Group of NAHS seniors get associate degree before high school diploma

Traditionally, in education, there’s this pecking order. It’s chronological.

First, you get a diploma after eighth-grade. Then, a high-school diploma. Following that, some get an associate degree from a two- or four-year college and so on.

But for a group of new alums of North Arlington High School, before they got that high school sheepskin, they’d already walked the stage — at MetLife Stadium of all places — to get a two-year associate degree.

These teens — who began as the first cohort of NAHS students at Bergen Community College in the 2017-18 academic year — now possess a high school diploma, an associate degree and are eligible for a free ride at New Jersey City University.

In theory, they can complete a bachelor’s degree in two more years and be ready for the workforce before they can legally sip a beer — or head on to graduate school, (for free at NJCU) all thanks to the forward thinking of Stephen Yurchak, superintendent of North Arlington’s public schools and others on his team.

So we asked Yurchak how this incredibly ambitious program came to be. What we found was fascinating.

“During the course of the 2016-2017 school year, our administrative team started to explore new academic programs that would not only further challenge our students, but provide them with a competitive edge while pursuing their post-secondary endeavors,” Yurchak said. “Somerville and Newark public schools, who both run similar associate degree programs, welcomed North Arlington’s team to visit.

“Many ideas were shared and our team then contacted Bergen Community College (BCC) with the hope that a program could be established in North Arlington … our very own confidence in our students being able to take on this challenge ultimately convinced them to believe in North Arlington Public Schools.”

And it’s not just classroom participation for the cohort members — none of whom pay tuition.

“Additionally, students are required to complete internships during their junior and senior years, which help them to receive real-life experiences to further prepare them for their post-secondary endeavors,” Yurchak said.

So, beginning last academic year, the students admitted to the program began their post-secondary journey before their post-secondary journey ended. To participate, students have to be very well prepared academically. Their GPA must be 90 or better, they need a 500 or better on the SAT math test and 450 or better on the SAT reading and writing components. They must also have fairly solid attendance and be well-behaved.

For those who for whatever reason didn’t take part in the two-year program, seniors are able to earn up to 15 college credits in a shortened version of the program called the Early Credit Advantage.

But none of this happened before Yurchak first made the pot even sweeter for participants.

Students who finish the Early College Academy are able, if they wish, to enroll at New Jersey City University for free — and if they maintain eligibility, can go as far as earning a master’s degree there … all at no cost.

But that doesn’t mean the kids have to go on to NJCU. Every state college in New Jersey will accept the BCC credits. Some private colleges and universities may, also, though that’s not guaranteed.

In all, the superintendent is very pleased with how the program has progressed over the first few years — and he foresees continued success as the program continues to grow.

“With the continued support of our Board of Education, teaching staff, BCC staff, parents and students, we are confident that this program will continue to flourish,” Yurchak said. “Since its inception, just two short years ago, several school districts in Bergen County have already committed to join the Early College Program and we anticipate it growing even more as it becomes more prevalent.

But it’s not just school admins who are proud. So, too, are parents of the participants.

Sami and Nadia Armount, parents of student Cassie Armount, were pleased with the program’s results.

“North Arlington High School did a great job with this program. It was a little hard for Cassie, but it was all worth it in the end,” the Armounts said. “Cassie’s goal is to earn a master’s degree in nursing. With this program, it will only take her roughly three years. Overall, it saves a lot of money and time in terms of the degree she would like to pursue.”

Said Cassie herself: “The Early College Program has been a tremendous stepping stone for my academic journey. With the associate degree, I am taking off two years to achieve my bachelor’s degree in Nursing. Not only did I get ahead in my academic career, but I’ve made lifelong friends that I hope to stay in touch with long after high school.”

And last but not least, this innovative program has the support of the NA Board of Education, including its President George McDermott.

“Our students have been given the opportunity of a lifetime through the hard work of our superintendent, staff and Board of Education,” McDermott said. “Our students have taken the opportunity to graduate with an associate degree and a high school diploma and have the opportunity to go to college for free at NJCU.  This is one time that a little hard work by the students goes a long way in given them a step into the real world without the financial burden.”

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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.