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For third graders, early decision

They were in love by the time their feet hit the pavement.

While visiting the Penn State Abington bookstore, third grader Devia Terry checks out an algebra textbook.
While visiting the Penn State Abington bookstore, third grader Devia Terry checks out an algebra textbook.Read moreCHARLES FOX/Inquirer

They were in love by the time their feet hit the pavement.

As Ira Somers' third grade class hopped the big yellow school bus, all dropped jaws and excited skips.

"Penn State is so cool," one boy shouted, eyes full of the wooded Abington campus and its large, old buildings.

It was a big day: the First Philadelphia Charter School for Literacy class had been studying the university all year, learning about its history and traditions and about what it meant to go to college. Now they were actually there, taking a tour of the local satellite campus.

It was part of Somers' quest to show his students, many of whom live in poverty and would be the first in their families to attend college, that college can be an option for them.

So when Christopher Walters, Penn State Abington's associate director for enrollment management, sat the 24 students down in a lovely solarium and asked them if they knew what college was all about, they were prepared.

"It's harder than all the other grades," said James Lewis.

"If you go to college, you get a better job," Nachae Collins told Walters.

But the students had questions, too. Would college classrooms be big, like a movie theater, or small, like their room? Would they understand the professor? How long would the class they were attending last? Do you get your driver's license when you're in college? (Answers: small, yes, 70 minutes, and you can get it before you go to college.)

"College will give you the opportunity to stay in the Philadelphia area, or, if you so desire, you'll get the chance to live in another area," Walters said. "Can you imagine living away and not having mom or dad wake you up every day? You don't even have to wake up if you don't want to."

Somers sat back in his chair, watching his students hang on Walters' words. At the beginning of the year, he encouraged his students to pick a school to name themselves after. They chose Penn State - Somers' alma mater - and through a relationship with Darryl Bundrige, president of the local alumni chapter, Somers arranged the visit for the potential Class of 2020.

The third graders' pride in the university rivals that of any alumnus. And it was evident in the several enthusiastic, unprompted rounds of the "We Are Penn State!" cheer. It was evident in the Penn State sweatshirt one boy insisted on wearing over his uniform.

At a conference at the Tacony charter school, the sweatshirt-wearer's mother wanted to know: Was watching Penn State football really a homework assignment?

The students read books about Penn State, studying the Nittany Lion and Joe Paterno. They learned geography through mapping Penn State campuses.

For a special treat, Bundrige brought them ice cream from the famous Creamery in University Park. He even hopes to raise enough money to take the students to the main campus in the spring.

For the students - whose school was opened in 2002 and aims to have students reading or above grade level after two years of regular attendance - that would be a gift. They live in a city whose public school graduation rate hovers at 69 percent, well below the state's target of 80 percent, and Somers is grateful for any advantage.

"They come from lower socioeconomic areas, and after 12th grade, their options are very limited," Somers said. "This is a way to teach them about college. For many of them, college was a foreign word."

So attending Suzanne Stutman's poetry class, where the First Philadelphia kids sat amid real college students, was a big deal. "Dr. Sue" gave them copies of All the Power Rests With You, her book of children's poetry, and asked if they had any questions before they jumped into the poems.

Cesar Silva's hand shot up in the air. He didn't have a question, exactly, but there was something he just had to say.

"It feels like we're really in college," he said, smiling shyly. "Because of the seats."

Stutman put a hand on one of the desks in her room - the garden variety, hard plastic seat with the opening on the left and flat, upside-down L-shaped surface on the right - and looked at Cesar seriously.

She knew, she said. She was the first one in her family to go to college.

"I felt exactly the way you do about the seats, and I still do," Stutman said. "It's a very serious and positive feeling to sit in them. Being in college is very special."

The third graders took turns reading and discussing poems.

"Books and poems are like adventures in your mind," marveled James at one point. "This is a fun class!"

The time flew, and at the end, there was a surprise - the classroom door swung open, and the Nittany Lion bounded in, shaking hands, giving high-fives, and dispensing autographs.

Waiting in line for the Lion to sign their books, some students waxed philosophical about the college experience.

"It's fun," Lynne McGee said. "It's a lot more people than our school, though."

Does she want to go to college? Absolutely, she said.

"But I have lots of time to decide where," she said.

Later, after a tour of campus and a trip to the bookstore, they sat down to a pizza lunch and more "wow" - Penn State yo-yos, keychains and mousepads.

For Markey Mincy, the deal was sealed.

"I'm definitely going to college," Markey said. "And I am definitely going here."