To many elementary and middle school kids, college may seem too far off to ponder, if at all. But the staff at Beverly City School want to change that thinking drastically.
On Friday, they got a boost from some of the most spirited stars Rutgers University could muster, including the college mascot. The Scarlet Knight stopped by along with a university cheerleading squad and undergraduates to lead a pep rally that they hoped would inspire the children to set their sights on college early on.
The pep rally was the school's reward for winning a contest challenging students and staff to creatively instill a desire to pursue higher education. The contest was the result of a partnership between the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, and Rutgers athletics.
Superintendent Elizabeth Giacobbe said college ambitions were in the district's crosshairs from the start.
"We decided in the summer that there was going to be a college and career readiness focus," Giacobbe said. "And the staff members here have instilled that in the students.
"We want to teach them that anything is possible as long as they put their minds to it," she said.
Lois Harmon, who teaches fourth- through eighth-grade English, entered the school in the contest.
First, Harmon said, officials had to submit a one- to two-paragraph statement on what the school was doing to promote a college mindset. For Beverly, that included a variety of creative projects.
Decorations in the hallways were a constant reminder. They included teachers' own college graduation photos, which Harmon said served as reminders to the kids that, just as their teachers had made it through higher education, so could they.
Other hall displays included pictures of current preschool students with a caption of sorts saying "Straight from the desk of a future college student."
Students also learned about famous historical figures and where they attended college.
Friday's rally began with the mascot rushing through the center aisle in the gymnasium, followed by the cheerleaders, as the students cheered.
Among the guests was state Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, who briefly described his job at the Statehouse and encouraged the students to follow their own dreams.
"College is for each and every one of you," Singleton said. "Each of you can pursue that. ... You just have to believe that you can do it."
But Singleton didn't limit his visit to remarks. He presented a check — his own donation to the district — for $5,000.
After the check presentation, the Scarlet Knight and cheerleaders performed game-time dance routines and led the children in an "RU" cheer.
One of the four Rutgers student athletes who spoke about college life and how higher education has opened doors for them was from New Jersey.
Kyle Holder, a track and field athlete, told the children he has aspired from a young age to become the president of the United States.
Holder has worked for Gov. Chris Christie and an Assembly member, and those experiences have provided inroads to his goal.
"College is a wonderful place where you can accomplish anything you want," he said. "But you have to want it, and you have to work hard."
Several of the children spoke of what they learned at the pep rally.
"I learned to follow my dreams because anything is possible," eighth-grader Ashanti Taylor said. "And I learned that Rutgers has lots of people from all different places."
Ashanti, who plays basketball, said she plans to attend the Burlington County Institute of Technology and pursue a career in sports medicine.
"I think I want to be a personal trainer," she said.
Seventh-grader Taneiyah Harvey also plans to enroll in BCIT and would like to become a school nurse. She's learning already from Beverly nurse Jamie Weller.
"Right now, I'm learning about how Ms. Weller does her job and how she's helping the children here," Taneiyah said.
She, too, was inspired by the pep rally.
"I learned it's possible to go to college and have a good career," she said.
Eighth-grader Matthew Howard hasn't nailed down his career goals yet, but Friday's Rutgers crew taught him he has plenty of options.
"I learned that you can be on a team and still be successful and do what you really want, pursue your own career," Matthew said.
"I'm really not sure what I want to do, but I like computers, so I might want to do something in that area."