Jean Shepard never dreamed she would have an opportunity to go back to school.

The 46-year-old single mom of five left community college years ago one credit shy of her associate’s degree. As her family grew, she cared only about finding work that would pay enough to keep food on the table with, she hoped, a little extra income to spare for outings to the movies or McDonald’s.

But now, as her fourth child, Gabriel, 18, readies to move across the country to study biology at the University of Arizona, Shepard is preparing for her own undergraduate experience.

Shepard grew up poor in Camden, N.J., a troubled city with a high crime rate. Her parents never finished high school. Her mother was too unstable to care for her and her siblings, so she was raised by her father and stepmother. She got pregnant for the first time when she was in 11th grade. She finished high school, but barely — her stepmother bouncing her new baby on her hip as Shepard walked to accept her diploma.

“Honestly, I just prayed all the time. I have faith God would just continue to guide me in the right direction. My faith today gets me through,” Shepard said in an interview Thursday. “I try to surround myself with people who are doing more than I am. It motivates me to do good like they are.”

Shepard knew she wanted her children to have a better life than she did, and she knew that began with their education. But the public schools in Camden were subpar and the chance to fall through the cracks was great.

She was approached while waiting in line at the social services building about joining a team of parents helping to get a new public charter school off the ground. Founder Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, the daughter of immigrant parents, had a vision for a school that would have smaller class sizes, longer days, emphasize science and technology, promote college and give parents a say in the curriculum.

When the school opened in 1997, Shepard had her two oldest, then in third and first grades, enrolled right away. All of her children have gone through the LEAP Academy University Charter School, which now boasts a 100 percent graduation rate and 100 percent college placement.

“To have all my kids finish high school it’s like a miracle, it’s a miraculous experience for me,” Shepard said. “To pull yourself out of poverty, to go so many steps forward from where your parents came from.”

LEAP credits much of its success to keeping parents actively engaged with the school. The parents volunteer at the school 45 hours a year, pledge to help their children with schoolwork and select parent representatives to serve on the Board of Trustees.

It was in that spirit that LEAP created its adult learning institute to give charter parents a chance to also get a college degree. The first class graduated in early June, and Shepard was among them, donning a traditional black cap and gown a few weeks before her daughter would do the same.

The college-prep courses included lessons on work-life balance, research and study skills, and goal-setting, as well as learning-style and personality assessments. The school partnered with Rowan University in Camden, where the adults can enroll to get their bachelor’s degree.

“It’s critical in urban setting schools how you bring parents around to areas of teaching and learning,” said Santiago, who also received her undergraduate from Rowan and is now a distinguished professor at Rutgers University. “They are critical stakeholders in their children’s education.”

Shepard, who always wanted to be a teacher and has worked as a teacher’s assistant for much of her adult life, is going to study human services with plans to go into the administrative side of education.

“I’m excited. I feel like it’s rare,” said her daughter, Gabriel Shepard. “I’ve never heard of a parent and a child going to college at the same time. We’re both getting a fresh start. We’ll be able to help each other. We can work together to figure things out. I feel like it’s a great opportunity for her.”

Shepard imagines they’ll go shopping together this summer at Walmart for school supplies, and she envisions calling Gabriel when she’s struggling on an essay or when they simply need an empathetic ear to talk through the ebbs and flows of freshman year. Most of all, she hopes she can be an inspiration for her daughter.

“I want to make it because she’s doing it,” Shepard said, “so I can say, I’m doing it. You can do it too.”

(Correction: An earlier version said the adults would go to college tuition-free. They are eligible for financial aid and will receive assistance that way, but full tuition payment is not guaranteed.) 

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