In 2012, Bob Cohen started an SAT prep program for students in-need at his alma mater, Central High School.
Almost a decade later, the program has grown into something much bigger and more important: a full-scale college prep program.
According to a description of the course from JEVS Human Services, it includes help with SAT prep, college admissions and financial aid.
Cohen’s class, called the Dorothy M. Cohen College Prep Program, began with about 20 students but grew to 30 after adding more services.
Since Central is both a magnet and university preparatory school, it attracts high-performing students from across Philadelphia. But since many students are also from low-income/at-risk backgrounds, they are often unfamiliar with the college admissions process, according to Sue Bilsky, the JEVS education consultant who runs the course.
Cohen, who is Jewish, grew up in the West Oak Lane neighborhood, graduated from Penn State University and then took over his father’s business, the Acme Corrugated Box Co.
The company is in a 250,000-square-foot complex in Hatboro and delivers “throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Maryland,” according to its website.
The businessman funds Central’s college prep program, Bilsky said.
In informational material about the class, JEVS described Cohen as someone who wanted to be a teacher but joined the family business after his father, Edward J. Cohen, died early. Edward Cohen, who only had an eighth-grade education, encouraged his son’s interest in school by insisting that he attend college.
Bilsky said that Cohen helps students not just with the program, but by visiting the school, forming bonds with students and helping them find connections in the outside world.
“You cannot find a finer man,” she added. “People give money for lots of reasons. He doesn’t give for glory or to have his name on something.”
The program has a 100% success rate, according to Bilsky. Students who join end up putting as much effort into the college admissions process as they put into their advanced placement courses.
During the pandemic, they have come back onto the computer at 6:30 p.m. to work on their essays and applications with Bilsky over Zoom, often on shared Google docs.
Over the past decade, prep students have ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University and Penn State, among other local schools. They have also attended colleges outside the state, including Columbia University, New York University and Howard University.
For most of the Central students, clearing the higher education hurdle is really about clearing a mental hurdle. As Bilsky explained it, a student will say she wants to go to Penn, but can’t because it’s $80,000 a year.
But the reality is, she can.
“It’s about getting them to understand how financial aid policies work, filling out FAFSA, finding scholarships,” Bilsky said.
In 2020, one prep student wanted to go to a top school in an expensive market. But her dad thought it would be too expensive for her to live there. Bilsky helped him learn that, with financial aid, it would only cost her $1,500 a year.
“This is a girl who wouldn’t have gone,” she said.
According to Bilsky, many of her pupils are first-generation immigrants, so their parents are also unfamiliar with the college application process. On top of that, school counselors have too many students to give them all detailed individual attention.
That’s where she comes in.
There’s often a moment at the end of the Zoom where a student takes a deep breath, thanks her and says he feels much better.
“They say, ‘I feel so stressed. All this college stuff, I can’t handle it,’” Bilsky said. “I say, ‘My job is to relieve your stress.’”
It wasn’t until the pandemic broke out last year that JEVS developed the program into college counseling, not just SAT and college essay prep, which had been added in recent years.
After the virus forced students online, Bilsky started holding her SAT class over Zoom. But she realized, in talking to kids, that they needed more help. She also recognized that, all of a sudden, it wasn’t so hard to meet with people anymore.
Before the Zoom age, Bilsky would meet with students at lunch or after school. Since the Zoom age began, she has been meeting with them at all hours, including as late as 10 p.m.
The consultant met with one girl for 20-30 hours, working through her college essay.
“These are kids who deserve to be in the top schools,” Bilsky said.