It's never too soon to plant the seed, so a group of Camden middle school students took a field trip into their future yesterday.
The boys and girls - about 25 of them, all from Pyne Poynt Middle School; mostly eighth graders, but some seventh and sixth graders, too - traveled to the Blackwood campus of Camden County College to get a taste of college life and to learn about programs that could help them get there.
The students were guests of an outreach program started by the college in September to get high school and even middle school youngsters thinking about higher education.
"Traditional recruitment doesn't reach out to the pockets of individuals who need to know college is an opportunity," said Rick Camacho, acting assistant dean of the college's Division of School and Community Academic Programs.
Debra Taylor, a Pyne Poynt teacher who accompanied a dozen of her eighth graders, said she had already had her students write to colleges.
"It's important you reach these middle school kids," Taylor said. "You have to motivate them early. If you wait until high school, it can be too late."
With a city high school graduation rate of only about 50 percent, inspiring students to aim high is all the more crucial.
Academically, they also face challenges. In state testing in 2006-07, the eighth graders scored at 8 percent proficient or higher in math and 17 percent in language arts.
Seventy percent of the school's 386 students come from single-parent households, 40 percent have special needs, and nearly all are needy, qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.
During the first part of their day on campus, the students heard about programs intended to help them rise above those daunting numbers and reach their goals.
They learned about national programs like the Educational Opportunity Fund, which provides academic support and financial assistance for college students, and Upward Bound, a high school preparatory and support program. The latter includes a six-week program the summer before students start high school.
Why choose to do something schoollike during your summer vacation? Wanda DeJesus, program assistant director, told the students about various activities, including trips.
"Of course, we're going to go to Dorney Park," she said.
Gasps of excitement were audible.
The children were also told about New Jersey STARS, a state program that offers free college tuition to achieving students.
"I like the word free," college enrollment specialist Charles Stewart, a Camden schools graduate, told the youngsters. So did they. The idea of full scholarships made more than a few eyes widen.
So did their campus tour. At the nursing department, instructor Deborah Malone showed them how to wash their hands like health professionals. She had them don "personal protective equipment" - hospital gowns, gloves and masks. Next was using a heart defibrillator.
Jovani Beasley, 14, made a beeline for the training dummy.
"I always wanted to do this," he said. "You see it in the movies."
Jovani said he wanted to go into the Merchant Marine like his father did. After that, he is thinking about going to college for electrical engineering. But the defibrillator had him considering options.
"I liked doing that," he said.
The purpose of the trip was to show the students they have many possibilities, said Deborah Welch, director of Kingdom Movers, a Christian ministry working with some of the Pyne Poynt students.
Among them, there was no shortage of college-size dreams.
Justine LaBoy, 13, and Dalia Perez, 14, both eighth graders, were thinking about becoming lawyers.
Brittany Thomas and Doreather Taplin, both 13 and in the eighth grade, said they wanted to be pediatricians. The support programs they learned about yesterday came as welcome news.
Jahmere Lyles, 12, said he wanted to be a basketball player: "That's my dream." But the visit to the campus radio station caught his attention. Maybe a disc jockey?
Damu Miller, 14, eyed the college's criminal justice center. He said he wanted to be an investigator.
"You get to put drug dealers behind bars," he said. "A lot of kids where I live barely have playtime outside. My mom says, when the streetlights go on, you have to go inside. It's really dangerous."
Natalie Santiago, 14, said she might like to be an investigator; she watches CSI. But first there's school.
"Out of my siblings, nobody went to college," she said. "My mom said I should be the first."