For these students, graduation celebration held extra meaning

James Ingalls proudly reads his diploma from the Gateway to College program.
James Ingalls proudly reads his diploma from the Gateway to College program. (C.F. SANCHEZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 27, 2014

Excited students - the young men in suits, ties, and matching handkerchiefs, the young women in dresses - listened to dance music played by a DJ Tuesday night at their graduation banquet, but they weren't moving their feet and hips to the beat as things got underway.

George Bonett, a teacher with the Camden County College Gateway to College program, saw this, but wasn't worried.

He knew that in no time at all, James Ingalls would hype people up and get pulses pumping in sync with the strobe lights on the carpeted dance floor in the Camden campus' conference center. It was a celebration, after all, of achievements that people who saw the students a few years ago might not have expected: They were all graduating from high school the next day.

"When I dropped out I thought . . . I was never going to be in school again," Ingalls, 20, said.

Just after a summer semester in 2011, Ingalls dropped out of Pennsauken Technical High School. He didn't have a problem with attending classes, he wasn't getting into fights, but something was missing. He was failing classes. He was held back his freshman year, and things weren't working out.

So he decided school wasn't right for him at that time.

On Wednesday, Ingalls received his high school degree just down the hall from the site of the previous night's banquet, and is planning on going to college. Where he'll go is a mystery right now, but it is high on his to-do list, and he thinks the collegiate structure of the Gateway program helped get him there.

"In a regular high school, they have the little make-believe student hierarchy - you've got the sports teams, you've got the smart kids, you've got the goth kids," Ingalls said. "In Gateway, all that doesn't really matter. It was just a mixture of kids coming together to get their high school diploma."

Students such as Asia Wallace, 19, who switched from Lenape High School to Cherry Hill High School West during the summer between her sophomore and junior years. When her grades dropped and started to create stress on her relationships with her parents, she dropped out.

"I started to give up. I didn't really have faith in myself, so I just stopped trying, basically," Wallace said. "People didn't really motivate me to do better. If I wasn't doing good, they wouldn't say, 'Oh, you should start doing this.' It really wasn't motivating me, so I started developing bad habits."

The 55 students who graduated Wednesday represent 100 percent of the senior class for the Gateway program, according to the program director, Irvin Sweeney. In its third year in Camden, the program is funded by the Camden School District, though it receives technical and professional advice from the national Gateway program, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"While we focus on the academics, there is a high degree of focus on what would normally be referred to as 'extracurricular' activities," Sweeney said, "because we tend to be interested in the total development of the students."

In addition to the classes they take, which can double for college credit, students are required to develop a postsecondary education plan, become financially literate, and prepare for job interviews in what is called the "Dress for Success" program, which, upon completion, gives the students the suits, ties, and dresses they were wearing Tuesday night.

"Most of the students, they're like the forgotten students," said Bonett, who is a teacher and runs the Dress for Success program. "I just try to be a big brother, or, as a dad, saying, 'If this was my brother or my daughter, what sorts of things would I be trying to help them focus on?' "

Bonett grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and sees his background in an area once known for drugs, gangs, and guns as a chance to help students from another rough area get on track and consider their position.

"If I came from all that and I'm a professor, and I own businesses, why can't you do the whole thing?" Bonett said. "It makes them start thinking."

The Gateway program gave Ingalls and Wallace a second chance. As outstanding participants in the Gateway program, they both gave speeches at the ceremony.

In fact, Ingalls has become more of a leader, teachers say, someone who helps faculty and helps other students with their problems. Someone who can get his timid classmates onto the dance floor.

856-779-3237 @clarkmindock

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