A Community's Inheritance is a Scholar's Love of Learning
Forman Acton valued education, no doubt about that: bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Princeton, a PhD in mathematics from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), on Princeton's faculty for 38 years, author of several textbooks and a pioneer in computer science. But late in life, a challenge weighed on him: How best to help students from his hometown and current residence of Salem, New Jersey, access the education he so valued?
Indeed, the situation called for action. The first permanent English-speaking settlement in the Delaware Valley and once a busy commercial center, Salem was struggling. Despite a population of only 5,000, Salem was beset with problems usually associated with much larger urban areas: low household incomes, high crime rates and too many school dropouts. Basic livability was challenged by a lack of public transportation, a scarcity of food stores and the poverty rate exceeding 30 percent.
When Forman Acton passed in 2014, the issue of increasing educational opportunities was still unresolved. He had already been making anonymous scholarship donations to a small number of graduating seniors from Salem High School and he contemplated a trust but was dissuaded by taxes. He had shared his vision with a circle of close friends and associates and within eight months of his passing they established the Forman S. Acton Educational Foundation.
From inception, the Foundation focused primarily on increasing college and other post-secondary matriculation and completion, including Career and Technical Education ("CTE," formerly known as vocational education) programs. To maximize successful outcomes, the Foundation took a multi-pronged approach that included financial aid but also reaching individual students at a personal level through ongoing coaching and moral support.
The vision: "Educated and productive global citizens hailing from Salem, New Jersey."
The mission: “Inspire, educate and empower Salem’s youth.”
The Foundation’s two signature programs are the Acorn Fund and the Forman Scholars Program. Drawing its name from Salem’s landmark 500-year-old oak tree, the Acorn Fund is unique in that it makes annual investments in college savings accounts for every child from birth through age 18 living in Salem or enrolled in its public school system. Currently, the Acorn Fund is the only program in the nation that provides annual contributions for every child in a given municipality. Beyond helping to pay college costs, the existence of the fund signals parents and students that higher education is an achievable goal.
The Scholars Program awards $50,000 college scholarships to high school seniors based on academic performance, leadership qualities, community service and financial need. The average senior class at Salem Senior High School is 80 to 100. Eleven seniors in the class of 2023 have been named Forman Scholars—a meaningful percentage of the graduating class. Over the years, Forman Scholars have attended a wide range of schools—from Rowan University to the College of New Jersey to Rutgers and many more—and pursued an equally wide range of studies.
A key characteristic of the Scholars Program is semi-annual on-campus visits with students by the Foundation’s scholarship director, while also guiding them to networking and mentoring opportunities. That personal level of involvement threads through a range of additional programs: The Youth Board is open to students in grades 8 through 12 who collaborate to prepare for college and think about career readiness. Through Scholars Speak upper class students and recent graduates share experiences and perspectives with younger students.
The Foundation also makes grants to organizations similarly focused on Salem’s youth. Grant recipients include the STEAM Academy, a three-week residential experience on the Rowan University campus; One Village Alliance, which offers day and summer programs for 6- to 13-year-olds to study world cultures; and Salem Community College’s CAP/Dual Credit program giving high school students the opportunity to earn college credits at no cost to them.
“Despite his many remarkable accomplishments in life, Forman Acton was a very humble man,” observes Kortney Swanson Davis, Esq., the Foundation’s Chief Operating Officer. “He had no desire to be known or recognized and lived a very modest life here in Salem.”
Forman Acton, despite his humble nature, just might allow himself a sense of pride for all the Foundation that bears his name has achieved as it approaches its first decade of service to Salem’s youth.
For more information about the Forman S. Acton Educational Foundation, please visit formanscholars.org.