College Achieve Public School opens tuition-free, state-of-the-art … – My Central Jersey


NORTH PLAINFIELD – Sitting with “old friend” Benny Hernandez, 14, and “new friend” Jada Mills, 14, ninth-grader Taliah Lilly, 14, reflected on her experience at the newly opened College Achieve Central High School.
College Achieve “wants to push you toward going to college and prep you for college,” said Lilly, a Plainfield resident who began her studies with CAPS as a sixth-grader. “They make sure that we expand our mindset. I feel like they have opened up more opportunities for me.”
Her feelings reflect College Achieve’s stated mission: To prepare its students to excel in and graduate from the top colleges and universities in the nation. It educates students with an instructional program that emphasizes writing and history as well as a challenging science, technology, engineering, math and arts (STEAM) curriculum.
The high school is the latest effort of the four-year-old College Achieve Public School (CAPS) network, which now boasts grades K through 9 with three campuses in North Plainfield and Plainfield. 
With fresh, bold blue paint on its pristine walls, College Achieve Central High School welcomed its first students Aug. 27. More than 300 students from Somerset, Middlesex and Union counties have been enrolled in the charter high school. 
College Achieve Central currently serves more than 1,000 students enrolled in grades K to 9 on its three campuses, and has a waiting list of more than 200 students. They are limited by their charter to 1,013 students but some grade levels are still enrolling students. CAPS, which also currently operates charter schools in Paterson, Asbury Park and Neptune, serves nearly 1,760 students. The operation is driven by its belief that every child should start school with the expectation that college is part of their future.
“We believe the best of what we know about education should be offered to all students, and not just a select group,” said CAPS Founder and CEO Michael Piscal. “We are committed to giving our students the same education they would receive at an elite college prep school. To ensure our students graduate from college one day, we must start with that intention in Kindergarten, not ninth grade. 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. Now, our students are coming up through our system.” 
READ: College Achieve expands with North Plainfield’s first charter school
READ: Ensuring opportunities for a quality education
The new College Achieve Central building at 107 Westervelt Ave., on the grounds of the former Saint Joseph’s Elementary School, is a $17 million, state-of-the-art innovative middle and high school. With their partner, Building Hope, a nonprofit organization that has provided more than $200 million in facility funds to academically successful schools, the school and grounds were purchased a two years ago. This is the first facility in New Jersey to be developed by Building Hope. The renovations and addition were completed this past summer.
Rooms are large, with ample seating and new workstations. There is space dedicated to dance and performing arts, music, art and all core classes as well as thinklabs, flexspaces for AP courses and electives, a brand-new cafeteria and gymnasium with a stage. A science room boasts a hydroponic garden and other state-of-the-art technology to facilitate STEAM experiences. There also are teacher workspaces and offices for staff.
CAPS is a tuition free public school network with a rigorous and competitive academic curriculum and standards It offers students internships in STEAM fields, visual and performing arts programs, and the opportunity to participate in a variety of sports including basketball, soccer, rugby, track and field, baseball, softball, golf and fencing. At College Achieve, they do believe that “life is bigger than academics,” said CAPS Executive Director/Chief Academic Director Rachelle Nelson.
“Right now we are K through 9th grade,” said Piscal, who co-founded College Achieve with Nelson. “We started off with just K, 1, 2, 5, 6 and we have been adding grades every year. We have the seventh, eighth and ninth grades here on this campus and we will grow here. For us, it is all about the expectations. When we are so serious about our mission, every College Achieve public school student will be prepared to excel in and graduate from the top colleges and universities in the nation. We want our students to graduate from college because we believe that changes their life.”
It’s about preparation for opportunity, Nelson added.
“When talking about academics, we are very rigorous. When talking about core classes, they are in a situation where their load is heavy. We make sure they are prepared for getting into college,” she said. “In sixth grade, they were exposed to high school level rigor — in the analysis of a Shakespearean play, as well as a Socratic seminar and a Toulmin writing model, a foundational program used for years by some of the top private K-12 schools in the nation.
For Nelson and Piscal, that means their students’ goals will be to aim to attend and graduate from one of the 100 colleges or universities in the nation. Nelson said it is important to be “meaningful about what it takes to get there and how can we make sure our kids have that opportunity.” This opportunity also affords students with an ample alumni services network and opportunities from within that network.  
“I am a product of a state school and I believe in college/university no matter where you go as long as you get to where you need to be,” Nelson said. “If you go to a trade school — I know many successful hair salon stylists who have moved up to be owners and entrepreneurs. We are all about what your natural talent and gift is, but also we realize all of this costs money. And the top 100 universities and colleges have endowments and scholarships for students who meet their criteria — and oftentimes, our students meet those criteria because of the underserved communities they come from. And not only because of that, but because they are prepared by our network to thrive in that environment. So our college going culture and the skill set to thrive is something that I think we uniquely teach here at College Achieve.”
Ninth-graders Lilly and Hernandez began their matriculation at College Achieve as sixth-graders. Their former school had just closed. Mills joined this school year. All feel confident it was their “best option,” then and now. 
One thing — of many — which speaks to Lilly, Hernandez and Mills, is that their school not only has has an ingrained focus on preparing students for highly selective colleges, but it has many extras, such as advisory periods, mentorships and career exploration experiences, such as internships that begin in the 9th grade.
“Our school is more advanced and it is more strict — in a good way,” said Hernandez, 14, who lives in Plainfield. “It’s all for your best.” 
Hernandez said the school has helped guide him and discover who he is, what he is capable of and who he wants to be. 
“It shows me everything I can do and it shows my maximum capacity,” said Hernandez, who has a fondness for history and hopes to pursue a law degree. “It gives you and shows you way more options than any other school. There are also a lot of things, like after-school activities, that anybody can join.” 
New to College Achieve this year, Mills, 14, a Plainfield resident, almost went to a local private Catholic high school for 9th grade. After participating in a school networking session at her previous middle school, she was impressed with College Achieve’s presentation and informed her parents of her educational wishes.
“College Achieve and its teachers give you a lot of opportunities,” said Mills, who feels her strengths lie in English Language Arts (ELA) and has already gotten a lot out of her new coursework. “They won’t give up on you, even if you think you can’t do it, they will still push you hard. The education is very good. It’s a lot different because my old school — it wasn’t really good for me. In my old school, I had an IEP (Individual Education Plan), but it didn’t really help me. I had to learn to do things on my own, by myself. College Achieve helps me do more things by myself. I liked the strategy that they have for the kids, including me.”
To accomplish its mission, College Achieve Central’s education program gives students a choice of three AP (Advanced Placement) courses starting in their freshman year — AP Biology, AP U.S. History and AP Literature. Most other schools only offer these courses to juniors or seniors. Students who pass the AP exam receive college credit for that course, Nelson said. 
“All of our students will be expected to take multiple AP courses, as well as classes in the arts and sciences,” Piscal said.
“Many of our teachers will tell you that they (the students) are very well versed in history and science due to our extensive lab approach to science and inquiry-based approach to history,” Nelson said. “Starting as early as in Kindergarten, they are learning how to write an argument in the Toulmin writing model and how to have a scholarly discourse in the Socratic seminar. They are learning how to take Cornell notes — the note-taking system from the university — and with that note-taking system they are able to discern important facts from unimportant facts. Some people think that’s a little progressive, but you now will be able to see in first grade, anybody who was here in Kindergarten, they are just so well-versed on how to be professional in an academic setting.”
School officials added that College Achieve Central is the first school in the region to require all of its students to take at least three AP classes in order to graduate.
“While it is a graduation requirement that each student take at least three Advanced Placement classes in order to graduate, we expect that some students will graduate having taken as many as 9 or 10 Advanced Placement classes,” Nelson said.  “We must raise the bar high for our students in high school if we expect our students to excel in and graduate from the top colleges and universities in the nation.”
The fact that AP coursework is available to students in their early high school years was a big attraction for the students, especially Lilly.
“I’m more of an English person and I love math,” Lilly said. “I like how I am able to be in the AP English and AP Math class.”
Lilly added that College Achieve has already opened doors for her. This summer, she attended an overnight math-based summer camp for college students.
“I actually knew more than most of the college students,” said Lilly, who hopes to go into a technology profession. “Because of College Achieve.”
Nelson said College Achieve has invested in the “whole child,” and that includes a focus on character education and on the social and emotional needs. No phones are allowed to better cut down on cyberbullying, there is participation in an Upstander Scholar program with the Jets, and each month a different character quality is showcased.
“We are realizing as we grow and we are trying to respond to needs of students in today’s society, they do not have the skill sets of character, to be respectful, to be kind — the kindness thing is so necessary, even for older kids,” Nelson said. “We are also partnered with Mindset Works to provide a curriculum for growth mindset. We are seeing there is a lack of resiliency and persistence when there is challenge facing a teenager and they often give up because they don’t know how to overcome — again it goes back to the tools we are providing our kids with to use when they face real world challenges. We are proud of what we are able to do and that the kids are now present with working and with social. Our freshman are really mature. They are enjoying the classes and the rigor. We really take care of the whole child.” 
Though the school is academically competitive, the students said the atmosphere is more one of ‘family.” Mills, Lilly and Hernandez stressed that the student body is one that exudes friendliness and looking out for one another. All three believe they have found a “home” at College Achieve. 
“Everybody is nice here,” said Mills, who has only been at the school for three weeks. “Nobody is mean.”
“It’s a friendly atmosphere — a good atmosphere here,” Lilly added. “There are no bad days here.”
Another signature feature of College Achieve Central High School is the internship program launching this fall. An introduction — College and Career Week — begins in the middle school. As freshman, students will work on real projects learning how to be professionals, launch their own marketing programs and ultimately running their own businesses. This internal program is called “The Change The World Challenge,” Nelson said, and is based on the United Nations goals for global change.
“Like global warming, pollution, poverty — things that are going to take immense amount of effort for us to change it as a society in our world,” Nelson said. “The challenge is for high school students across the nation to develop a team to solve these problems and pick one of these 18 goals.”
“We are going to launch the contest for students all around the country for students to submit their ideas, their plans,” Piscal said. “Like ‘Shark Tank’ meets the High School Science Fair.” 
By junior year, students will be eligible to work one day per week in their chosen fields through the internship program in locations such as a doctor’s office, hospitals, law firms, courthouses, engineering and architect firms, and marketing agencies — gaining experience and applying their knowledge to the real world.
“Not many of our students have the opportunity to know the senior partner in a law firm in their community or the head of radiology at the local hospital,” Piscal said. “Not only is the experience transformative for our students, it also builds their social and business network as they gain mentors and lasting connections in their chosen industry.”
Nelson said that expectations for students are thoughts by adults on whether a student can or cannot do something. Often, today, students are not being taught the skills set they need to thrive as a successful adult — in order to be a meta-cognitive thinker, in order to problem solve, Nelson said.
“Being an adult is all about problem-solving. A lot of our kids are not that resilient any more because all those opportunities have been taken away. They can’t play outside and figure out how to make friends. They don’t know how to respond when someone says something to them that they are not clear about. People are doing that for them. Their moms are taking action. There are apps for that. They need everything right now,” Nelson said. “We are teaching them the skills to be successful at solving a problem. At making sure you have time management. You know how to take Cornell notes from a lecture. It’s a skill set that is needed.”
“Is there anything more old school than teaching kids note-taking?” Piscal added. “It’s almost breaking news because we are doing something that nobody is doing anymore. The Cornell notes…that is a critical thinking exercise. The Toulmin Writing Model — we are teaching our kids how to think. Some people are like ‘That’s so old school.’ But, no. It is never going to go out of style. Logic and reason and analysis — that is going to be a part of everything. The ‘old school’ part of our curriculum is very powerful.”
To find out more about CAPS or to apply, go to or call 908-625-1879.
Staff Writer Cheryl Makin: 732-565-7256;


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *