Helping Newark students get on the road to college

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on September 01, 2015

Jessica Brown of Newark says the College Success Center, a program of the Youth Media Symposium under the Abbott Leadership Institute, helped her get accepted to Rutgers University in Newark.

 

Jessica Brown always wanted to go to college. She just didn't know how to get there.

 "I didn't know the process,'' says Brown, who was a senior last year at Barringer High School in Newark. "It was overwhelming.''

 The 18-year-old got the push she needed when she joined the Youth Media Symposium, a program offered by the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Newark organization at Rutgers University-Newark that teaches parents and young people how to advocate for education.

In Brown's case, Newark high school students in the symposium helped to write and win a $94,000 grant from State Farm Insurance last year to open four, sorely needed college success centers that are free.

"It's all about college, all about applying to college, what you want to major in, what do you like, what you don't like, '' Brown says.

 This has always been the goal of the leadership institute, which began working in 2001 to supply Newark parents with information to ensure their kids were getting a good education. Once parents' embraced strategies to hold the Newark school district accountable, the education advocacy effort was expanded to students through the Youth Media Symposium.

"We teach them to become advocates for things that are right for them and for other people, so we have a natural group of young people who have learned how to go out and get what they want,'' says Junius Williams, director of the leadership institute.  "We say to young people that you have a voice and that your voice is worth listening to and your voice can be amplified.''

And that's what they have done.

Each year since 2007, 25 students have used technology to tell stories of their lives through education.

In videos they produce, the students highlight issues in the Newark school district, such as scheduling blunders, a lack of supplies and books, and a glut of substitute teachers.  Sometime this week, they will release on YouTube a four-part documentary titled "Newark Education: The Real Nitty Gritty.''

Out of frustration, students approached the district in the past about starting college success centers because they say guidance counselors don't have the time to prepare them for higher education.

Sha-Jene Hutcherson, 18, says she gave up on her guidance counselor at Central High School, who was never around.

"It was shocking,'' she says. "I was disappointed.''

When the student request to start college success centers didn't take hold with the district, students involved in the symposium learned about the State Farm grant and applied for it, with the help of staff members in the leadership institute.

Israel Alford, 17, of Newark Tech High School and Kelly Prempeh, 16, of University High School, were among those students.

"We decided to take it upon ourselves,'' says Prempeh, a junior. "We wanted to prove that we're not just a group of students.''

In writing the grant, Alford, who was one of the co-authors, culled research from the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, which indicates that only 17 percent of the city's population has a college degree.

The goal is to increase that figure to 25 percent by 2025.

Alford, a senior, says he believes the college success centers can make that happen because,otherwise, "students are kind of left in a dead end where they have no where to go to get help.''

The leadership institute and its symposium program have always helped students prepare for college, but Kaleena Berryman, a program coordinator with the institute, says the grant allows them to reach more kids.

Since March, 300 students have sought college assistance through the four centers. The main hub is in the urban education department at Rutgers-Newark, which also serves as a place for workshops and forums.  The other centers are at Malcolm X Shabazz High School, the Ironbound Community Corporation and Leaders for Life, which is a Center of Hope in Newark's South Ward. Two more sites are opening in September at the city's Center of Hope in the North and West wards.

"Our belief is that the kids wait too long in Newark and the schools wait too long to help the student,'' Berryman said.

When you think about it, says Kimberly Ledgister, program coordinator for the college success centers, the process should be underway when children learn the alphabet.

"It starts in kindergarten,'' Ledgister says.

In Newark, the Youth Media Symposium is a home-away-from-home for students, a place where they share their hopes and talk about their fears as they shape their futures.

"This is really like my family,'' Brown says. "I come here for whatever or when I'm feeling down on life.''

She was there every day last year to work on her personal statement, college application and resume. Rutgers was her dream school, but she didn't think she would get accepted.

The college success center pushed her and she didn't resist.

Brown moved into her dorm at Rutgers-Newark on Sunday.

Classes for the psychology major start today.

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