and defend. Typically, while used by the “best” private schools, most utilize it only in the Language Arts currciculum. In the CAPS curriculum, the high-level critical thinking and writing model is applied to every core discipline, including science and math, to help ensure 100 percent of College Achieve students are prepared to write an “A” paper in college.
“It is still only being used in about 1 percent of the schools in America and in that, only in the English department,” Piscal said. “We require it to be taught by our English teachers, our science teachers, our history teachers and our math teachers. And even our art teachers and our music teachers — the students have to write essays in those courses as well. College is all about writing essays and that’s another reason why our kids do so well in college is because the focus of our curriculum instruction is so dialed into teaching them how to write a college essay in the Tolmin model.”
Recently, College Achieve Public Schools was named a semi-finalist in the XQ: The Super School Project to redesign the American high school. While College Achieve did not win the contest, many of the innovative programs developed for the program will be brought to North Plainfield.
“We have designed our high school around offering the experiences our students need — be it work-study internships, international travel or summer college programs — to take the first step toward the future goals they’ve identified for themselves,” Nelson said.
“The American high school has not changed its design in 100 years. In too many places, the traditional approach is not working,” Piscal said. “It’s time for innovative ideas and programs to radically change how we prepare our students for college, careers, and life.”
To achieve the goal of 80 percent of CAPS students graduating from college, Piscal and his team reinvisioned what a high school curriculum would look like. The amount of time spent in history and science class is more than double the nation’s average. Piscal sees this as having a dramatic impact on the students’ achievement in high school.
“We decided there is so much research on the Advanced Placement program that is you succeed in the Advanced Placement program, you will succeed and graduate in college,” he said. “We then said, what would it take for our kids to pass AP classes in high school and we continued the backward math into the middle school and then to the elementary school. That is where we saw that to pass the Advanced Placement science and history courses, most public school kids in America regardless of socio-economic status, were getting so few minutes — one-third of the time that we viewed as necessary — that we established our students would get 70 minutes of science and 70 minutes of history a day starting in Kindergarten. So for nine years, our kids are getting two-and-a-half the amount of minutes that the average American student gets.”
Every student who attends College Achieve Central High School will be required to take three Advanced Placement (AP) classes in order to graduate. Just over 20 percent of North Plainfield High School students take an AP course before graduating high school, which is well below the state average of 34 percent of all graduating seniors, Piscal said. No other schools have this “unprecedented” graduation requirement.
“It’s not just more time spent on task, it’s quality of instruction and rigor of instruction,” Piscal said.
Additionally, if a student passes an AP course, they get college credit. Before they even start their college freshman year, they will have accumulated at least nine college credits.
For more information or to apply, go to or call 908-625-1879.
Staff Writer Cheryl Makin: 732-565-7256; 


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