All these kids are asking for is a second chance

From my perspective, the young people in YouthBuild Newark are just kids, even if some of them have crossed over into their 20s. They are high school dropouts, working on a second chance in a program that provides both a GED and certification in construction trades.

Their education is based on building and renovating: a residence on South Orange Avenue for YouthBuild students who do not have a place to live; a public park; themselves.

Put a ruler in someone's hand, have him do the calculations for constructing something and, suddenly, the student who could never learn math is mastering it. That's how YouthBuild Newark director Robert Clark put it.

YouthBuild has, unfortunately, been cast as the enemy in some minds because of a terse phrase in a Newark Public Schools' planning document: "Co-locating school for incarcerated students with magnet students will likely trigger pushback from parents and principal."

American History High is the magnet school. Sticking YouthBuild in the history school's building by September was the plan that surfaced last month. "School for incarcerated students," however, does not begin to tell what YouthBuild is about.

Some YouthBuild kids have run up against the law. By and large, they are dropouts who come voluntarily, looking to straighten out their lives. On Tuesday, I met with members of YouthBuild Newark. There has been pushback, and it has hit them hard. They told me about protesters waving signs or saying that YouthBuild kids should be in jail, not in school. They heard someone call YouthBuild kids "sex offenders."

Usually, when members of YouthBuild speak, people want to hear details about street life and dangerous times. We need to pay more attention to what came before.

Two of the students said they dropped out of Malcolm X Shabazz High School because there was as much chaos and fighting inside the school as outside. They and others talked about overcrowded high school classes -- and teachers who didn't seem to care, didn't have the time or could not provide the answers for students who didn't get the class work the first time. One student admitted he had played around in high school, didn't go to class or do the homework. Toward the end of 11th grade, he asked his guidance counselor what he could do to graduate on time. The answer was "nothing" (an idiotic answer, by the way). The young man dropped out.

In contrast, the YouthBuild students talked about their current teachers working overtime to give them one-on-one attention, to solve their learning problems and living problems. The word "family" kept coming up. They have no doubt the staff is on their side. They can't wait to get to the program. The former dropouts are talking about going to college or into law enforcement, or creating the next YouthBuild. They have teachers who are former YouthBuild graduates to show them what is possible.

I don't know if there is an official count of Newark dropouts or if I would trust it. YouthBuild Newark has just over 100 slots and more than 900 eligible applicants. The new program would be run by the school system for Newark kids only. Obviously, it is needed. I hope the school system, with its rules about moving teachers around, can deliver the family of teachers willing to work overtime that YouthBuild's population needs.

American History High's concerned students and parents are not the enemy either. Their school moved into a former vocational school on Montgomery Street in the midst of December's epic storms because its original home had a sieve of a roof and only one working bathroom for more than 200 students. Extra space on Montgomery Street was to be used to expand to the seventh grade. Moving in any program would have been a betrayal.

Because of the "pushback," there is a new plan -- to move American History High yet again. Is this a plan to punish the programs that succeed? And where, in this rush to reshuffle hundreds of kids in the city, is the plan to bring change to those schools that are failing to educate their kids?

The one thing I'm sure of, after listening to the kids at YouthBuild, none of them would ever create such an ill-conceived, poorly fitted, hastily constructed mess as the school system is building.

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Friday, March 25, 2011


YBN launches the Newark Leadership Academy (NLA)!

The Newark Leadership Academy adopts YBN’s proven model for at-risk, high-risk, and/or out-of-school youth achievement by providing a comprehensive approach to transforming lives through engaging students in rigorous academic curriculum and innovative evidence-based methods for secondary education and workforce development within the public education system. In so doing, YBN draws upon its widely recognized mission, educational philosophy and practices to create a high-quality alternative public vocational high school that incorporates: a comprehensive, engaging, standards-based curriculum; personalized programming; guidance every step of the way; and specific career development learning experiences for students that serve as a bridge connecting school to their lives and the work world.