It's not every day that a professional basketball player comes to a Hudson County school to stress the value of education, especially the priceless need to read. That's why the students of Hudson County Schools of Technology KAS Prep had to be very impressed when New Jersey Nets' rookie center Evan Eschmeyer made an appearance to their school Monday afternoon, to speak to the youngsters about the value of a solid education. Eschmeyer should know. After all, the 6-foot-11 rookie is a graduate from prestigious Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, one of the best academic institutions in the nation. And while at Northwestern, Eschmeyer was a two-time Academic All-American. So Eschmeyer knows, perhaps better than most of the players in the National Basketball Association, how much a solid education means. That was the purpose of Eschmeyer's appearance at KAS Prep on Monday as part of the Nets' community affairs program to emphasize reading and education. Throughout the month of March, NBA players across the country are visiting classrooms as part of Reading Awareness Month. KAS, which is an acronym for Knowledge and Advanced Skills, offers students who didn't do well in other high school classroom settings a chance to learn under a less restricted setting. The school, in its third year of existence and started with 20 students, now has 170 students. According to Gina Cook, the Nets' director of community affairs, having programs like the one that brought Eschmeyer to North Bergen - as well as forward Scott Burrell to P.S. No. 5 in West New York three days later - is vital. "We feel it's a really important part of what we do," Cook said. "Especially with the schools in the immediate area. We have some guys who were great students and school was important to them. So they want to relay that message to kids. This is an opportunity for the kids to reach out and touch an NBA player, get to meet them and know them. There are some kids who never get a chance to meet a professional player. And I know our guys really enjoy it, meeting the kids." Different approach
Of the KAS curriculum, Jim Doran, KAS Prep's principal, said, "It's a very unique program. We're offering a different approach to education. We have all types of kids, like teen mothers or others who might have gotten into trouble. Kids who didn't do well in regular school are doing well with us, because we do things differently, like starting the school day later and ending later." Joan Bellotti, an English teacher at the school, thought of the idea to bring one of the Nets into the school, so she wrote to Cook and made a request for a personal appearance. With nearly 1,000 requests, KAS Prep was selected. "We were very pleased and honored that the Nets chose us for the program," Doran said. "I was phenomenally impressed with Evan. He's as brilliant as he is tall. It's so hard to drive home the message of how important education is. When you're able to have someone of that stature with his background, it really drives the message home even more." Added Doran, "And Evan stressed the importance, even as a basketball player. He was very laid back, but the kids all said that he was cool. And his message definitely came through. I don't know if they knew his background, but they thought he was cool." Eschmeyer and Burrell's appearances in Hudson County are just a slight part of the Nets' commitment to stress education. For example, the Nets have a program called Fast Break for Books, where children are encouraged to read eight books and they receive a series of certificates and awards if they complete the necessary eight. Star forward Keith Van Horn serves as the team's spokesman for the program. If a certain school has enough students that complete the eight books, they receive tickets to an upcoming Nets' home game at the Continental Airlines Arena. The team also offers the A+ For Teachers program, which awards teachers for a job well done. And on March 26, the first 3,000 youngsters that attend the Nets' game will receive a free book, courtesy of Scholastic, Inc. and the Nets. "Education is the main focus of what we do in our community affairs," Cook said. "The players talk about the importance of education and reading and the players are more than willing to meet with the kids."