Newark students headed for change, from the bottom up

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on April 21, 2015

Khyree McCarthy works on a polynomial math problem with tutor Oren Savir at Arts High School during a tutoring session of the Garden State Scholars program.

 

Steve Vierra knew he should have been with his freshman brothers.

They were in a second-floor classroom at Arts High School, working on improving grades that top out at a C for most of them. In some cases, it's a D or an F, but they still feel like scholars - even if that idea gives you reason to pause.

These young men think differently. That's because, twice a week after school, they stretch their attention span another two hours in a program that makes them believe failure is not an option.

Vierra knew this, but he wasn't feeling the program two weeks ago. The school day was already long. It was nice outside, too.

The Garden State Scholars program would have to wait as he left the building."You're going to have them days where you don't feel like coming," Vierra says.

But on most Mondays and Wednesdays, the 15 students in the program work with math and English tutors who have taken on the challenge of getting them to focus.

Since they started in September, it has been an academic seesaw for these students, who are trying to do better, and that makes you pull for them.

"Let's be honest,'' says Khyree McCarthy. "We're coming from the bottom up. We're trying to get to that level where we can't go up anymore. We're trying not to come back down."

The Garden State Scholars program is an expansion of New Jersey Advocates for Education, an initiative begun 11 years ago that offers college scholarships to high-achieving students in urban Essex County and tracks their progress.

While they knew those students were going to be fine, organizers of New Jersey Advocates began to think about the kids with marginal scores.

Many of them were boys, mostly from Newark, and they weren't doing well in school nor were they attending college field trips sponsored by the organization.

Malcolm Robinson, a Montclair resident, decided that his education organization would start a program this school year that focused on male students of color as they entered high school.

Getting Robinson to talk about the program is not easy, and it held true for this column. He prefers to stay behind the scenes and pay for everything. He founded the Montclair Capital group, a private company he owns, with approximately $100 million in assets. It was established in 2011 and invests in real estate and small companies in the United States and overseas.

However, his good friend, Terry Brewin, who helped him with New Jersey Advocates, is happy to do the talking, when she's not teaching at Science Park High School in Newark.

She says Robinson, a graduate of Florida A&M and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, loves to give back and expects results because he is not afraid to fail. Of course, there are going to be mistakes along the way, but the goal, she says, is to give these kids some direction and a reason for being focused in school.

The program does this through tutoring and exposing the students to several experiences, including museum trips, hockey games or visits to college campuses.

"Failure is not an option," Brewin says. "We're going to make this work, no matter what."

The program is not only at Arts High School. Garden State Scholars is also at West Side High School in Newark, where 15 students are involved, and at International High School in Paterson, where 30 boys take part. The students at Arts High School seem to get it when listening to Doni Arumemi, the history teacher who is in charge and stays in their case.

"We want that 'C,' then that 'B' and that 'A,' " Arumemi says. "We want to make sure they're building in increments and let them know we see (their) potential."

As a whole, there's been a 60 percent improvement since the students started in September, but that figure took a hit recently as grades slipped during the last marking period. Arumemi says that may have been because the students were busy with standardized testing. However, the students still embrace the program and have taken ownership, with a nickname they believe gives them a place in the school.

They are "King of the Arts," an academic club of scholars-in-training, who have to struggle before they can take flight.

Corey Carroll hasn't missed a day of class, and because of that, he feels more mature than when he was an eighth-grader. Stephen Patterson says he was nonchalant about school, but now cares about his future after hearing Arumemi talk about college.

In English class, students work on writing essays and building supporting paragraphs. And in math, they work on problems such ashow kinematic physics calculates the speed of golf ball and how far it travels before it rolls off a desk and into a cup on the floor. The students know they are a work in progress and that brings me back to our friend, Steve Vierra, the kid who left the building to hang out on a warm afternoon.

He didn't get far that day.

One of the program volunteers, who talks to them about life skills, saw Vierra a block away from the school and called out his name.

Vierra could have ignored the volunteer and kept on going, but his conscience wouldn't let him.

He turned around and didn't stop until he was in his seat in English class.

"It's about the name of the program,"Vierra says. "I want to make it live up to be that."

He really does want to be a scholar.

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